Climate

Climate Change Gets Personal As Minnesota Faces Loss Of Its Beloved Loon

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Matthew Anderson, just like most other Minnesotans he knows, has a favorite loon story.

It happened this year. Anderson, the executive director of the National Audubon Society’s Minnesota chapter, was out on a boat in western Wisconsin with his four-year-old daughter. They spotted a common loon with two chicks on its back, and watched as the chicks slid off their parent’s back and dove beneath the water’s surface. The parent then stuck its head down underneath the water so it could keep an eye on the chicks as they swam underwater.

“To see her smile on her face … and to think that my four-year-old, when she’s 38, 39, 40, that loons might not be here, that hurts,” he said.

This week, the Audubon Society released a comprehensive report on the threats North America’s birds face from climate change. The report found that the common loon, Minnesota’s beloved state bird, is projected to have just 25 percent of its non-breeding season range and 44 percent of its breeding season range left by 2080.

Due to warming temperatures and changing weather patterns, the report states, “it looks all but certain that Minnesota will lose its iconic loons in summer by the end of the century.” The common loon has a better chance than some other birds of being able to adapt to a new, more northern habitat as the earth warms, but that still means Minnesota won’t have the loons its residents have long been used to.

For Minnesotans, Anderson said, that’s a big deal. Minnesota is the only state to have the common loon as its state bird (unlike the Northern cardinal, which is claimed by seven states, and the western meadowlark, which represents six states), and since the state is known as the “land of 10,000 lakes,” many of its residents frequent lakes and rivers for fishing, water sports, canoeing and boating, making loon encounters common. The loon’s haunting cry and its awkward gait on land — due to its legs, which are set farther back on its body than other birds’ — have helped Minnesotans fall in love with the waterbird.

“People care deeply about loons up here, especially people who live on lakes,” Erica LeMoine, coordinator of LoonWatch, which is based in Wisconsin but does work in Minnesota, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of people who visit northern areas, one of the things they want to experience is loons. I think for a lot of people, their trips north aren’t really complete without loon calls or seeing a loon or loon family on the lake.”

It’s a staple of Minnesota’s water-based wilderness that represents more to Minnesotans than just a state bird, Anderson explained.

“It’s a cultural marker for us,” he said. “It is the voice of Minnesota.”

That tie to loons makes the news that the state bird may not be around during the summers in the next several decades a shock to Minnesotans, Anderson said. While the report’s predictions are stark, it also presents a chance for people to turn troubling data into a chance to take action on climate change. That’s what Audubon’s president, David Yarnold, is hoping will happen as people around the country read the report and learn about climate change’s impact on the birds they love.

Anderson thinks Minnesotans’ love of the loon could become a rallying point to get state residents to pay attention to climate change, and to start getting local officials to take it seriously, too. Already he said the Minnesota Audubon office has had multiple calls from people who are concerned about the Audubon report’s findings and want to know what they can do to help protect loons.

“I think it’s totally reasonable for every Minnesotan to say, ‘you want to be an elected official in Minnesota? You’ve got to start putting together a plan to address climate change,” Anderson said. “We know that whether you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent — or heck, even if you don’t vote — people here love the loon, and if you’re going to be a leader, an elected official in Minnesota, I think it’s really clear that this is an issue that everyone should be expected to have a plan to address.”

Loons

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach

That plan should include efforts to curb emissions as well as proposals that will protect habitat that’s critical to loons. LeMoine, whose LoonWatch takes surveys of loon populations and works to support loon conservation efforts, said climate change is just one of the threats looks are contending with: pollution, habitat loss, and overzealous recreation also must be addressed.

Right now, loon populations in Minnesota and other states in the birds’ range are healthy — Minnesota has more loons than any state other than Alaska, and according to LeMoine’s data, loon populations have increased over the last several decades in parts of Wisconsin. They aren’t endangered; in fact, they’re listed as a species of “least concern” under the IUCN’s Red List, but that doesn’t make them any more vulnerable to climate change.

“This whole other threat tends to undo successes we’ve had in the past,” Gary Langham, lead author of the Audubon report, told the New York Times.

Loons aren’t the only state bird to be threatened by climate change. According to Audubon, the state birds of ten states, including Maryland’s Baltimore oriole and Louisiana’s brown pelican, could shift out of their representative states in the coming decades.

Looking beyond iconic state birds, the report found that nearly half of North America’s bird species face dwindling ranges as the planet warms, and some birds, including the eared grebe and the northern saw-whet owl, stand to lose almost 100 percent of their current ranges by 2080. Some of these birds will be able to adapt by moving northward or upward in elevation, but others won’t — Audubon’s Yarnold told the New York Times that when looking at the data from the report, “it’s hard to believe we won’t lose some species to extinction.”

“How many? We honestly don’t know. We don’t know which ones are going to prove heroically resilient,” Yarnold said.

Loons are also not the only Minnesota bird to be threatened by climate change. Anderson said he’s particularly concerned about the trumpeter swan, one of the birds that, according to the report, stands to lose nearly 100 percent of its breeding habitat by 2080. The trumpeter swan disappeared from Minnesota in the 1880s, and hunting drove their numbers in the lower 48 states down to 69 by 1930. Efforts in the 1980s helped bring trumpeters’ numbers back up to 5,000 in Minnesota, and the thought of losing the swan again — this time to climate change — is troubling, Anderson said.

Still, Anderson is hopeful, both for the future of the loon and for the other birds in Minnesota that are set to face major environmental changes in the coming decades. Minnesota has been a leader in the Midwest for climate and energy issues so far, he said: In 2013, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill that contained multiple incentives for solar development, including a standard requiring 1.5 percent of the state’s electricity come from solar by 2020. And Anderson is confident of the loon’s ability to be a climate change messenger in Minnesota.

“What the Audubon climate report shows and lays out — perhaps in the most clear way to date — is that this thing that we have called global climate change is really local and really personal,” he said. “And when things get local and things get personal, we get going. And my hope is that that’s what we see moving forward.”