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Call of the Loon

A research and education center devoted to the Minnesota state bird is on track to open in Crosslake. 

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

A loon’s staccato hoot often greets northern Minnesota travelers as they breathe in that first whiff of lake water, sun-warmed pine needles and earthy shoreline grasses. By nightfall, the back-and-forth wail and yodel becomes a bedtime serenade.

“It’s an iconic call,” said Leah Heggerston, member of the National Loon Center Foundation’s board of directors. “It summons up all kinds of summer memories. People love loons.”

That universal affection and emotional connection to Minnesota’s state bird is fueling momentum to establish a National Loon Center for research and education in the City of Crosslake on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes. The center could become a reality by 2021 if it keeps chugging forward.

The proposed center would study loons and water quality, educate people on loon ecology and threats to their health, and celebrate the unique features of our state bird. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates there are close to 12,000 loons in Minnesota—the highest population of any U.S. state except Alaska. While loons have been Minnesota’s official state bird since 1961, their existence is thought to go back 60 million years, making them one of the oldest living bird species, according to state records.

The Initiative Foundation, which hosts a project fund for the loon center, provided the project’s first external funding with a $5,000 grant to help with a feasibility study for the Crosslake location. In June, University of Minnesota economics experts announced positive results from the study, eliciting enthusiastic cheers from project supporters.

“To have a facility like this to help with educational tourism will be one of the best ways to promote environmental care of our lakes and rivers,” said National Loon Center advocate Jim Anderson, chairman of the board for Anderson Brothers Construction in Brainerd and an Initiative Foundation Emeritus Trustee. “The center will be able to illustrate through augmented reality and hologram use how the loon survives in the wild. The loon has many unique attributes that will be amazing to learn about.”

In July, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources approved the National Loon Center Foundation’s request for $4 million in funding. That request now has to get final approval from the Minnesota Legislature, but given the bipartisan support and enthusiasm from regional, state and U.S. lawmakers, chances look promising. Additional fundraising will be needed as the project progresses.

“We have outstanding political support,” said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber president. They also have support from wildlife conservation groups, citizen groups and even the Minnesota United professional soccer team, which has a loon as its mascot and logo.

The feasibility study looked at similar centers, including Wabasha’s National Eagle Center, along with tourism statistics. Kilian said they estimated “a minimum of 59,000 visitors each year and a maximum of 157,000” with commensurate benefits from tourism.

NLC-Renderings-with-logos---interior.jpgA LOOK INSIDE: An architectural rendering of the interior of the National Loon Center Visitor’s Center.

Education Efforts

Ideally, the advocates would like to open the loon center near the Pine River dam on Cross Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ popular recreational area and campground encircles much of the natural bay, which also has an island. A family of loons frequently pops up here, seemingly unafraid of the constant marina, beach and campsite traffic.

The Army Corps could possibly replace aging rest rooms  at its shoreline day-use area and build an expanded 15,000-square-foot facility, which could lease space for the loon center, said Corrine Hodapp, supervisory park ranger. 

With its atypical location in the heart of town, the Army Corps often teams up with community organizations for events and educational efforts. That has included the addition of a rain garden, a foraging garden and art work for its interpretive center, which also houses a collection of Paul Bunyan souvenirs—a nod to the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, which runs through Crosslake.

Heggerston said the foundation would like to see the bay’s marina rebuilt and improved with piers or docks so campers wouldn’t have boats parked on the shoreline where loons like to nest. She’d also like to see more research and programming to eliminate hazards to loons in Crosslake and nationally. That could include no-wake zones to prevent boating accidents and help combat the spread of zebra mussels. The invasive mussels eat native algae and expel toxic algae, which is then ingested by the fish that loons eat.

Loons also can get lead poisoning from inadvertently ingesting lead sinkers from fishing tackle, which they swallow alongside the small rocks they eat to help digest their food. An effort to replace lead sinkers with safer fishing tackle remains ongoing.

The public could also get involved, acting as citizen scientists to conduct water and lake plant studies at the loon center and then track that research from year to year. Visitors could also learn how to make floating rafts for loons to nest upon and get onto the Cross Lake bay to interact with and enjoy the local loons from April until September. Fall travelers could watch for the close to 200 loons that congregate on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes before migrating south as a group. “This bay gets 230,000 visitors a year at the campground,” said Heggerston. If even a third of them paid admission to a loon center, that would be a solid base of support.

A loon center in Crosslake also could be influential in supporting the loon population, which is facing shrinking habitats due to climate change and other environmental threats. Minnesota’s National Eagle Center opened in Wabasha (population 2,400) in 2007 and has grown to more than 80,000 visitors a year.

While loons aren’t endangered, they have been listed as a species of concern in Montana, according to the National Park Service. Warming lake temperatures and increasing development along lakeshores are thought to have moved loons to the far northern tier of the United States. The birds require clean water, healthy fish, and a lake that’s at least five acres for nesting. They don’t mate until they’re about seven years old, and most have only one or two chicks a year.

The proposed loon center could track migrating loons and show them on maps, track water quality of area lakes and show visitors how a bird designed for diving up to 200 feet deep can also take flight.

If the Legislature approves funding and the Army Corps decides the project will fit with its mission and location, the loon center’s foundation will work on additional fundraising and grants. Ground could be broken in 2020, with a tentative opening in 2021.

“I think it’s doable,” Heggerston said. “We’re really a supportive state for environmental tourism.”

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