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Updates Are Underway To Berkeley Pit Bird Hazing Plan

 Bird Protection Specialist Mark Mariano on the lookout for birds landing in the toxic Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Bird Protection Specialist Mark Mariano on the lookout for birds landing in the toxic Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.

Federal and state environmental agencies and mining companies in Butte are updating a document this year that guides how they keep birds away from the toxic waters of the Berkeley Pit. The Waterfowl Protection Plan there was first revamped after a massive snow geese die-off in 2016. MTPR’s Nick Mott revisits a fall day in 2020, when the new system was put to the test.

I’m on the south rim of the Berkeley Pit, the toxic lake created by Butte’s abandoned open pit copper mine. Its Bird Protection Specialist Mark Mariano’s job to keep birds off the Pit’s turquoise waters, and he says one morning last October an avian nightmare scenario started to unfold.

“I got up here early as hell, and the pit’s covered with ducks. And we had 500 snows and 20 plus swans and every duck you could possibly imagine,” Mariano says.

When Mariano says 500 snows, he’s talking about snow geese. He says that morning “was one of those days.”

That’s because the nearly 1,000 feet of water in the pit is highly acidic and full of heavy metals. The last time that many birds landed here was back in 2016 when an estimated 60,000 birds waited out a winter storm on the Pit. Mariano didn’t work here at the time, but from his home in town, he could hear workers at the Pit firing weapons to spook the birds back into the air.

It sounded like a war zone up here and just snow geese were pouring out of here,” Mariano says.

Thousands of birds died. Mariano says the event showed what was at stake, and that something needed to change. So officials implemented what he calls “a complete overhaul of the program, really.”

That’s where the Waterfowl Protection Plan comes in. The document, which features input from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and mining companies Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield, guides how Mariano and others keep birds off the Pit’s toxic waters.

Mariano says there’s now a complex forecasting and communication network to prepare for big ‘fly-ins.’ There are cannons and siren sounds constantly being blasted to keep birds from landing on the Pit. When they do plop down, he says there’s a whole arsenal of drones, lasers, spotlights, rifles, bullhorns, honking, sometimes even fireworks to try to get birds back up into the air and safe.

Nick Mott
Montana Public
The Phoenix Wailer, a device designed to make noise to deter birds from landing on the Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT.

The system was put to the test last fall when Mariano showed up that morning to find the Pit coated in birds.

“It got crazy that morning because there was so many birds and so many species. We needed to get them out of there as soon as possible.”

About a dozen people responded. Four years of work and preparation was leading up to this moment.

We put all of this work into it. We practiced. We were you know, we honed in on everything. We have all of our tools, everything's lined out, protocols, communication, all that type of stuff. And then it finally happened.”

The entire avian arsenal was put to work.

“It was a sight to behold, like we filled the sky with birds.

“It was cool, it’s a cool thing to see. It's like going to the Super Bowl finally and then actually winning it, you know? So it was cool. Now there's a precedent that it can certainly be done and done effectively.”

Mariano says with all the doom-and-gloom stories about dead snow geese in the Pit, this was a clear success. Since the overhaul in 2016, Mariano says the program has been about 99.8 percent effective at preventing birds from dying.

With seven to eight thousand waterfowl coming through in over 40 species and us out here every day, all day, giving them hell, you know, mortality is actually extremely rare,” Mariano says.

Mariano says the revision to the Waterfowl Protection Plan underway now provides the opportunity to revisit what’s working on the ground, and to implement new methods of keeping birds off the Pit.

He says the plan should be finalized on or around the beginning of the fall bird migration season, which starts in mid-August.

Some audio in this pieces was provided by BirdNote

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.