Thousands of snow geese have died after a snowstorm forced them to land in the poisonous waters of a long-closed, open-pit cooper mine in Butte, Montana.
Drone and aircraft flights over the area the provided the death toll number. The pit itself holds approximately 45 billion gallons of water. The old mine pit is about a mile long by half-a-mile wide.
Both federal and state authorities are working to confirm the number of dead geese.
The tragedy began unfolding on Nov. 28, according to staffers with Montana Resources, a mine company that is responsible for Berkeley Pit along with Atlantic Richfield (Arco).
Mark Thompson, an environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources said witnesses described the pit as looking like hundres of miles of white birds.
Since the discovery, Montana Resources and Arco employees have shined bright lights, and made noise using anything they could find in an attempt to scare or startle the birds off the polluted waters of the pit while at the same time discouraging others birds from landing. Thompson said employees of both companies worked hard to frighten the geese away.
Staffers did everything they could think of to both scare and steer the birds away from the site, according to Thompson.
According to Thompson, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of the birds had been chased off the toxic waters by Nov. 29.
The mass landing of birds was not unexpected, Thompson said. A Montana Resources em0ployee based about 25 miles away in Anaconda called with a heads-up before the first birds arrived, warning that some 25,000 of the geese were on the way to the pit.
Birds landed in quanties not experienced in the 21 years the pit has been monitored, Thompson continued.
Thompson said Butte normally atrracts between 2,000 and 5,000 snow geese all year long. That number includes both spring and water migration.
He added that both Montana Resources and Arco will launch an investigation what led up to perfect circumstances that led thousands of birds to make a late migration during a snowstorm at a time when Berkeley Pit had the only open water in the area.
Jack Kirkley, a University of Montana Western professor who specializes in ornithology, said that recnt milder winters have led birds to not head south as early as they once did, leading some to hunker down in places where they had never wintered before. He said that there are several million snow geese on the continent and some are concerned that number may be too high.
Both companies could face fines from the Environmental Protection Agency if it determines they were following the mandates of the bird keep-away rogram, but Thompson expressed confidence that those efforts were adequate.
In 1995, 342 birds died after landing on the pit, which prompted a mitigation effort that tries to protect birds from the polluted water. Berkeley Pit was originally opened in 1955 and was closed in 1982. The open pit’s waters are full of cooper, arsenic, cadmium, sulfuric acid and zinc.