The beloved loon is the focus of a new conservation program.
The Minnesota Loon Restoration Project (MLRP) is targeting an eight-county area, which includes Hubbard, Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Clearwater, Itasca and Aitkin counties.
As part of the settlement from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, money was set aside for loon recovery efforts in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) received part of the funding.
Rob Rabasco, an assistant area DNR wildlife manager for the Brainerd area, recently described the project to the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA).
“I know loons in Minnesota are near and dear to our hearts,” he said.
Since January, Rabasco said he’s been spending about 50 percent of his time on the MLRP.
“Loons are fairly abundant,” he noted. “There isn’t any concern for them. Both at the state and federal level, they’re in pretty good shape, but they are our greatest conservation-needs species because their habitat requirements are easily able to become imperiled with climate change and whatnot.”
Rabasco said loons usually require “deep, clear, cold lakes that have cisco, or tullibee, populations in them.” During fall migration, loons gorge on this forage fish, which spawns in autumn.
Loons have evolved to spend their lives on the water, except when they are nesting. In particular, loons prefer to nest along “undeveloped shorelines with emergent vegetation for cover because of predation,” Rabasco said. “The better they can get tucked into cattails, rice or bullrush, the better for them.”
Hence, shoreland development is a major threat to loons.
In 2010, a British Petroleum oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it was the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations. Four million barrels of oil flowed from the damaged well over an 87-day period, before it was finally capped.
“It was an ecological travesty,” Rabasco said.
As part of BP’s $8 billion lawsuit settlement, money was earmarked for natural resources damages. In Minnesota, about $7.5 million was awarded to the MLRP.
Rabasco said it’s unknown exactly how many loons were affected by the oil spill, “but I can tell you that somewhere in the neighborhood of 85,000 to 150,000 birds died as a result.” Since loons winter in the Gulf of Mexico, it is assumed they were touched by the spill as well, he said.
The two goals of MLRP are to reduce loon mortality and increase reproductive success, Rabasco said.
Restoration activities split into three parts:
protecting targeted lake shorelines to conserve loon breeding habitat;
augmenting breeding habitat with artificial nesting platforms (ANPs);
Promoting loon stewardship among lake associations.
“Big Mantrap has been a model citizen amongst lakes for putting ANPs out on the water,” Rabasco noted.
In the future, there will be dollars available for the production, cost and placement of ANPs, he added.
Loon-friendly lake registry
Throughout this summer, the DNR has been working with the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey lakes that are important to loons within the eight-county project area.
The survey will continue over the next two years.
Rabasco said they are looking for loons, chicks and their survival rates.
Data will determine where to target facets of the MLRP, he said, such as potential acquisitions of shoreline as aquatic management areas, helping loons nest in natural habitats or creating conservation easements.
The data will also be used to decide where to help lake associations build and place ANPs.
“That’s what these productive surveys are doing,” Rabasco said.
Rabasco said the DNR is establishing a loon-friendly lake registry.
“This is a plea from me to you,” Rabasco told COLA members. “I would like to establish what I call loon liaisons amongst all the lake associations that are interested.”
A loon liaison would be his main point of contact with the lake association. The role would also be similar to the DNR’s Volunteer LoonWatcher Survey.
"Loon watchers" observe loons on their lake and report at the end of the season. Volunteers provide information on nesting success, number of loons observed, interesting occurrences and problems that may negatively affect the loons.
Rabasco noted the loon watcher program was on a temporary, one-year hiatus, but it is back.
A loon liaison would be trained to take part in loon monitoring, and then integrate loon conservation information.
To join the loon-friendly registry, he continued, a lake association must develop a loon management plan. Rabasco has templates. He will cooperate with loon liaisons to draft a plan to their specific lakes.
Lake associations are also asked to provide information about the MPCA’s “Get the Lead Out” effort at key lake access points.
According to the MPCA, “Get the Lead Out” is an educational program to protect and restore the population of common loons in Minnesota by reducing their exposure to lead-based fishing tackle. This outreach effort will run through 2023.
Rabasco said the DNR and MPCA would like loon conservation on a lake to either start or continue through a lake association.
For more information about the MLRP, contact MLRP.DNR@state.mn.us.
COLA members interested in becoming a loon liaison can send their contact information and lake association name to email@example.com.