Record Number Of Snow Geese Die After Thousands Land In Toxic Water Pit

Credit: Walter Hinick
Credit: Walter Hinick

In what some are calling a “perfect storm” of circumstances, thousands of snow geese were driven to land in an open mine pit that led to their untimely death in Montana.

Late migration this winter paired with a nearby snowstorm pushed the birds to seek out an unfrozen place to land, which turned out to be a place called Berkeley Pit, a toxic place that used to be a mine and is now submerged in 900 feet of highly contaminated water. The water is concentrated with arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, zinc, and other inorganic compounds that can liquefy a motorboat’s steel propeller.

The pit is manned by the mining company Montana Resources, who received word that a flock of 25,000 geese was headed their way in late November. Since the pit is 700 acres, there’s not much that can be done about covering the water to prevent geese from landing, so thousands of geese descended on the pit in droves when they arrived.

“I can’t underscore enough how many birds were in the Butte area that night,” said Mark Thompson, environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources. “Numbers beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in our 21 years of monitoring by several orders of magnitude.”

The employees reportedly worked tirelessly to haze the geese and prevent them from being in the water for too long, but several thousand still died on-site. Workers did everything from shining huge spotlights on the birds to firing off shotguns and rifles, and it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the birds were scared away by November 29.

Credit: Jason Savage
Credit: Jason Savage

A record number of geese still died in the incident, however, and the death count is expected to be exponentially higher than the 342 that perished there in 1995 in a similar incident. Though officials tried to point the blame in other directions at that time, it became clear that the water was the cause of death in all of the birds. Harper’s Magazine covered the issue in 1996 and wrote,

“In each bird autopsied, the oral cavity, trachea, and esophagus, as well as digestive organs like the gizzard and intestines, were lined with burns and festering sores.”

If autopsies are going to be performed in this case, it’s almost certain that investigators will find the same burns and sores. It’s a tragic way for anyone to die, especially unsuspecting birds, and officials are saying that getting a handle on mortality has been difficult because dead birds have been showing up elsewhere, such as in nearby parking lots and roads.

The EPA is reviewing the incident to determine if the mining company effectively used hazing practices to deter the birds and what methods should be included to prevent this from happening again. Thompson said that he’s confident that the workers exhausted every possible tactic, and it’s rumored that unmanned aircraft could be added to the arsenal of methods.

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