Snow Goose

A snow goose that was captured and treated after drinking toxic pit water is seen in this file photo. Thousands of snow geese landed on the pit's 700-acre lake the night of Nov. 28, and though 3,000 to 4,000 died, thousands more flew off. FWP originally issued an advisory to hunters not to eat snow geese bagged immediately afterward, but now the EPA says it's safe to eat the meat.

Hunters who shot snow geese in southwest Montana the week of Nov. 28 — when thousands landed and died in the Berkeley Pit — can safely consume the geese, an Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist said recently.

EPA’s assessment that the geese are safe to eat is based on certain assumptions — including that a hunter will not consume more than 60 snow geese that landed on the pit’s toxic waters, said Susan Griffin, EPA’s Denver-based toxicologist. That assumption is based on Montana’s annual bag limit for goose hunters.

EPA’s conclusion comes from lab tests it ran on tissue and organs taken from dead geese pulled from the Berkeley Pit. EPA looked at thigh, breast, and leg muscles as well as liver and kidney samples.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued an advisory Dec. 8 to goose hunters in the Butte and Dillon areas that they could process the birds shot the week of Nov. 28 but not eat the meat. Meanwhile, FWP asked EPA to assess whether hunters could safely take that meat out of the freezer and consume it.

EPA followed through.

“We were asked, 'Can you …. eat them?'” Griffin said from her Denver office Thursday.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still waiting for lab results from necropsies to determine the geese’s exact cause of death, said agency spokesperson Ryan Moehring. Those results are expected within a few weeks.

Necropsies from a 1995 die-off when 342 migrating snow geese landed on the Berkeley Pit due to a snow storm showed that sulfuric acid from the pit’s toxic water caused the birds to die. Lab results showed lesions inside the birds’ throats and also revealed signs that the birds had heavy metals in their systems.

As many as 10,000 or more snow geese landed in the Berkeley Pit’s toxic waters the night of Nov. 28, 2016 — 21 years almost to the day of the 1995 event. The geese were part of an unusually large and delayed migration south and, unable to land on the frozen Freezout Lake or other natural water bodies, found a resting spot on the pit’s 700-acre open waters. Based on drone aerial footage, Fish and Wildlife Services estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 birds died there in early December, but thousands more flew away over the course of a week.

The Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine abandoned by ARCO in 1982. It has been filling with toxic water high in sulfuric acid and heavy metals since. It contains about 48 billion gallons of water that will require treatment starting in 2023.

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Environmental and Natural Resources Reporter for the Montana Standard.

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