On Aug. 22, two boats carrying representatives from both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe DNR sailed out to Hennepin and Spirit Islands to clean up the Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge. At less than one acre, the two islands compose the smallest national wildlife refuge in the country, but they remain an important nesting site for the common tern, a threatened species, along with other species such as the ring-billed gull, the herring gull and the double-crested cormorant. This August expedition was just one of many concerted efforts the Band DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have made to maintain these important sites.

Maintaining the site

The clean-up effort occurs on an annual basis, explained refuge manager Walt Ford, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While building nests on the island, he said, the cormorants bring in a wide range of debris and litter. He described the cormorants as “superb scavengers of the trash in [Mille Lacs Lake.]” The islands are monitored regularly to keep track of bird populations, diseased birds or anything else that’s potentially disruptive to the colony.

“There’s approximately 500 nests on Spirit Island,” Ford noted, “another 60-80 on Hennepin, and every one of those nests have items fishermen have lost or carelessly dropped into the lake.” As keeping the islands clean is a large undertaking, he had reached out to the Mille Lacs Band this year for assistance.

And it’s not the first time the Band has lent their assistance to managing the wildlife refuge, explained Perry Bunting, the Band DNR’s director of environmental programs. String grids have been placed on Hennepin Island to deter pelicans and gulls from occupying common tern nesting sites. The Mille Lacs Band DNR has been helping place these grids since their introduction in 1993. The Band has assisted in bringing pea rock, the tern’s preferred nesting material, out to the islands during the winter as well.

The Band has also provided assistance with the clean-up in years past, Ford observed, though their previous contribution had been hauling the garbage away for disposal after the clean-up. This was the first year they contributed members to the clean-up crew. “It certainly made the job easier having more people out there helping collect it, so I was very appreciative of that.”

Trash on the islands

This year’s effort saw two boats, one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pulling a dinghy, and another from the Band. The clean-up crew arrived at the Hennepin Island around 9 a.m., and the work continued until 1:30 p.m. Ford’s crew had provided pitchforks to break apart and sift through the nesting material. Bunting noted the wide range of debris he saw collected at the islands: “Old fishing rods–the second piece of old two piece rod–there’s old cutlery. Of course, there’s lots of monofilament line and electrical wiring,” he said. He expressed amazement at the sheer amount of electrical wiring found among the nest. From a single nest, he had also pulled 12 broken poles from old fishing rods. “You wouldn’t believe all the different things that were out there. Sunglasses, baseball caps, you could go on and on.” In total 22 bags of garbage were pulled from the islands on Aug. 22.

Ford noted the particular danger monofilament line posed to the birds. “Unfortunately, monofilament is a real killer of birds,” he said, “not just young birds in the nests but the older ones as well.” If a bird’s legs became tangled, it could limit the birds ability to walk, swim or dive. If it was tangled in their wings, it could impede their ability to fly. Such tangles left birds prone to infection, and Ford said he had seen more than one tangled bird develop gangrene. “It’s not a good way to die,” he said.

He added that birds were particularly susceptible to getting caught in fishline that had been tangled due to backlash. “There’s a tendency for at least some of the fishermen to, instead of disposing of it properly when they get a backlashed mess … they throw it in the lake.” He acknowledged that some accidents were bound to happen, but he encouraged anglers to be conscience of how they dispose of line and other garbage, due to the risk it posed the birds.

Further efforts

Ford noted that the common tern only nested on Hennepin Island, and the population at his highest was around 200 nests. “However, that’s not sustainable, either,” he added. Setting up the grid required a great deal of labor. Storms could potential damage the grids, leading to further effort to reset them. Working on the island itself was potentially hazardous, Ford said, and, years ago, he had seen a large boulder almost crush a worker when it was shifted by spring ice.

“It’s been problematic,” Ford said, “but it has protected the terns … Without [the gridding], they’d no longer be on Mille Lacs.”

Bunting added that the Band has been contributing with the tern conservation effort since the beginning. “We are willing to lend a hand whenever Walt gives us a call,” Bunting said. “We’ll head out there.”

Another recent effort from the Band DNR has been to introduce artificial nesting habitat for the terns. The previous two years, the Band has floated pea rock-covered pontoons on the lake for use by the terns. The pontoons had seen a number of complications with limited success both years, and such complications had prevented them from being deployed this year. Bunting, however, spoke to future continuation of the project, hoping the birds might eventually adjust to using the sites. As terns have also been observed at Lake Ogechie, a Mille Lacs outlet to the southwest, Bunting said it was also being considered as a site for artificial nesting sites.

As it was important to Fish and Wildlife Service to keep terns on Mille Lacs, Ford was also hopeful the artificial nest sites could be a “win-win” for the conservation effort, requiring less maintenance with fewer of the islands’ hazards.

Speaking to the Band’s interest in helping maintain the wildlife refuge, Band fisheries biologist Klimah said, “Many tribal members and tribal elders speak about respecting Mille Lacs Lake. That’s due to it providing subsistence, like food, but it also has to do with cultural practices and customs and spiritual beliefs … We are going to try to pursue any efforts to keep the lake clean for future generations of users.”

Spirit and Hennepin Islands, along with the birds they provide homes for, are just a few of the invaluable natural gems of the Mille Lacs area. Thanks to the combined maintenance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mille Lacs Band, those gems continue their important purpose as refuges amongst the natural splendor of Mille Lacs.

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