With spring migration season in full swing and Freezout Lake still frozen, local bird experts Stella Capoccia and Gary Swant warned Montana Resources employees for the need for vigilance.
MR and Atlantic Richfield Company are on heightened status for the possibility of birds landing on the pit. Around 3,000 snow geese died on the Berkeley Pit in November 2016. The night of the landing, the pit was "white with geese," MR officials said previously. Jeremy Fleege, environmental engineer for MR, estimates that as many as 60,000 birds may have been flying through the area that night based on information from Doppler radar tracking.
Bird experts said at the time the birds likely landed on the pit because Freezout Lake was frozen over and the birds were looking for a place to rest.
Capoccia, who is a biology professor at Montana Tech, said that current conditions warrant MR employees being on their toes. Spring migratory season began March 1 and runs through May 1.
Drier conditions to the south mean the birds are flying over Montana in poorer physical condition than normal due to less foraging potential, Capoccia said. And Freezout Lake is still frozen.
Capoccia and Swant warned that the birds could turn back and land on the pit as they try to make their way north. It's also possible the birds might decide to land here instead of making the extra roughly 200 miles to get to Freezout Lake, which is their normal migratory stop.
Swant said that earlier this week there were around 200 birds in the area. By Thursday there were over 1,700.
"Things are changing rapidly," Swant said.
Capoccia and Swant gave their warning to about seven MR foremen and a few consultants Thursday afternoon at MR's office during a bird identification training session. Capoccia and Swant have been training MR employees and their consultants on how to identify different bird species so they can be better prepared to spot different types of birds and know how to haze them.
The training is part of MR and Atlantic Richfield's response to the 2016 bird deaths, which gained international media attention. Capoccia and Swant put together a bird advisory group, made up of ornithologists. The group researched advanced bird hazing technologies, and MR and Atlantic Richfield put together a new program, which includes everything from shooting with a rifle to scare birds off the toxic water to letting loose a sonic boom from a giant cannon-like machine called a VRAD.
A quieter aspect of the hazing effort are ongoing training sessions Capoccia and Swant are holding with the miners, teaching them to identify 42 different species of birds that could land on the contaminated lake.
Their efforts to help prevent such a wildlife die-off from recurring got them noticed by The Wildlife Society Montana Chapter.
The Wildlife Society Montana Chapter recognized Capoccia and Swant last month with the 2018 Wildlife Conservation Award for their bird hazing work.
Matt Vincent, former Butte-Silver Bow chief executive and consultant to MR, recommended Capoccia and Swant to The Wildlife Society and called the bird identification training "a key part of the improved mitigation measures" the two companies responsible for the pit are now employing. The duo, Vincent said, have also been crucial, overall, in improving the companies' mitigation efforts.
When Joe Allick, outside foreman for MR, went to work for the mining company 18 years ago, he had no idea he'd wind up learning whether he's looking at a bufflehead, a smew, or a red-breasted merganser.
But now he does know, and knowing more about the bird species means he knows when to let some birds alone because they might fly away at night.
"We're thinking every species reacts differently," Swant said.
Capoccia then added, "A lot won't stay because there's no food for forage. If left alone and allowed to rest, it reduces the stress to the birds. It's working smarter, not harder."