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Love of Loons Jon Wefald Talks at Heartwood

CROSBY -- If you asked Jon Wefald about his favorite subject, the more he talks about it, the more it sounds like some quasi-dive bomber jet, armed to the nines like a Roman gladiator, an avatar with the presence and voice of some era long lost to time. Wefald was, of course, speaking of the common loon, the state bird and an animal with a special place in the annals and times of lake country Minnesota. Since stepping down as president of Kansas State University and (mostly) leaving public life to settle down by Bay Lake, Wefald has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of loons and their conservation. If Wefald isn’t one of the most well-read experts on loons, he’s definitely one of the most passionate and poetic proponents for the iconic avian with its sleek barrel body, plumage of black and white striations, and a call that sounds “unlike anything you’ve ever heard before,” as he’s apt to say, typically brimming with emotion. Flanked by area figures -- friends including former state Rep. Steve Wenzel and retired Congressman Rick Nolan -- Wefald gave an informative presentation Tuesday, June 11, at Crosby’s Heartwood Senior Living Community that verged more on an impassioned speech. Only 22,000 of the birds exist in the continental United States -- 12,000 of them, the largest population, Wefald noted, in Minnesota’s dense concentration of lakes and ponds the bird favors. While loons are the undisputed “masters of the lake” -- fearlessly willing to take on everything from ducks and geese, to eagles and coyotes -- Wefald told the audience they face a host of existential threats, both foreign and domestic. In recent years, thousands of loons have been killed by a rampant form of botulism carried by zebra mussels, Wefald said. Nests are subject to constant attacks by eagles. And even if the eggs survive, they may not hatch -- victims of pollution just like their parents, he noted, who typically spend at least two or three years in the Gulf of Mexico where the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is wreaking havoc to the present day. And yet, the common loon isn’t on any endangered species or special protections list, Wefald decried. It barely garners the bare minimum in funding and the Department of Natural Resources -- which Wefald criticized in unflinching terms -- has allocated less, not more resources to loon conservation in recent years in his estimation. In terms of Deepwater Horizon, Wefald contended the agency has bungled and stalled efforts to determine how much damage has been done to Minnesota’s loon population. This, for a species experts are predicting will be wiped out between 2080 and 2100. “They’ve shown they don’t have the vision or the leadership for Minnesota’s loon population,” Wefald said of the DNR. After the presentation, Wefald mingled with members of the audience of roughly 60 and answered a number of questions on the common loon, their lifespans, diet, breeding and migratory cycles, preferred habitats and other aspects of their ecology.