COEUR d’ALENE — Bev Twillmann saw hundreds of swans on both sides of Highway 97 as she drove toward Harrison.
The sight of the graceful, long-necked white birds near the Coeur d’Alene River would have been beautiful – but for the dead along the shore and road.
Twillmann wrote that a bird was confused, unsteady, and wandering near the center of Highway 97, even sitting in the middle of the road with speeding cars.
“It was heartbreaking,” she wrote.
Officials from Idaho Fish and Game and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday the sad scene was part of the annual mortality of migratory tundra swans that typically arrive in late February and early March.
Each year, on average, about 80 to 100 swans die in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin because their food source is contaminated by a century of mining waste.
This year is a “high mortality” year because the swans arrived earlier than usual in the Coeur d’Alene River basin, in early February, and stayed there.
Brittany Morlin, biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said that before the end of the annual migration, several thousand swans will visit the basin. Many forage in contaminated habitats as they move between wetlands.
Earlier this month, a team of biologists took samples of sediment and faeces from the surface of the lower basin wetlands where swans have recently been sighted.
Swans have been captured to collect blood and fecal samples and affix marking devices, such as colored collars and satellite collars.
Of the 17 swans captured overnight and released, three or four have already died.
“It will probably be a year with a high number of deaths,” Morlin said.
She added that the number of swan deaths depends on many variables, including how many swans arrive, how long they stay and weather conditions.
According to Fish and Game, mine wastes were dumped into the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries for much of the 20th century.
“This caused metals like lead to build up in many marsh soils along the river,” said a 2019 Fish and Game report. “About 95% of wetland habitat in the lower basin of the Coeur d’Alene River contains levels of lead that are toxic to swans and other waterfowl.”
Fish and Game said tundra swans are particularly vulnerable because they burrow deep into mud to feed on roots and tubers, increasing the amount of exposure to contaminants like lead in the soil.
EPA project manager Kim Prestbo said it’s an issue that’s been tracked and studied for decades. The solution is to clean up the mess.
But it’s not easy.
There is a high concentration of mining waste scattered over an extremely large area – approximately 30 river miles. It will take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the damage.
“The EPA has worked in the lower basin consistently,” Prestbo said.
But it’s a slow process.
The plan to restore wetlands to functional habitat includes prioritizing the use of waterfowl reared in the basin and “progressive” clean-up work.
Dave Leptic, Idaho Fish and Game, said they’re looking at 20-30 years. It will take a lot of money, a lot of agencies and a lot of time to turn things around, he said.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Leptic said.
There are success stories.
The Schlepp Wetland Restoration Area in the Lower Basin has over 400 acres of clean and productive wetland habitat used by swans.
In 2015, fish and game habitat specialists restored 65 acres of wetlands as part of the Robinson Creek Project with financial support from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and partnership.
The EPA and others are continuing their efforts to create cleaner foraging habitat in the lower basin.
“We’re starting to see some improvement,” Prestbo said.
The restoration partnership includes representatives from the State of Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Partnership released a comprehensive restoration plan for the Coeur d’Alene Basin in May 2018. The plan establishes a framework for the restoration of natural resources such as fish and waterfowl that have been damaged by the release of mine waste historical.
The Partnership has approximately $130 million to carry out its work.
“A really difficult bird to catch,” he said.
Leptich said geese and ducks are also affected by contaminated mine waste in the basin, but swans are “more affected than other species”.
And because they are large white birds, easily seen off the roads, they get the most attention.
Leptich said Fish and Game gets a “good number of calls” every year reporting dead and dying swans and asking what’s going on.
The inhabitants know the situation, but not the new arrivals.
While the concern is appreciated, Leptich said there’s really nothing anyone can do to save the swans.
“It’s a bigger problem than one individual can solve,” he said.