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Second reward offered in loon shooting deaths

Wildlife officials are hopeful that a $5,000 reward they announced this week will help bring in information about two common loons shot in New Hampshire last month.

On May 20, one loon was found dead on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in Gilford, and it was later determined the bird was killed by a gunshot. That same day, a second loon was discovered wounded by a gunshot in a field near the Cocheco River in Dover. That bird was taken to an emergency veterinarian hospital, rehabilitated and released with the bullet still embedded in hopes that it would heal, said Harry Vogel a senior biologist and executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee. But a few days later, the bird was found dead, Fish and Game Lt. Heidi Murphy said.

Now, both birds are being forensically tested to see what ammunition may have been used and to determine whether the shootings may be related. Officials are seeking help from the public and offering a $5,000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone at fault. It was funded by the Humane Society of the United States and the Human Society Wildlife Land Trust.

Common loons are protected at both the state and federal level, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Robert Rothe, who is leading the investigation. The maximum penalty for violating the federal rule is a $15,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

In the month of May alone, three common loons died: Two were shot and one was killed by lead poisoning, Vogel said.

“That was a very poor start to the beginning of field season,” he said. “Anytime you lose an adult loon, it’s a real blow.”

The common loon is a threatened species in New Hampshire, and the state is home to roughly 284 territorial pairs. And although the number of loons has more than tripled over the past 40 years, it is still barely half of what the state’s historic population once was, Vogel said. The goal is to get the population up to 450 mating pairs or more, and each adult loon is critical to achieving that goal, he said.

The birds can live between 20 to 30 years, and even though the normal adult survival rate is very high, Vogel said, the breeding rate is very low.

“That’s what makes them particularly susceptible to anything that affects their adult survival,” he said.

Loons don’t begin to reproduce until they’re about 6 or 7 years old, he said. And once they do, each mating pair produces, on average, one chick every two years.

“The key to maintaining a viable population is to keep the adults alive so they have as many opportunities to reproduce as possible,” he said.

Each year, shootings account for about 2 percent of loon deaths, Vogel said. But the biggest culprit in loon mortality rates is lead fishing tackle, which accounts for roughly 49 percent of deaths. “This is the big one,” he said. It causes more loon deaths than every other human source of mortality, such as boat strikes or shootings, combined.

Under state law, any lead sinker weighing less than 1 ounce isn’t allowed, he said. Loons can easily ingest anything below that size. And even though a law has passed that sets the same limit for lead-headed jigs, it doesn’t go into effect until 2016.

When officials tested the blood of the loon found dying at Lake Wentworth earlier this spring, it had lethal lead levels in its system.

“We’re hopeful we will learn more information about what happened to the shot loons and the lead-poisoned bird,” Vogel said.

Anyone with information regarding the shootings is asked to contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Robert Rothe at 223-2541.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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