December 18, 2007

Searles Valley Minerals fighting to protect business, waterfowl

BY RUTH JUSTIS Staff Reporter
Ridgecrest Daily Independent

This one-acre pond features islands, shade structures and anti-slip safety mats for visiting birds. It was built to satisfy Fish and Game regulations. Photo by Nathan Ahle.

From the air, the 52-square-mile Searles Lake looks like a wonderful place for waterfowl to rest and relax, but doing so can be hazardous to their health. Any bird spending any length of time on Searles Lake soon becomes “salted” and will perish if not rescued. The brine removes the natural waterproofing from their feathers, they become dehydrated and the extra weight from the salt crystals makes it difficult to get into the air.

Looking after the welfare of the bird population has cost the company $20 million in the last eight years. Just over half a million went to provide a bird sanctuary at Owens Lake.

“Even with all of our efforts, we still lose about 180 birds a year,” said Searles Valley Minerals’ Executive Director Arzell Hale.

Two boat crews set out daily at 6:30 a.m., patrolling the 1,100 acres of saltwater in small boats to rescue birds in trouble. The crews go out four times a day in all kinds of weather. In between, they monitor the propane cannons, which fire “air blasts” intermittently 24-hours a day in an effort to discourage birds from landing on the water.

The company maintains about 350 miles of roadway on the lake, giving access to its 350 wells, the percolation ponds, the propane cannons, and the bird hospital.

Bambi Benavidez, owner of Flys Free Wildlife Rescue, has been the bird rescue project manager for Searles Valley Minerals for five years. Working with Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management, Benavidez does her best to rehabilitate “salted” birds and release them back into the wild.

“When the boat crew rescues a bird, they bring it to me in the bird hospital, where I weigh it with the salt still on it, then wash it and re-weigh it. I’ve taken as much as two pounds of salt off of a single bird. I take a blood sample to check for dehydration and respiratory problems, administer fluids and put the bird into one of our small recovery ponds, where it stays two to four days, or until ready for release,” Benavidez said.

Prior to installing the recovery ponds, the birds had to be transported to San Pedro for rehabilitation.

“It cost us $383 per bird to take them to San Pedro, and we lost quite a few in transport. The stress of the trip killed some of them and the summer heat got others,” Benavidez said.

Once the birds are healthy, they are usually released at Little Lake, Lake Isabella or the sanctuary at Owens Lake. Hopefully, they will not return to Searles Valley.

Benavidez keeps logs and maps of every bird rescued on the lake. She often sees loons, ducks, widgeons, mallards, teals, snowy plovers, sandpipers, egrets, herons, pelicans, grebes, buffleheads, and many more varieties. Pelicans usually come in flocks of 50 to 400 birds, Benavidez said.

“It’s quite a sight to watch the pelicans. The first ones take off and hover in a circle until the whole flock is airborne. It looks like a bird tornado,” Benavides said.

Not only do workers watch the water for birds, even the roadways are inspected regularly.

“The snowy plover nesting season begins in March, and we have to check the roadways every morning for nests. If we find a nest, we close off that section of road until the chicks hatch and are ready to fly,” Hale said.

The plovers are counted each year and the survey reported to the BLM, which monitors the program.

“Fish and Game is very happy with our rescue program. Lt. Ernie Acosta is in charge of this area and is very pleased with the way we run the operation,” Benavidez said.

Fish and Game also mandated that SVM build a one-acre pond with islands, anti-slip safety mats and shade structures for migrating birds.

“The company will have to maintain this pond as long as the plant exists,” Hale said. “Altogether, the project costs us about a million a year.”