Commentary: Campaign for the birds

Oct 18, 2012

During the presidential debate the other night I joked that Mitt Romney seems to have a problem with birds. The only memorable moment from the first debate was when he famously brought up Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Legends take on a life of their own, and most people now seem to think the candidate said he was going to “fire” Big Bird. In fact, what Romney really said was that he was, quote “Gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” something he said he was sorry about because, as he put it, “I like Big Bird.“

Only time and the voters will tell whether Big Bird can continue flapping without federal assistance. But in the second debate, Romney sneered at what he said was environmentalism run amok in North Dakota, where companies are drilling for oil and natural gas. The Republican nominee charged that “the administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there… 20 to 25 birds were killed, and they brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.”

This spawned wry tweets claiming if Romney were in the White House, no bird would be safe. Actually, he was referring to a case last year where oil companies failed to cover their waste ponds.

Some birds, mainly ducks, died, and the companies paid a few hundred dollars in fines. As one lobbyist told Wired, “It’s not like it was stopping the industry.”

But I have a bigger concern about birds, and it’s something nobody seems to be addressing. Last weekend I was in Charlevoix, and took my dog for a run along the shore of Lake Michigan.

To my unpleasant surprise, the beach was littered with the bodies of large, dead birds. I counted more than 70 in less than a mile. Most looked like loons or cormorants. I meant to call the Department of Natural Resources, but got busy with other things. Today, however, there’s a story in the Detroit Free Press that explains what is going on. According to writer Bob Campbell, the birds are being poisoned by deadly botulism in the bodies of the fish they eat.

These fish are invasive species -- gobies mainly -- and they get the botulism from huge decaying mats of algae. While the sight of what looks like a bird killing field is ghastly, it is also threatening.

Loons and cormorants are very slow-reproducing birds, and the ecosystem could be threatened if their populations are significantly weakened. What was also worrisome is that the Free Press story was based many miles from where I was.

That indicates there may be thousands of dead birds all along the lake shore. Worse, there is apparently little that can be done, because nobody has figured out how to control invasive species.

If you ask me, this should be an issue, at least statewide, where we still don’t have an effective policy. But nobody is saying a thing. David Yarnold, the head of the Audubon Society, thinks he knows why. He told a reporter recently that conservation has been politicized. Democrats don’t want to be labeled tree-huggers.

Republicans fear being called anti-growth. Meanwhile, the birds keep dying. I wish somebody would stop talking about imaginary birds and take this issue on, before it’s too late.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.