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Story of Butte snow geese die-off going worldwide

December 9, 2016 GMT

BUTTE — The biggest die-off of migrating snow geese in the history of the toxic Berkeley Pit is gaining worldwide attention with the story trending at the top of Facebook as of Wednesday morning.

The social media site showed 3,000 people were “talking about this” issue, according to Facebook on Wednesday.

Both the United Kingdom’s BBC News and London’s The Guardian newspaper posted stories Wednesday. National Public Radio also relayed the story.

The Washington Post in Washington, D.C., smaller media outlets and bird organizations around the country are also reporting the story. The Los Angeles Times is planning its own story, according to a photographer who contacted The Standard Wednesday morning seeking a photo of the pit.

Montana Resources manager of environmental affairs Mark Thompson said the Butte mining company has been inundated with phone calls from media outlets as far away as Norway starting Tuesday evening. The calls were nonstop Wednesday from radio, magazines and newspaper journalists.

“We can’t come close to answering everything we got today,” Thompson said Wednesday.

MR officials reported this week that thousands of snow geese perished in the pit after landing there Nov. 28 during a snowstorm. The deaths occurred despite hazing efforts by mine workers. The pit is a former open pit copper mine that is filled with water contaminated with sulfuric acid and heavy metals.

Comments have escalated on Facebook and on The Montana Standard’s website. One reader wrote on Facebook, “Is there any way to fix this so it doesn’t happen again?”

Another Facebook commenter said, “Oh boy, here we go again. Everyone in the world who Googles ‘Butte’ will essentialize us as the place where beautiful wild creatures die from mine waste pollution.”

Local officials, however, have a different take.

Pam Haxby-Cote, head of the Butte Local Development Corp., said “that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Haxby-Cote said she is not worried the story of the geese die-off will negatively impact Butte. She said she has the ability to live anywhere, but that she lives in Butte because “this is a great place to be.”

“We have beautiful mountains, the cleanest drinking water in the state; fly fishing; miles of local trails. Our thing is, we’re affordable. We have amazing talent here in Butte,” she said in an interview with The Standard.

Maria Pochervina, director of Butte convention and visitors’ bureau, said she would be surprised to see this tragic event negatively affect tourism this summer.

“People are fascinated by the pit,” Pochervina said. “When we tell the story of the value of minerals extracted, how it’s made our lives better, people are fascinated by that.”

But Dave Palmer, who takes office in January as the newly elected county chief executive and a longtime commissioner, said the die-off is not good news on the economic development front.

“It does make national news and that is unfortunate because that is what people look at — bad things,” Palmer said. “We could be doing a thousand good things in Montana and Butte itself and you never hear about them rise to the national level.

“But the geese — that goes national and people say, ‘Oh man, you don’t want to go around there,’ or ‘There is really a problem in Butte-Silver Bow, why would we ever want to relocate a business there?’ That is something you definitely have to be on top of and you have to try to counter that.”

As many as 28 comments have been made on The Standard’s website in response to The Standard reporting “several thousands” of birds died. The commentary ranges from “this is so heart-breaking,” to stating that wind turbines kill more migratory birds than the thousands reported dead by MR.

Comments on The Standard’s website also display anger toward MR and Atlantic Richfield Company — the parties responsible for the pit — as well as calls to put the die-off into perspective. “MR and ARCO need to remedy the situation,” said one commenter. Another said, “Butte’s relationship to mining needs to be love-hate, not just hate.”

Palmer said he’d like to see more attention and research paid to addressing the pit.