February 9, 2008

Nearly Extinct, Brown Pelican Population Soars

Celebrating the phoenix-like recovery of the brown pelican, brought to near-extinction 40 years ago by potent insecticides, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Friday proposed removing the big-beaked coastal bird from the endangered species list.

Kempthorne, speaking in Baton Rouge, La., said more than 620,000 of the pelicans now inhabit the U.S. Gulf and Pacific coasts, the Caribbean and Latin America. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Texas Coastal Program counted 3,800 nesting pairs in Texas.

"The brown pelican is known for its fishing displays, plunging headlong from the air into the water and rising with a mouthful of fish," Kempthorne said in a prepared statement. "In the same dramatic fashion, the pelican has pulled off an amazing recovery after a steep plunge toward extinction."

Historically, said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown, Texas had 1,500 to 4,000 nests. In 1968, that number had dropped to two. Louisiana, the so-called "pelican state," typically had 10,000 to 15,000 nests. By the 1960s, as DDT and related insecticides took their toll, no nests were found.

The brown pelican was placed on the endangered species list in 1970. DDT was banned for domestic use in this country two years later. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 675,000 tons of the long-lasting "miracle" insecticide were used in the United States before the ban.

Wildlife biologists believe the insecticide, which still is used in some Latin American countries, entered the food chain through fish, which then resulted in pelicans laying thin-shelled eggs that did not survive to hatching.

If the birds are removed from Endangered Species Act protection, the pelicans and their nests and eggs -- but not their habitat -- would still be protected by other federal laws. The federal agency would be required to work with states for a minimum of five years to monitor the birds' welfare. If problems arise, the birds could be returned to endangered status.

Brown pelicans in Atlantic coast ranges were removed from the endangered species list 24 years ago.

Fish and Wildlife will accept public comments on the proposal through April 11.

Brent Ortego, a Victoria-based wildlife diversity biologist with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, said the proposal to remove brown pelicans from the list was "something that's been needed for some time."

In Texas, Ortego said, the birds have flourished to the extent that they crowd other species for nesting space. "They take up a lot of space on small islands," he said. "On a very small island, if you have 50 or 100 pairs of brown pelicans, well, the biggest birds rule."

Stephen Kress, a research assistant at Cornell University's ornithology lab and the National Audubon Society's vice president of bird conservation, agreed that "in general, the bird has responded well to conservation."

Still, he said, concerns remain for the birds' welfare in Louisiana, where hurricanes Katrina and Rita blasted nesting grounds. "The year 2005 was a poor breeding year," he said, "and 2006 wasn't much better."

Additionally, the birds may have been adversely affected by the 8,000-square-mile oxygen-depleted dead zone that forms annually at the mouth of the Mississippi River from fertilizer runoff. "It's not good for fishing birds," Kress said. "They have to fly farther. This is definitely something to watch, even if they're doing better. ... These birds are important indicators of the health of the ocean environment."

Brown pelicans, which can weigh up to 12 pounds and sport a wingspan of more than 8 feet, have overcome other stern challenges to their existence.

In the late 19th century, they were indiscriminately hunted in Florida for their feathers. German immigrant Paul Kroegel's pleas on their behalf to President Theodore Roosevelt led to the formation of the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903. There are now 548 such refuges.