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Pelican Brief: The canary has left the coalmine

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
July 22, 2004


"I submit that a nation which cannot afford to protect its endangered species has already overreached itself biologically." — Thomas Lovejoy

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt created the first federal bird sanctuary at Pelican Island in Florida, thus beginning the American National Wildlife Refuge system. He did so upon noticing brown pelicans and other birds to be "in serious trouble" As an avid hunter President Roosevelt had a distinct perspective from which to witness declining wildlife populations. What followed was 97 years of Federal stewardship of increasing sensitivity.

George W. Bush put an end to all that (but that's another column).

A century has passed since other species were given consideration in the governance of the United States of America, which at the time numbered 45, with California being the 21st most populated. In those hundred years remarkable strides were made towards ecological balanced based on sound science and empirical evidence. Of course this understanding came as a result of extreme ecological impacts and human response to the consequences.

Teddy Roosevelt concerned over the decline of brown pelicans, came not from sport hunting, but from the industrial hunting that supplied feathers to the ladies millinery industry of the time. In 1908 Roosevelt created another pelican sanctuary at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, which until this year had the distinction of being the biggest breeding sanctuary for endangered brown pelicans in North America. Obviously the Environmental policy of President Roosevelt was both affective and long lasting as the Brown Pelican is still around to be worried over.

In the early 1960's California Brown Pelicans were threatened again with extinction, due to the use of the pesticide DDT. Once in the food chain DDT affects the bird's calcium metabolism, resulting in fatally thinned eggshells. Although banned in the US in 1972, two years after the California Brown Pelican was listed as Endangered, DDT is still manufactured for export, and still lingers in the environment.

Food availability is now the major threat to the brown pelican. The pacific mackerel, Pacific sardine, and the northern anchovy are vital resources for the pelican, especially during the breeding season. Midsummer is when fledglings start fending for themselves. Early in the 1900's commercial over harvesting was already having a detrimental impact on food availability. Yet they hung on due to protected wildlife sanctuaries and a growing environmental awareness. Until now.

Veterinarians at Sea World have diagnosed the brown pelicans being rescued on local beaches as suffering from starvation. Of the 135 birds recently rescued, the mortality count has surpassed 35 as of this writing. The leading theory is these juveniles are unable to find food due to a change in fish population and behavior. Juveniles dying before reaching breeding age can only lead to further decline, as humans will continue to harvest the fish stocks pelicans depend on for survival.

Global warming and rising surface levels of the oceans could be partially responsible for these changes. According to Judy St. Leger, Sea Worlds Director for Pathology, tests are being conducted as hypoproteinemia and stomatitis have been found during autopsies, so pollution could factor in as well.

Other factors contributing to the brown pelicans slide into extinction are climate shifts, human development, oil spills, and abandoned fishing gear. Human communities along the coast disturb breeding and resting habitat, with nesting colonies especially sensitive to human encroachment.

Now, before anyone thinks this recent incident of mass starvation is an isolated event, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In 1996 over a thousand California Brown Pelicans, a fifth of the U.S. population died of avian botulism, the result of feeding at the putrid Salton Sea. In 2002 a similar incident of mass starvation of juveniles was reported along the Florida coast near Tampa.

Earlier this year the breeding colony of pelicans at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge abandoned their nests, hatchlings, and eggs leaving the next generation to die exposed to predators and the elements. An unusual wet spring is being blamed for the bird's unusual behavior. Whatever the case, a whole generation was lost, and the pelican's hold on existence has become even more precarious.

Not alone on the slow slide into extinction the California Brown Pelican is joined by other California natives. To cite the Bald Eagle, the California Condor, the American Peregrine Falcon, and the Great Grey Owl, is to name but a few of 18 California bird species listed as endangered.

So instead of watching the canary in the coalmine, it is time we start looking for pelicans along the Pacific for warnings of coming catastrophes. That is if we can find them.


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