Berkeley Pit’s Snow Geese

Thousands of snow geese perished after landing in the toxic waters of Butte, Montana's Berkeley Pit. But the birds may not have died in vain.

Berkeley Pit View From Viewing Stand
Butte, Montana's Berkeley Pit as seen from the Berkeley Pit viewing stand. Photo by Failure magazine.

Late last year, the mining town of Butte, Montana attracted the wrong kind of worldwide media attention when thousands of migrating snow geese died after drinking from the Berkeley Pit, an abandoned open pit copper mine adjacent to the city’s downtown, one which is filled with billions of gallons of acidic, metal-contaminated water. 

 The mass die-off was an unfortunate development, though not without precedent. In November 1995, 342 snow geese met an untimely end when they stopped to eat, rest, and drink at the Pit while migrating south. 

In the more than twenty years between the two mass die-offs, relatively few birds—perhaps hundreds—perished at the site, thanks to an ongoing “waterfowl mitigation program,” one that included the use of “wailers” (which emit sounds that mimic the calls of predators and the distress calls of waterfowl).

And since the November 2016 incident, efforts to discourage birds from landing in the Berkeley Pit appear to have been redoubled, with Montana Resources and Arco/BP (the Superfund site’s “responsible parties”) implementing recommendations from the Berkeley Pit Waterfowl Mitigation Advisory Board.

Newly-implemented measures include: the use of cannons installed around the perimeter of the Pit that are rigged to “fire” a loud propane charge; and the use of green-colored lasers, which seem especially effective at scaring away geese. (It appears snow geese react to the green lasers in much the same way as they would to a predator.)  

While it’s the bird deaths—and the fact that Butte advertises the Berkeley Pit as one of the top things to do in Butte, charging a modest entry fee for access to the Berkeley Pit Viewing Stand—that have made headlines, there’s a less well-known aspect to the story.

As I noted in Failure magazine’s 2011 longform article on the Berkeley Pit, “as late as 1995, local microbiologists assumed that the environment was too toxic for much of anything to survive, much less thrive. That is, until that same year, when Andrea [Stierle] and her husband Donald [research professors in the department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UM-Missoula] were provided water samples by a Bureau of Mines and Geology hydrogeologist and found some ‘fascinating compounds.’ ”

According to Andrea Stierle, the Berkeley Pit is “proving to be a rich source of unusual extremophilic microorganisms, which have produced novel and compelling bioactive metabolites.” In other words, “the water is filled with a hardy assortment of fungi, algae, protozoans, and bacteria, many of which have shown great promise as producers of potential anti-cancer agents and anti-inflammatories.”

More than five years since, the Stierles “are still enmeshed in this exploration” said Andrea in a June 2016 “fieldnote” for Montana Public Radio, reiterating that “Pit microbes produce compounds that we hope [can] be used as antibiotics and maybe even be used to treat inflammatory diseases and some cancers.”

Little noticed—but most notable from a bird lover’s perspective—is that that the Stierles found a completely different set of microbes in Pit water samples taken in the spring of 1996 as compared to the summer of 1995. “We think that the birds inoculated the Pit” with what Andrea now regards as her ‘favorite fungus’—“a yeast that … absorbs metals (like copper and iron) from its aqueous surroundings, suggesting its dual potential for bioremediation and secondary ore recovery.” 

Translation: the snow geese of November 1995 may not have died in vain. And who knows, when the next set of Pit water samples are tested, perhaps the snow geese of November 2016 will have made their own contribution to health and science.