February 4, 2005

Biologists Planning to Study Pelicans

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Pelican nesting grounds will be off-limits to the public this year at a refuge in central North Dakota while biologists plan their most extensive study ever of the big birds.

Biologists still are baffled about why some 28,000 birds showed up to nest at the refuge in early April but took off in late May and early June, abandoning their chicks and eggs. The 4,385-acre Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Medina had been the site of the largest nesting colony of white pelicans in North America.

Biologists are counting on the pelicans to return in April, as they have for at least a century.

"We believe they'll be back and stay and nest successfully," said Kim Hanson, the project leader for the Arrowwood complex, which includes Arrowwood and Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuges.

Refuge managers had issued several special permits each year to allow people to get up close to the nesting grounds, but not this year, Hanson said.

Biologists received $70,000 in federal money to buy electronic tracking equipment that will be harnessed to about 15 pelicans, said Pam Pietz, a biologist at the with the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown.

More money is being sought for long-range video surveillance cameras and extra crews to monitor the pelicans this year, Pietz said.

Ken Torkelson, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, said the long-range monitoring will not disturb the pelicans.

"It will be done at a safe distance to allow them to do what they do," Torkelson said. "We may never have the answers on why they left last year, but at least we'll have more information than we had in the past."

Biologists checked air, water and soil quality at the site. They have also checked for diseases, food supply, predators and other possible factors to solve the mystery of why the pelicans abandoned their chicks and eggs.

"We're kind of shooting in the dark - it's up in the air," said Marsha Sovada, a biologist at the research center in Jamestown.

"We aren't going to outguess the pelicans," Pietz said.

Extraordinary sightings of pelicans were recorded in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but biologists say the counts were not scientific.

"We just know they disappeared in the upper regions of the Great Plains," Sovada said.

The birds currently are in their winter grounds in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Central America, Sovada said. Those areas have not reported smaller numbers of pelicans, she said.

The pelican exodus drew worldwide attention and biologists were hit with hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls from people who shared their ideas on why the birds left. The theories ranged from cell phone tower disturbances to impending shifts in the magnetic poles.

"I don't want to ridicule anyone's theory. Who knows?" Torkelson said. "We're definitely thankful that people have taken this much interest in it."


On the Net:

Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service