The small talk on the gas dock at Green Lake isn't about the weather. It's a boater asking the proprietor about loons. The man wants to know if there are fewer of the birds on the lake near Spicer, or if he's just imagining things.
The dock owner doesn't know. The answer probably lays at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the site of 2010's Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster.
The BP oil spill, the largest in U.S. history, spewed five million gallons into the waters off Louisiana. Despite the clean up, some settled at the bottom of the Gulf. Eight years later, it's still there.
That doesn't bode well for the birds that make up Minnesota's 12,000-strong loon population. It's the second highest of any after Alaska.
Minnesota DNR researchers strapped silver geolocator leg bands placed on some loons' legs starting in 2013. The idea was to see if the birds that migrate south from Minnesota during the winter were still feeling the effects of the BP oil.
The devices not only tracked the birds' locations, but also how deep they were diving. When the loons returned to Minnesota after their winter migration, officials took fat, feathers, and blood samples. Tests were conducted for contaminants, either oil itself or the chemical that had been used to disperse the petroleum during the clean up.
Only the loons that wintered in Gulf tested positive, leading DNR researchers to conclude they were coming into contact with contaminants while diving in the Gulf.
It's too early to know if the contaminants are hindering loons' reproductive abilities or will shorten the life span of subsequent generations.
Since researchers do know their bodies are carrying contaiminants all the way back to Minnesota, they're asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for help.
They want $6 million from the BP settlement to go Minnesota's state bird.
Some of the money would be applied to shoreline restoration on lakes where loons nest. Some would be used on a campaign to asking Minnesota anglers to use tackle that doesn't contain lead. One of the biggest causes of loon deaths in the state is lead poisoning.
DNR officials are awaiting word back any day now.
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