For the love of loons

By V. Paul Reynolds

The Common Loon is such a revered and iconic waterbird in Maine and elsewhere that an outdoor writer who implores his readers to keep a sober perspective about this celebrated critter does so at his own peril.

But here goes.

Grand Lake Stream in Princeton is arguably Maine’s most fabled and frequented fly fishing water for landlocked salmon. The stream, which runs between West Grand Lake and Big Lake, gets it flow from the waters of West Grand Lake via a dam with a spillway. The flow of the water through this dam is controlled by Woodland Pulp and Paper in Baileyville. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission(FERC) licenses this dam and Woodland Pulp and Paper must adhere to the FERC requirements, when it comes to drawing down the lake or blocking the flow into the stream.

The third week in May this popular section of moving water was practically unfishable due to record low stream flow for this time of year.

The culprit? Nope, not the dry spring. From all reports, water levels on the lake above the dam are unusually high, almost over its banks.  So why is the stream being denied a flow of water from the lake?

Answer: Apparently to accommodate the loons during their nesting season! The FERC license requires that the dam operators stabilize the lake level between May 15 and July 15. This is called the “loon nesting window,” and is intended to minimize flooding of a potential loon nest.

Here is the regulatory language from the Woodland Pulp and Paper’s FERC license:

To protect smallmouth bass and enhance nesting conditions for common loon and

breeding conditions for muskrat and beaver, the license requires Woodland Pulp to limit

impoundment level fluctuations at the Sysladobsis and West Grand impoundments to less

than a 6-inch increase and 1-foot decrease from May 15 to July 16.

It is the nature of regulatory actions to deal with competing interests. In this case, it’s the loons and beavers versus anglers, the economy at Grand Lake stream and, perhaps, the salmon themselves, who need fast flowing, highly oxygenated water to survive.

Given the fact that loon populations in Maine are on the rise, and that natural predators, boat  strikes and boat wakes are the single greatest cause of loon mortality, not water levels, common sense would suggest a compromise, or a temporary relaxing of the FERC loon nesting provision so that stream levels can be returned to at least minimum flows.

Good luck in cutting through the layers of regulatory bureaucracy to find out who has the authority to allow Woodland Pulp to open the spillway. Parties involved include Woodland Pulp and Paper, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, FERC, and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

At press time, with the exception of the waterbird research leader at MDIF&W, none of the regulatory agencies have returned my repeated phone calls in an attempt to get information.

For thousands of years, long before these regulatory agencies set up shop, the loons and beavers survived all manner of climatic and meteorological upheaval. Today, loons and beavers in Maine are doing very well. Do regulations always have to trump common sense? Shouldn’t we strive to strike a balance in our regulatory approach to protecting wild things, even with the ones whose  haunting vocalizations enthrall us so? 

 The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books. Online purchase information is available at www.sportingjournal.com.

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