Quieting the Cry of the Wilderness:
Loons at Risk
HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Loons, whose haunting calls are a hallmark
of the northwoods, may be at serious risk from an activity
beloved by many wilderness visitors.
"Loons are not fans of canoes," says Joseph
Kaplan, who is completing his master's degree in forestry
at Michigan Technological University. "We are finding
that recreation, especially canoeing, on Isle Royale's
inland lakes seems to be having an impact on productivity."
Kaplan has been studying the nesting behavior of loons
at Isle Royale National Park. Located in Lake Superior,
the 850-square-mile island is America's least-visited
national park, which, ironically, may make its loons more
vulnerable to human disturbance.
"Isle Royale's inland lakes are wilderness lakes
and have nonmotorized use only," Kaplan explains.
"Use levels aren't high. But the loons may not get
used to people's patterns, so when people do show up,
the loons overreact."
This overreaction takes the form of abandoning their
nests and any eggs therein. Often enough, the parents
never return, and the eggs never hatch.
It doesn't take much to spook a loon. Many pairs leave
their nests when they notice people as far as 150 meters
away. "I've seen them flush 275 meters away,"
What makes loons so vulnerable to canoes is their aquatic
nature. Unlike ducks and geese, loons can't walk on dry
land, so their nests must be on the water's edge. That
puts them near canoe routes and portages.
The good news is that when people are kept away, the
loons rebound quickly. Last year, the National Park Service
moved a portage in Isle Royale National Park away from
a loon nest site, and the pair stayed on their nest. And
when canoes are warned away from nesting areas by buoys,
loons are more likely to hatch their eggs.
"That's exactly what you want to see," Kaplan
said. "In the absence of canoe use, we predict about
70 percent of nests will be successful."
Kaplan sees the loons' vulnerability to disturbance
as a cautionary tale in the annals of natural resource
"It's kind of assumed that wildlife are protected
in wilderness areas," he says. "That's not necessarily
"This is one small story to add to the growing
body of evidence that protection doesn't necessarily guarantee
conservation," says Kaplan. "The remedy is informed
"It will be interesting to see how far people will
go to protect those values that prompted us to create
wilderness areas in the first place."
"Long-term studies like these help us make good
management decisions," said Phyllis A. Green, Isle
Royale National Park superintendent. "We were pleased
to support this study, which revealed important information
about a species in decline."
In conducting his research, Kaplan relied in part on
12 years' worth of data collected by the National Park
Service on the number of loon chicks hatched on the island.
He compared that data with information on the number of
back-country canoe and kayak permits issued since 1991.
The survey of loon chicks is undertaken every summer
by park service staff and volunteers, including Kaplan,
who has been observing loons at Isle Royale for 10 years.
Kaplan's research is funded by the National Park Service,
the North American Loon Fund, the Sigurd Olson Environmental
Institute and Bonnie Robbins.