January 20, 2006

Researchers Want to Count White Pelicans

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Researchers say they want to conduct the first census of the American white pelican population in North America in about 25 years.

"We have to learn more about them before we can effectively manage the species," said Ken Torkelson, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck.

The researchers are hoping to do a continentwide pelican count next year.

"It's only a proposal at this point," Torkelson said Thursday. "There are a lot of hurdles."

The funding would have to be in place, he said, and the plan would have to be coordinated among agencies in the United States and Canada.

Torkelson said a Fish and Wildlife Service conference in Jamestown last week, including representatives from the Dakotas, Minnesota and the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, found much to learn about one of the largest birds in North America. The white pelicans have wingspans of nearly 10 feet.

Torkelson said the birds have not been a high priority for studies.

"They are not a game bird and they're not on the endangered species list," he said.

The Jamestown meeting was prompted by mass pullouts of white pelicans from Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Medina, in central North Dakota, over the past two years. The Chase Lake colony once was believed to be the largest in North America.

Torkelson said researchers estimate about 60 white pelican colonies in North America, but the last pelican census was done about 25 years ago. He said the new census may help solve the Chase Lake pelican mystery.

"Once we have that (census), we will know if there is a problem with pelicans in general or if there are problems at just a couple of colonies," Torkelson said.

Researchers also plan to expand monitoring for the West Nile virus.

"At colonies we have been monitoring, we believe West Nile is claiming 50 to 60 percent of the young for past couple of years," Torkelson said. Female pelicans typically lay two eggs, but usually only one survives.

In a report released to Congress this month, researchers said the pelican is not in danger in North America.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to study the pelican exodus at Chase Lake.

The report said the white pelican population has increased an average of more than 3 percent annually from 1966 to 2002.

Pelicans live up to 30 years and "can withstand multiple years of reproductive failure while maintaining a relatively stable population size," the report said.

Torkelson said researchers will continue to band young pelicans, concentrating on colonies at Chase Lake, Medicine Lake in Montana and Bitter Lake in South Dakota.

During the upcoming pelican season at Chase Lake, two observers will be on the ground almost daily; they will try to get on the water and on the nesting islands more frequently, and a fence will be up to protect the birds from predators, Torkelson said.

"We're confident of some pelicans returning to Chase Lake," he said.

Data from the few Chase Lake pelicans that were fitted with satellite transmitters shows most migrated to wintering grounds in coastal Louisiana.