Jim Cole/AP file photo

Three years ago, during a race on Watchic Lake in Standish, a loon-monitoring group found a dead male loon with a long gash on its back that may have come from the propeller of a speeding hydroplane boat.

Nobody knows for sure what killed the loon – a warden tossed its body in the woods so no exam was ever done – but the incident spurred wildlife advocates to see if they could do more to protect the beloved birds, one of Maine’s iconic creatures.

A dead loon found on Watchic Lake in Standish in 2018 at the time of a boat race. Maine Lakes photo

“We believe all boating must take place in a manner that also protects the health and well-being of water quality, wildlife and wildlife habitat,” Susan Gallo, executive director of Maine Lakes told lawmakers this week. “And we know we can have both. But we can’t necessarily have both on every lake.”

This year, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is considering a bill that would allow the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to consider the impact on wildlife when asked to issue a permit for high-speed boat races on Maine lakes.

Doing so, supporters said, would allow the department to ensure “reasonable precautions” are taken to safeguard wildlife and water quality.

“We must find a balance between our recreational outdoor activities and the necessity of our treasured wildlife to flourish,” state Rep. Patrick Corey, a Windham Republican, said.

Legislators heard testimony this week from loon lovers across Maine urging them to support the measure introduced by state Rep. Lester Ordway, a Standish Republican.

Lee Attix, director of the Portland-based Loon Conservation Associates, who has been studying common loons for a quarter century, said the state’s existing law doesn’t give the department the leeway it needs.

Since loons are “fiercely territorial” and “are usually very reluctant to leave their territory for any reason,” he said, loons typically stay put even when boats are whizzing around at up to 70 miles an hour.

“As a loon expert, it is my professional opinion that high-speed boat races should never be allowed on any Maine lake if the location is within an occupied loon territory,” Attix said.

Maine Audubon’s annual loon count last year found 2,974 adult birds, 154 fewer than in 2019 and 295 fewer than in 2018, a decline it called noteworthy. But, the group said, the tally was still “nearly double the population estimated when the count began over three decades ago.”

“Based on the numbers, Maine has a robust population of adult loons, the largest in the Northeast,” it said.

They aren’t everywhere, though.

Maine Lakes said the state has “many thousands of lakes that are large enough to provide race and practice areas outside of loon nesting territories, in water over 20 feet deep, and far enough away from shore to eliminate erosion and sedimentation issues.”

Those are the spots, it said, where boat races should be held.

Barbara and Michael Shapiro, who have lived on Tripp Lake in Poland for decades, urged legislators to “please keep loons and other wildlife safe on our lakes and rivers.”

They said it’s important to preserve Maine’s lakes for generations to come.

Gray resident Sharon Young, who helps protect loons on Little Sebago Lake, told lawmakers that the “importance and love of all things lake-related are embedded in my heart and in my soul. The natural environment and all its wildlife are what makes Maine’s lakes special.”

Young said she’s helped count and band loons on her lake, watching chicks from birth to migration, but has also found dead youngsters and adult birds.

Two years ago, Young said, the Little Sebago Lake Loon Monitoring and Conservation Program found “a grotesque sight” — an adult “whose neck had been nearly severed,” almost certainly from a propeller.

“It is hard to describe how incredible it is to hold an adult loon. They are magnificent creatures, strikingly beautiful, and far larger than one would imagine from pictures,” Young said. To find one with its throat slashed, she said, was “beyond heartbreaking.”

Agnes Connors of Standish said she loves water skiing and cruising Maine lakes at speeds that make it possible to keep an eye for wildlife.

She said that when boats race, they often wind up four abreast at 70 miles an hour or more “with a laser-focus on gaining an edge on the boats next to them,” oblivious to wildlife and going too fast to swerve anyway.

Loons aren’t especially good at getting out of the way.

“Loons are heavy-bodied birds with wings that are narrow and short relative to the lengths of their bodies,” Diane Winn, executive director of Avian Haven, a wild bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, said.

“In order to gain enough speed for liftoff from water, they require a long runway along the surface and, ideally, a headwind,” she said. “They cannot suddenly and swiftly take flight to avoid oncoming danger, so diving is the only way to avoid rapidly approaching motor boats. But loons may be struck by boats while attempting to dive or when they resurface.”

Winn said lead poisoning is the most common cause of death for loons, but blunt force trauma is next, often the result of getting hit by a boat.

Dale Dailey, president of the Toddy Pond Association, said that during the past three decades he’s seen “a distinct decline in waterfowl” on the long lake that stretches from Orland to Blue Hill, which he believes is due to “reckless boating” and personal watercraft activities.

“It’s bad enough to have individuals and small groups indiscriminately charging around the lake and scaring off our resident wildlife,” he said, “but the idea of sanctioning boat races and water ski exhibitions would be taking this damaging practice to the next level.”

Enabling regulators “to consider loon and other wildlife safety when deciding over a permission to stage a speed boat tournament is a natural consequence of this state and its residents and visitors to demand that consideration be given to the protection of wildlife and to the preservation of the call of the wild or what’s left of it,” Heinrich Wurm of Lovell said.

Dailey said authorizing the state to take note of potential adverse impacts when it considers granting permits “should be a no-brainer.”

“We all need to stand up for our precious wildlife since they can’t speak for themselves,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: