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VRAD arrives at Montana Resources

The machine that creates a sonic boom, called a VRAD, arrived at Montana Resources in late October. The responsible parties for the Berkeley Pit — MR and Atlantic Richfield Company — have invested perhaps as much as $500,000 in new bird hazing technologies to improve their response to migratory waterfowl. So far, the new technology has been largely successful, according to both the EPA and the mining company.

Although nearly a year has passed since around 3,000 snow geese perished on the Berkeley Pit, the Environmental Protection Agency has not decided on whether to fine the responsible parties, Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Company.

EPA project manager Nikia Greene confirmed, however, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over migratory birds, has decided not to fine the companies responsible for the Berkeley Pit. The wildlife service could have fined the companies as much as $5,000 per dead bird.

USFWS spokesperson Jennifer Strickland said "no comment" when asked about the decision not to fine the companies.

The U.S. District Attorney’s Office for Montana, in Billings, is in charge of enforcement for USFWS. Its spokesperson Leif Johnson would not comment on the matter.

But EPA is still investigating whether Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield adhered to the 1996 plan intended to keep migratory birds off the pit’s waters. The companies and agencies devised that plan — consisting primarily of wailers making loud sounds and gunfire — in 1996 in response to 342 snow geese dying on the pit water ahead of a snowstorm.

Those efforts were largely successful for 21 years but proved ineffective the night of Nov. 28, 2016, when somewhere around 10,000 geese landed. The pit, which is more than a square mile in size, was “white with birds.”

But while EPA's investigation continues, the companies have created a robust, comprehensive approach to keeping migrating birds off the Berkeley Pit going forward, Greene said.

So far during this fall migratory season, nine birds have died — one coot and eight snow geese.

Last week four snow geese landed on the pit and looked unhealthy, Greene said. The mine called the agencies, and a decision was made to rescue the birds and take them to a veterinarian.

Montana Resources vice president of environmental affairs Mark Thompson said the birds wandered up onto a ramp that leads to the pit’s waters. That enabled MR employees to capture the birds.

After given fresh water at a veterinarian’s office, the birds recovered and were released, Greene said.

“It seems they were just tired from migrating,” Greene said. “It appears they didn’t have a lot of exposure (to Berkeley Pit water).”

Thompson said most snow geese flew over Montana on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds to various points south the weekend of Nov. 4. When the birds landed last year, they left their summer home two weeks late due to abnormally warm fall weather.

Local bird experts blamed climate change for the reason the birds mistakenly landed on the pit in such overwhelming numbers last year. When snow geese head south each fall, their first landing spot to rest along the way is Freezout Lake in northern Montana. But last fall, Freezout Lake was frozen by the time the birds came through. Warm Springs Ponds, west of Butte, were frozen, too.

That left the exhausted birds with virtually nowhere to rest except the Berkeley Pit.

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In response to the incident, MR and Atlantic Richfield put together a bird advisory council filled with local ornithological experts who could advise the companies on how better to plan for such an event.

Greene said the companies, the agencies, and the bird advisory group are still considering the various technologies, which now include a machine called a VRAD that produces a sonic boom. MR tested the machine last spring.

The companies have bought $6,000 spotting scopes so the mining crew can identify the bird species that land on the pit. That helps the workers know how to respond to get the birds to leave.

Overall, the companies have spent maybe as much as $500,000 on the new hazing technologies, Thompson said.

One boat is still being built. It will travel up to 30 mph and will be powered remotely. Another boat built by Montana Tech researchers in 2016 was tested and launched in the pit’s waters last spring to sample the metal-laden water via remote control.

That boat now has a propane cannon added to it to scare birds.

Propane cannons, as well as wailers, sit at strategic points along the pit’s walls. The companies also employ laser technology and new drones. One drone can also sample pit water. One drone looks like an eagle. Some of the lasers simulate a predator’s eyes to scare the birds from landing on the pit water.

There are also fireworks to keep the birds from landing.

But Greene said that perhaps the most effective tool is communication. Thompson said the mine now communicates with the bird advisers, who communicate with points in Canada and Freezout Lake as well as with a meteorologist, who can advise on weather patterns that affect where the birds might land.

When large flocks are headed this way, the bird advisers put MR on alert, Thompson said.

“One of the most important things is the effort Montana Resources made to put together the advisory committee with experts and create communication with the northern migratory sites," Greene said. "It’s one of the biggest, one of the most important things to understand, is where these birds are going and what they’re doing and be prepared early."

The effort appears to be working. Thompson said that with nine bird mortalities this fall, that translates into a 99-percent hazing effectiveness.

“We were ready (this fall) and prepared,” Thompson said.

Greene said he expects to see a finalized waterfowl mitigation plan with a definite list of effective bird hazing technologies fully in place by fall 2018.

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