Tundra swans that stop to feed in Mike Schlepp’s wetlands won’t end up with gullets full of lead.
Since 2007, the federal government has worked to transform 400 acres of Schlepp’s former pasture near Medimont along the Coeur d’Alene River into safe feeding grounds for the migratory swans and other waterfowl.
“We did this for the birds,” said Anne Dailey, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist, as she toured the $3 million project this week. “It’s safe dining for them.”
Nearly 18,000 acres along the lower Coeur d’Alene River is polluted with lead and other heavy metals from a century of hard-rock mining activity in Idaho’s Silver Valley. In some hot spots, lead concentrations are 5,000 to 6,000 parts per million. That’s 10 times the safe feeding limits for waterfowl.
Each spring, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists count about 150 dead tundra swans in the marshes along the river. They’re felled by lead poisoning, which also affects other species.
“Red is the death zone,” said Brian Spears, a Fish and Wildlife resource contamination specialist, pointing out polluted areas on a map. “If you’re a duck … yellow pretty much means you’re going to get sick. There aren’t too many green (safe) zones.”
Federal agencies worked with Ducks Unlimited to design the safe feeding area on the Schlepp property. The project cost included an $875,000 conservation easement.
The land remains in private ownership, but Schlepp gave up the right to farm the 400 acres, which will remain wetlands for perpetuity. The site is not open to the public.
A great blue heron flew over the marsh grass on a recent morning, while diminutive ducks called teals bobbed among the cattails.
Schlepp has farmed along the Coeur d’Alene River since the late 1970s. He enjoys watching birds return to what was once his cow pasture and grass fields.
“Seeing the response of the wildlife is very pleasing,” he said.
Nearly 100 bird species have been spotted in the refurbished wetlands, including a prairie falcon and the first breeding pair of American avocets documented in Kootenai County since 1903. Bear, moose and elk also visit the wetlands.
Unlike fish – which can sense metals in the water – birds don’t have the ability to detect and avoid heavy metals, according to Spears, of the Fish and Wildlife service. They go where the food is most abundant, so the agencies have tried to return the wetlands into a veritable smorgasbord of tubers, insects and small crustaceans.
Earlier in the summer, white pelicans fished for bullheads in a stream running through the wetlands.
“Our trick is to try to create the most attractive wetland on the river,” Spears said.
Marsh plants are thriving on 300 acres of the easement, where they’ve had several years to get established. Metals cleanup and engineering work is wrapping up on the last 100 acres, which will eventually be flooded with 3 to 4 feet of water. Mining companies paid for the $3 million project through court settlements with the government.
Spears anticipates working with other landowners to create safe zones for waterfowl. The agencies are looking for properties that aren’t likely to become polluted again.
Schelpp’s 400 acres was ideal because the land lies adjacent to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, said the EPA’s Dailey. The rails-to-trails bike route acts as a dike, keeping the Coeur d’Alene River from depositing polluted sediments in the easement area. Two creeks flow into the wetlands, providing a clean water source.
Upstream from the Schlepp property is Lane Marsh – a highly polluted wetland that attracts thousands of ducks and swans each spring. Biologists wish it could be safer, but Lane Marsh is a low priority for cleanup because it’s directly connected to the river, which continues to dump loads of metals into the marsh.
“It gets very complicated,” Spears said.