High above the Berkeley Pit, Butte’s famous copper mine turned toxic lake, a mini drone swoops and soars, then catches a thermal and floats. With its dark wings and yellow beak, it could easily be mistaken for a bird of prey. Just a few minutes after take off, it is.
“Oh, here comes somebody … bald eagle …"
That’s drone operator Jim Jonas, who’s putting the bird-shaped, fixed-wing aircraft through its paces. And right now, it’s being eyed by the real deal.
"That’s one of our trained eagles that we send out every once in a while. Their batteries are much better in the cold," jokes Matt Vincent, a consultant for Montana Resources (MR), which runs the working copper mine next door.
Together, Montana Resources and the former mining company, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), are responsible for minimizing contact waterfowl have with the Berkeley Pit.
Since 1995, that’s meant mostly using noisemakers like this phoenix wailer to keep birds from landing, and spotlights and rifle shots to scare them away quickly if they do. It was simple, says Mark Thompson, the environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources. But it worked.
"For 20 years, we were 99.8 percent effective at preventing mortalities for the Berkeley Pit," he says.
Last fall though, it wasn’t enough. One year ago today, on November 28, 2016, a big storm pushed huge flocks of late migrating snow geese into the area. Some took refuge at the Pit. Montana Resources employees managed to scare thousands away, but an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 birds died from ingesting the pit’s poisoned waters.
This happened before, in 1995. 342 snow geese died under similar circumstances, which kickstarted the waterfowl hazing efforts.
Butte is in the middle of two major flyways, so it isn’t always a major rest stop for migrating waterfowl. But if the climate conditions are right, it can act as a funnel for hundreds of thousands of birds. Thompson said they need to be better prepared for that next perfect storm.
"Both MR and Atlantic Richfield are dedicated to never having to put our people through that situation again. Never having to put our town through that situation again, and our state. Because it was not ... it was dramatic for everybody involved."
What does being better equipped to keep birds off the Berkeley Pit look like, exactly? MR and ARCO are testing out an arsenal of advanced bird deterrent and hazing technologies to find out. In addition to the mock eagle, they have another flying drone called a hexicopter.
It looks more like your typical UAV, but this one is kitted out with flashing lights and sirens, and it carries a payload of neon water balloons.
Once the hexicopter is airborne, Gary Swant tries to enlist the pilot’s help in locating a bird he spotted earlier. He’s on the volunteer migratory waterfowl advisory board that MR and ARCO formed in January of this year to help them design a new and improved program that’s both safe and more effective. They also pay him to do local bird surveys.
“Could you possibly find that merganser for us," Swant asks."
Another device that MR environmental engineer Jeremy Fleege is holding looks like a giant’s flashlight, but is actually a hand-held “laser.” He says it can shine an alien green beam all the way to the other side of the Pit, which is roughly a mile and a half across.
"It’s not pointed directly at waterfowl, it’s used in a sweeping fashion," Fleege says. "It has seemed very effective thus far, so we’re going to continue to do testing on that."
The board also looked at methods other industries are using to manage and deter birds, and vetted them against the unique logistics of the Berkeley Pit.
Enter the VRAD - or Vortex Ring Avian Deterrent. Stella Capoccia is the head of the waterfowl advisory board and a biology professor at Montana Tech. She says the VRAD is really a hail cannon that shoots out a 200 mph blast of air.
"It was used on agricultural fields, to disperse hail clouds. And the agricultural experts noticed that when they discharged the VRAD, the birds disappeared,” Capoccia says.
That’s not terribly surprising. The VRAD is unapologetically apocalyptic. It’s mounted on the back of a truck, business end aimed at the Pit.
Even wearing earplugs under headphones, the boom is bone rattling.
As before, MR and ARCO will continue to use a suite of noisemakers that can go off every 3 to 5 minutes, propane cannons, and rifle shots. They also have a searchlight that was formerly installed in a prison, and precision pyrotechnics they can detonate.
Capoccia says the team also welcomed ideas from the community and didn’t dismiss any — however zany — offhand.
"We have really gone through the gamut of options. And there are always new, emerging technologies and new ideas, but I think they’ve done a remarkable job of bringing everything in, and we've thought of passive techniques, active techniques.” she says.
Mark Thompson estimates that together, MR and ARCO, have spent over half a million dollars this season on their stockpile of state-of-the-art deterrent and hazing devices.
"It’s like we had a Chevy pick-up, now we got a Cadillac,” says Thompson.
Less sexy and just as important is the early warning system they’ve put in place. The waterfowl advisory board has built an extensive communication network with other wildlife refuges, bird experts, and meteorologists from Alberta to Utah, to track bird movements and weather patterns.
They can now predict when birds will show up, and what species to expect. Then recommend different hazing levels - like standard, heightened, and urgent - to managers at the Pit.
Capoccia says this year, when they heard that white geese were piling up on the Canadian border, they were able to alert MR ahead of time.
"The last big notice I got was on November 2. Sure enough November 4th we had tens of thousands, if not one hundred thousand flying over the valley. And MR was able to respond with the appropriate hazing levels and the appropriate technology.”
Montana Resources employees staffed the bird shack 24-7 for several days and got all the birds off the pit with no known casualties.
This is basically headquarters. Formerly the truck driving control center for the Pit, it nows looks like a nature center classroom inside. There’s a poster of the 42 bird species commonly found in the Clark Fork watershed, bird ID guides and charts, big binoculars, and lots of log books.
Mark Mariano Jr. helped create these resources. He’s a grad student in restoration ecology at Montana Tech and he’s here a lot, working with miners as they rotate through, doing hourly observations as part of their regular their shifts.
"On the ground every day, I stop in and make sure they’re not calling coots, mergansers and whatnot," he says.
With better field data, the advisory board can learn what different hazing methods and devices are effective on a species level, and start to tailor them more precisely in the future.
Mariano Jr. says the miners have been quite receptive, and take it seriously.
"I like to think that I’ve become friends with a lot of them, and we kind of go birding together in the Berkeley Pit, which is unique."
MR and ARCO will conduct ongoing trials of these news gadgets and systems through the end of the year, and then again during the spring migration season.
Gary Swant, the consultant to and board member on this project has been birding in Montana for over 40 years.
“When this season’s over and we’ve tested everything, the committee is going to sit down and say 'what worked, what didn’t? How can we modify, change?' The whole thing is a living experiment," Swant says.
No matter which combination of deterrents and protocols come out on top, Mariano Jr. says that for him, "The biggest thing is actually seeing industry in this case step up to the plate and actually do something for the birds and for our town. Because it’s kind of an image issue for Butte."
At this time, on the one year anniversary of the 2016 snow geese die-off, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service s not pursuing fines against Montana Resources for the snow geese deaths last November.