snow geese

A flock of snow geese takes flight from the Berkeley Pit the week of Nov. 28, 2016. A council of bird experts has put together an interim plan to keep water fowl off the pit in the future. The Environmental Protection Agency has to OK the plan.

Montana Resources' proposal on methods to prevent another snow geese die-off on the Berkeley Pit received positive feedback from across the board Thursday.

Montana Tech professor Stella Capoccia, who put together a council of experts, which includes both local birders such as Gary Swant and Montana Audubon Society members, said the hope is that the companies will have a chance to experiment this spring and put a permanent and new waterfowl mitigation plan in place by fall.

The council, which met Thursday, has been meeting for about a month to advise Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. as well as government agencies on how to pump up the hazing program.

Capoccia called the pit a "unique environmental space" and said the council of bird experts has been able to make sure that a "good sales pitch" from vendors has not led to "choosing the wrong option."

"We talked about ebird.org," said Mark Thompson, MR's manager of environmental affairs, as an example of just one of the many technologies discussed. The website would allow MR to track flocks of migrating birds before they land on the largest body of contaminated water in the country.

According to the plan, MR will use goose decoys at Yankee Doodle tailings pond to divert birds from the pit. New noises, such as the whine of a Cessna airplane engine, will be added to the wailers already in place near the pit.

The various technologies were heralded by community members, including some who have been critical of the Berkeley Pit and the way MR and ARCO handled the die-off late last year.

Ron Davis of the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition said he "applauds" that MR and ARCO are "looking at new ways, because the old ways didn't work."

Master gardener Norm DeNeal, who criticized MR at a public meeting in January, said he believes the interim water fowl mitigation plan "sounds good" and added, "I think they did a good job."

DeNeal added, however, that he'd like to see the remote control boat added into the mix of new technologies. He'll get his wish: Thompson said the boat will be launched into the Berkeley Pit March 8, if weather permits.

According to the interim plan, two unmanned boats will go into action, if the agencies give the OK. The boat designed to sample the water will be fitted to house strobe lights and auto deterrents. A high-speed airboat will also be added.

Despite all the potential the new interim plan appears to have, longtime Berkeley Pit critic Fritz Daily expressed frustration over the news. He believes the bird hazing program is symbolic of Butte's Superfund process.

Although MR and ARCO began work to improve Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment plant in 2015, it is a long way from being ready to treat Berkeley Pit water. Pumping and treating are expected to begin in 2023.

"It bothers me to think that here we are at a critical moment (with the Berkeley Pit), and we really don't have things in place," Daily said by phone Thursday. "They're experimenting. They should have been experimenting when the first geese died (in 1995). They were not prepared this time. Butte deserves better."

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