Brown Pelican Soars Off U.S. Endangered Species List
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, November 11, 2009 (ENS) – The brown pelican, a species once nearly exterminated by hunting and the pesticide DDT, has recovered and is being removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, wildlife officials said today.
“At a time when so many species of wildlife are threatened, we once in a while have an opportunity to celebrate an amazing success story,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Today is such a day. The brown pelican is back!”
There are now more than 650,000 brown pelicans found across Florida and the Gulf and Pacific Coasts, as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Brown pelican off the California coast (Photo by Michael “Mike” L. Baird)
Brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, are large, shore-dwelling birds, about four feet long, with a wingspan that can extend to over seven feet. Strong swimmers and graceful flyers though clumsy on land, pelicans are long-lived. The oldest pelican on record died at 43 years of age.
The brown pelican was first declared endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to the current Endangered Species Act of 1973.
“After being hunted for its feathers, facing devastating effects from the pesticide DDT and suffering from widespread coastal habitat loss, the pelican has made a remarkable recovery,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks, at a news conference in New Orleans to announce the delisting.
“We once again see healthy flocks of pelicans in the air over our shores,” he said.
Wildlife officials credited the pelican’s recovery to the federal ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972. This action was taken after former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Carson published the book “Silent Spring,” alerting the nation to the dangers of unrestricted pesticide use.
Stormwater run-off carried DDT into the ocean, contaminating the fish pelicans consumed and leading to a build-up of pesticides in the birds. Many died. Pesticides caused the surviving pelicans to lay thin-shelled eggs that were crushed under the weight of the incubating birds.
Following the ban on DDT in 1972, the reproduction rates of brown pelicans improved. The Fish and Wildlife Service removed the brown pelican population in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and northward along the Atlantic Coast states from the list of endangered species in 1985. By the 1990s, pelican populations in that region had returned to pre-DDT levels.
Brown pelican (Photo by Lee Carney courtesy USFWS)
Today’s action removes the remaining brown pelican populations from the list.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton told reporters today, “This is truly a success story that the whole nation can celebrate.”
“Brown pelicans could not have recovered without a strong and continuing support network of partnerships among federal and state government agencies, tribes, conservation organizations, and individual citizens,” said Hamilton.
The delisting was prompted by a 2005 petition by the nonprofit Endangered Species Recovery Council to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Fish and Game Commission to remove the California brown pelican from federal and state endangered species lists.
The council, a global task force of scientists, says the Service should have removed the brown pelican from the list on its own. “Instead, the ESRC had to file an extensive petition and then had to badger officials at virtually every step of the way when the Service failed over and over to meet statutory deadlines,” the group said in a statement today.
William Everett co-founder of the ESRC, said, “Wildlife officials did not do much to recover the brown pelican. Once EPA curtailed DDT in 1972, this resilient species recovered on its own.”
“It is remarkable that the uncontroversial delisting of this species took almost four years,” said the ESRC, which maintains that the delisting process should be streamlined.
Pelicans silouetted against a sunset sky at Morro Bay, California (Photo by Michael “Mike” L. Baird)
Craig Harrison with the law firm Hunton & Williams, who represented the ESRC on the pelican petition on a pro bono basis, said, “The fact that the brown pelican remained listed for so long emphasizes that it can be far easier to recover a species than to remove it from the endangered species list.”
According to Audubon’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, brown pelican population trends have risen in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and California for the past 40-50 years.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took a toll on the Gulf Coast populations that has not been thoroughly erased, but the prospects remain good, provided coastal recovery stays on track, says the 100-year-old bird conservation organization.
“The future of the brown pelican depends on the same strategies that will benefit coastal residents,” said Audubon Louisiana Bird Conservation Director Melanie Driscoll. “Pelicans and people need a strong, well-funded coastal restoration plan that will speed the recovery of coastal marshes and the barrier islands that are our first defense from hurricanes and their primary source of food and shelter.”
In the southwest, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations helped purchase important nesting sites and developed monitoring programs to ensure pelican rookeries thrive.
Louisiana, long known as the Pelican State, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission jointly implemented a pelican restoration project. A total of 1,276 young pelicans were captured in Florida and released at three sites in southeastern Louisiana during the 13 years of the project.
Early efforts to protect the brown pelican led to the birth of the National Wildlife Refuge System more than a century ago in central Florida.
A brown pelican lands at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy Pelican Island NWR)
Paul Kroegel, appalled by the slaughter of pelicans for their feathers to decorate ladies hats, approached President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, the President was moved to create the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, tiny mangrove island in the Indian River Lagoon. Kroegel was named the first refuge manager.
Today, the system has grown to 550 national wildlife refuges, many of which have played key roles in the recovery of the brown pelican.
With removal of the brown pelican from the Endangered Species List, federal agencies will no longer have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not harm the species.
Still, federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act, will continue to protect the brown pelican, its nests and its eggs.
The Service has developed a Post-Delisting Monitoring Plan to verify that the recovered, delisted population remains secure from the risk of extinction once the protections of the Endangered Species Act are removed. The Service can relist the brown pelican if future monitoring shows it is necessary to prevent brown pelican extinction.
The monitoring will be done in cooperation with the state resource agencies, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Mexico, other federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals.
The Service also is working with state natural resource agencies where the brown pelican occurs to develop cooperative management agreements to ensure that the species continues to be monitored.
The final rule removing the bird from the list of threatened and endangered species will be published in the Federal Register shortly and will take effect 30 days after publication.
The California Fish and Game Commission delisted the brown pelican earlier this year.