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.

A snow goose found and treated Tuesday after spending up to a week floating on the Berkeley Pit’s toxic water is waiting at the local animal shelter while federal officials decide when to set it free.

Thousands of birds landed on the Berkeley Pit during a snow storm the night of Nov. 28. Thousands left due to extensive hazing by mine employees over the course of a week, say mine officials. But 3,000 or more are estimated dead, according to Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent.

Nine dead or captured geese were found in Southwest Montana since Nov. 30 by residents. One was captured alive near Dillon, said wildlife biologist Craig Fager, but it died shortly thereafter. The eight other geese were found in Butte, and all died but one.

The immediate future of that remaining goose — now at the shelter — is uncertain.

The bird is reported as “healthy.” It’s eating, drinking, and is “incredibly active,” said Butte-Silver Bow community enrichment director Ed Randall.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Ryan Moehring called its release “finding the light in the darkness.” Federal officials wouldn’t release the bird unless they’re “very confident this bird is fine,” he said.

“We wouldn’t release it if we thought there was a chance it would die later,” Moehring said.

Fish and Wildlife want to place a band on the bird so whenever it dies, if its carcass is found, it would be turned into agency officials.

But Moehring, in a telephone interview from his Denver office, said the agency cannot find a leg band “within a reasonable distance” from Butte that fits the goose. And remaining in captivity puts increased stress on the bird, said Moehring.

As of Wednesday, the bird was sitting in a cage near kenneled cats and dogs.

So, to save the goose from waiting too long, it will be released without a band. Moehring said the agency hopes to set the bird free Friday.

The problems don’t end there. Once it is released, it may face a difficult flight.

Janet Ellis, senior director of policy for the Montana Audubon Society, said migrating snow geese have already flown south for the winter. She said the last flock she has seen in Helena, where she is based, flew over last Saturday.

“The biggest challenge is to find geese somewhere that are headed south,” Ellis said. “If they (wildlife officials) can’t find a flock (for this particular bird), that may be problematic. They (the snow geese) do move together.”

Moehring said the Fish and Wildlife agency is aware of that challenge. The agency is also concerned about setting the goose free only to have it shot by a hunter. (Goose hunting season continues into January in Montana.) The agency is trying to find a spot where it can’t be hunted.

The weather could also play a factor. Snow geese fly either ahead of a storm or behind one and try to stay ahead of wetland areas freezing, said Ellis. While migrating, snow geese look for open bodies of water to land to rest.

The National Weather Service in Missoula reports Southwest Montana will see temperatures dropping close to zero with 1 to 3 inches of snow falling Thursday night. Another storm system is expected to arrive Friday evening with as much as 5 inches accumulating in higher terrain with temperatures ranging from 25 degrees for Friday’s high and 12 degrees for Friday’s low. Next week, temperatures are expected to drop below zero.

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