Inside the Outdoors: Wildlife benefit when we keep our distance

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Afloat on the family pontoon, my wife and I, our son, daughter-in-law, and almost-three-years-old granddaughter were enjoying the warming, golden rays of the last hour of daylight. My wife, at the wheel, spotted a pair of loons off the port side; 40 yards away, give or take. She gently cramped the boat’s wheel, setting a course that would bring us nearer to them. Less obvious—until we got closer—was a smaller, mostly-gray juvenile riding the gentle waves.

As we watched, one of the adults bobbed back to the surface with a fish—about five inches long—held crosswise in its bill. It approached the chick, and in a well-coordinated handoff the little one deftly took it, tipped its head back and swallowed the meal whole. Our granddaughter, who at this age thinks every water bird is a duck, watched the brief drama with wide eyes. The loons seemed to take no further notice of us, and we passed by and continued our cruise down the lake.

I thought little more of our encounter with the loons until I heard a recent radio news story about a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Conservation Officer who disciplined a young jet-ski rider for pursuing a loon on a lake near Detroit Lakes. The young rider had followed close behind the loon as it paddled its feet and beat its wings in a dash across the water, attempting to get airborne. The excuse given to the Conservation Officer was wanting to get a closer look at the loon. But the bird was clearly in escape mode, according to the officer’s description of the event. He also pointed out that it wasn’t the first incident of loon harassment he’s responded to this summer.

There’s a difference between approaching wildlife out of curiosity, and wildlife harassment. The first is motivated by a desire to observe a phenomenon of Nature. The second is seeking a hard-to-understand thrill. But if the outcome for a loon—or any other creature—is alarm, or actual danger, then one’s motives may matter less than we think. Perhaps our approaching the loons for a closer look had been bad judgment.

While no one would blame the coronavirus pandemic for contributing to bad on-the-water behavior, or leading directly to wildlife harassment, some have made a rather roundabout connection. The connection is that a greater number of us are spending time—and more time—on the water. It is one of the ways we can break out of our shelter-at-home and social distancing practices with less risk of putting ourselves and others at risk. But as we do, are we putting wildlife at risk?


In summer in Minnesota, activities on the water are likely to be among the most popular choices in any year, under any circumstances. This summer, the outdoors—where social distancing is much easier than almost anywhere else—has become a place of refuge. This summer, a fishing boat, canoe, kayak, jet-ski, pontoon, sailboat, power boat or paddle board is even more likely to play a role in many Minnesotans’ efforts to enjoy the summer and keep their sanity in these extraordinary times.

On-the-water traffic is up, something that has been observed anecdotally by official folks like Conservation Officers and sheriffs’ water patrols, and also the evidence of occasional traffic jams at boat launch facilities. “No Wake” zone warnings on some lakes speak of the same, as higher boat traffic has led to greater shoreline erosion.

While on-the-water wildlife-impacting events that make headlines are most often linked to motorized watercraft—and these certainly present the most risk to wildlife—there are subtle effects that are simply related to the volume of on-the-water traffic. Even the kayaker, the canoeist, the paddle-boarder—certainly low-impact water enthusiasts—can add to the number of too-close contacts between water-dependent wildlife and people.

What—you might ask—is the harm in quietly approaching a nesting loon, a mallard with a brood of young ducklings, or a Canada goose with a gaggle of young goslings? Sometimes there’s no harm at all. What matters is whether the wild creatures feel threatened and react in a way that puts them at risk. Does this incidental contact cause a group of ducklings to scatter, with a young one potentially separated from the rest? Does a loon waste valuable energy in a defensive display to drive the perceived intruder off, meanwhile being distracted from protecting its chicks?

It may be unrealistic to think we can always keep our distance from on-the-water wildlife. Launching a boat at a public access, leaving and returning to a cabin dock, and safely avoiding other watercraft users, may sometimes limit our options. But there’s a lot we can control, like our speed, being observant, and being patient enough to give right-of-way to wildlife when close contact is otherwise inevitable.

Like guiding a vehicle safely down a highway, good on-the-water behavior mostly comes down to just common sense.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

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