Projects to bolster conservation efforts for Minnesota loons will get a huge boost under a settlement agreement announced Tuesday stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The agreement, published Tuesday in the Federal Register, sets aside $16 million from the oil rigs' owner, BP, for fish and wildlife rehabilitation for species impacted by the explosion, fire and spill that killed 11 people, injured 17 others and sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.
That's where Minnesota loons spend their winters - and where Minnesota-born loons spend their second entire year - before heading north to mate and raise their young.
Under the "Open Ocean'' portion of the BP settlement, Minnesota loon restoration would get $7.2 million. Minnesota's plan includes using the settlement money to buy conservation easements, or to buy outright critical loon habitat on Minnesota lakes shorelines to ensure they have quality nesting areas.
Money could also go to lake associations to help loons, and to promote non-toxic fishing tackle. Small lead sinkers and jigs used by anglers are known to cause lead poisoning in loons that ingest the tackle thinking they are pebbles they need to help digest their food.
The settlement published Tuesday means federal agencies directed to dole out the BP settlement have agreed on how to spend it. The proposal also would give North and South Dakota $6.25 million to bolster black terns while another $2.15 million will go to help recover gulf sturgeon.
About 900 loons were killed in the spill directly, but many more may have been contaminated. Minnesota researchers fitted loons with tracking devices and discovered they dive to the bottom of the Gulf to feed. Researchers also took blood and feather samples to determine contaminant levels. They discovered chemicals from the oil spill, and the chemicals used to disperse oil from the surface, in many Minnesota loons.
Biologists remain uncertain how the oil spill and residual impacts may have impacted Minnesota's summer loon population, but they made a compelling enough case for loon conservation efforts to be included in the final BP settlement.
In 2015 BP agreed to the largest settlement in U.S. history, paying more than $18 billion to restore natural resources damaged by the oil spill. Most of the money went to the five states along the Gulf of Mexico. But Minnesota's longtime nongame wildlife coordinator, Carrol Henderson, convinced state officials to submit a request, the only one to help migratory waterfowl in a non-Gulf state.
"This is a great day for loons in Minnesota. We have an an arrangement that will provide for long-term protections and help increase loon populations,'' Henderson told the News Tribune Tuesday.
Minnesota has about 12,000 loons, the most of any U.S. state except Alaska.
The settlement still must clear a 30-day public comment period before becoming final. Henderson, who retired just last week from the DNR, said additional rounds of funding could be available in future years until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines Minnesota loons have overcome any problems caused by the oil spill.