In this Aug. 14, 2020, file photo, a common loon swims on Lobster Lake in Lobster Township. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A new bill would allow restrictions on boat races to protect the iconic loons who call Maine’s lakes home.

The legislation from Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish, would authorize the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to consider a boat race’s impact on loons before issuing a permit.

Maine is currently home to the largest loon population in the Northeast. But Maine has seen its loons decline in number over the past two years. Maine Audubon recorded 2,974 loons last year, 154 fewer than in 2019 and 295 fewer than in 2018. The group called the two-year decline “noteworthy,” but still double what it was three decades ago.

Diane Winn, executive director of Avian Haven, a wild bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, told the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on Monday loons cannot “suddenly and swiftly” take flight when in the path of an oncoming boat, but need a long “runway” to build speed to fly away.

In those cases, diving may be their only option to avoid injury or death, but still leave the birds vulnerable if they are hit by propellers while diving or surfacing.

Winn said that 30 to 40 loons may be admitted into Avian Haven a year. Blunt trauma is one of the leading causes of death after lead poisoning.

Lee Attix, the director of Loon Conversation Associates, said that loons are “fiercely territorial” and will only reluctantly leave their territory even when faced with boats whizzing by on lakes at high speeds.

Attix called Maine’s existing laws inadequate for protecting loons. “As a loon expert, it is my professional opinion that high speed boat races should never be allowed on any Maine lake if the location is within an occupied loon territory,” Attix testified.

Republican Rep. Patrick Corey of Windham told the committee that the bill strikes the necessary “balance” between lawful recreational activities and protecting Maine’s “treasured” wildlife.

Ordway’s bill also attracted support from the wildlife department’s deputy commissioner, Tim Peabody, and various lake and pond associations.

The committee has yet to vote on the legislation.

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