Editorial: An encouraging effort to help loons
Gov. Maggie Hassan and the New Hampshire Legislature took a big step toward protecting New Hampshire’s iconic loon population this year by approving legislation to further restrict the use of lead fishing tackle that is toxic to loons as well as other fish-feeders, including bald eagles and great blue herons.
Loon conservationists say nearly half of all loon deaths in New Hampshire can be attributed to lead poisoning from sinkers and jigs, making the new ban both the easiest and most effective measure the government could take to improve the health of the loon population.
But what else can be done?
That’s a question scientists involved with a big, promising new study hope to answer – with luck, providing a path toward stabilizing and increasing the loon population not only in New Hampshire but in several geographic regions across the country.
The Biodiversity Research Institute, located in Maine, recently received a $6.5 million private grant to launch the largest common loon conservation study to date. Researchers hope to restore loon populations in both their current and former ranges – an accepted conservation practice that has been used with other bird species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, but, so far, not with loons.
The study region encompasses national parks and other public lands in New England (New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine); the West (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) and the Midwest (Minnesota). The five-year project will include population assessments to identify sources of ecological stress that may be contributing to population declines; conservation efforts that help reduce those threats; and the development of methods to relocate loons to former breeding areas. In New England, for instance, biologists will study the loon populations in New Hampshire and Maine to see what they can learn about increasing the loon habitat in Massachusetts.
What’s threatening the loons? Lead poisoning has been the big culprit here. Elsewhere, they are threatened by everything from botulism, mercury and acid rain pollution, oil spills, over-development of shoreline property, invasive species and more. Even the weather – and, perhaps, a changing climate – can play havoc with the loons. In New Hampshire, for instance, loons were challenged this past summer by an extra-rainy June that flooded out many nests and by an extra-warm July that produced heat stress among the birds, according to the Loon Preservation Committee.
The committee, which conducts an annual statewide loon head count, reported these results: Only 153 loons hatched this year, down from 170 the previous summer. And just 115 survived, down from 134 in 2012. Among adult loons, the news was better: The census found 283 pairs, a number that has held steady for several years.
Saving loons is critical not just because of their black-and-white beauty and haunting call but also because they are a key indicator of the health of lakes and marine ecosystems across the country. New Hampshire has now taken the obvious and important steps in banning lead tackle. If there are additional measures that make sense, the encouraging new study – financed not by government but by private philanthropists – may teach us just that.