Wyoming has only 14 pairs of loons left living in its northwest corner. They are the rarest nesting bird in the state, and more importantly, they are one of the few remaining populations in the West, said David Evers, executive director of the Biodiversity Research Institute, an ecological research nonprofit based in Maine.
Evers is beginning Year Two of a five-year study with researchers from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Forest Service and the National Park Service to find out how many loons live in Wyoming, why their numbers have declined and how they can be helped.
The Biodiversity Research Institute is also working with loons in Minnesota and Massachusetts, making this the largest loon study ever done in the North America. The $6.5 million study was paid for entirely by the Ricketts Conservation Fund.
“We’re trying to stabilize the population and identify threats,” Evers said. “Loons are very poor colonizers. If you lose your population, even though it’s good habitat, it could be a long, long time before you see more loons breeding here.”
The next-closest population to Wyoming’s is 220 miles north in Montana. A few more pairs live in Idaho and Washington.
Loons are not only a native nesting bird in the Cowboy State but also a good indicator of the health of water systems, Evers said.
Threats to loons vary from habitat destruction and human disturbance to acid rain and climate change. They are also susceptible to lead, which, if ingested, will kill an adult bird within weeks, Evers said.
The scientists have four more years in this study to better understand the hazards facing loons and create solutions.
Education will be one central component, Evers said. Humans and loons can coexist together on lakes, contrary to some popular opinions.
“If people give loons space, people can live on the lakes and boat on the lakes,” Evers said. “Some of the threats we know from human disturbance are people coming into loon territory and just not knowing how to behave or not knowing loons are there.”
Loons require a lake of at least 20 acres to successfully nest. They survive on fish and build nests on islands or shorelines.
One pair of loons produces on average one chick every other year, though it varies greatly by pair, Evers said.
Unlike most water birds, loons can’t walk. Their legs are far back on their bodies, making them faster swimmers and divers.
But on land, they can only scoot, which means they spend their lives on lakes and oceans except when nesting, said Susan Patla, a nongame biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Game and Fish and other agencies may look into building floating islands — or rafts with a camouflaged roofs — for the loons to nest.
The structures would be particularly useful in places that have plenty of habitat but seasonally changing water levels, like Jackson Lake.
“If the lake starts dropping and dropping, they have to scoot on their bellies back to their nest, and the nest is much more exposed to predators,” Patla said. “These roofed rafts seem to have worked very well, which have been successful over time back east.”
The Biodiversity Research Institute is also looking at placing loon chicks in new locations in Minnesota or with established but struggling populations, as agencies have done with swans in the past, Evers said. Translocating loon chicks has never been done before.
If loon numbers can be bolstered in areas like Wyoming and the birds can be reintroduced into places where they once lived, it could help keep their populations alive into the future, he said.
Loons are a top predator in their food chain, which means they can be the first indicator of a problem with a water system, Patla said.
“Peregrine falcons were the ones that turned us on to the dangers of DDT,” Patla said. “If something was going on with the species, it could point a finger or help us understand what was going on with the wetland environment.”