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Brown pelican off the endangered species list

The brown pelican, a species once pushed toward extinction by the pesticide DDT, has recovered and is being removed from the list of threatened and endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“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,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said when making the announcement this week. “Today is such a day. The brown pelican is back!”

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Pelicans are primarily fish-eaters, requiring up to four pounds of fish a day, according to the USFWS Brown Pelican Fact Sheet. “Their diet consists mainly of ‘rough’ fish such as menhaden, herring, sheepshead, pigfish, mullet, grass minnows, topminnows, and silversides. On the Pacific Coast, pelicans rely heavily on anchovies and sardines. The birds have also been known to eat some crustaceans, usually prawns.”

NGS stock photo by Bianca Lavies

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) was first declared endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to the current Endangered Species Act. “Since then, thanks to a ban on DDT and efforts by states, conservation organizations, private citizens and many other partners, the bird has recovered. 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,” said a statement released by the Department of Interior (DOI).

The U.S. 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. This week’s action removed the remaining population from the list.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the global population of brown pelicans at 650,000 individuals.

NGS stock photo by Bates Littlehales

“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,” Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said at a press conference in New Orleans to announce the delisting. “We once again see healthy flocks of pelicans in the air over our shores.”

The pelican’s recovery is largely due to the federal ban on the general use of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the DOI said. “This action was taken after former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and alerted the nation to the widespread dangers associated with unrestricted pesticide use.”

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Measuring up to 54 inches long, weighing 8 to 10 pounds, and having a wingspan between 6-1/2 feet and 7-1/2 feet, brown pelicans are the smallest members of the seven pelican species worldwide, says the USFWS Brown Pelican Fact Sheet. “They can be identified by their chestnut-and-white necks; white heads with pale yellow crowns; brownstreaked back, rump, and tail; blackishbrown belly; grayish bill and pouch; and black legs and feet.

NGS stock photo by Robert Madden

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton praised the Gulf and Pacific Coast states for their constant efforts to restore this iconic coastal species. “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. “This is truly a success story that the whole nation can celebrate.”

In the southwest, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy and numerous other conservation organizations helped purchase important nesting sites and developed monitoring programs to ensure pelican rookeries were thriving, the DOI added.

“Louisiana, long known as the ‘pelican state,’ and the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission jointly implemented a 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.”

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Brown pelicans have extremely keen eyesight, states the USFWS Brown Pelican Fact Sheet. “As they fly over the ocean, sometimes at heights of 60 to 70 feet, they can spot a school of small fish or even a single fish. Diving steeply into the water, they may submerge completely or only partly–depending on the height of the dive–and come up with a mouthful of fish. Air sacs beneath their skin cushion the impact and help pelicans surface.”

NGS stock photo by Micheal E. Long

Past efforts to protect the brown pelican actually led to the birth of the National Wildlife Refuge System more than a century ago in central Florida, according to the DOI.

“German immigrant Paul Kroegel, appalled by the indiscriminate slaughter of pelicans for their feathers, approached President Theodore Roosevelt. This led Roosevelt to create the first National Wildlife Refuge at Pelican Island in 1903, when 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.”

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Brown pelicans have few natural enemies. Although ground nests are sometimes destroyed by hurricanes, flooding, or other natural disasters, the biggest threat to pelicans comes from people, says the USFWS Brown Pelican Fact Sheet. “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pelicans were hunted for their feathers, which adorned women’s clothing, particularly hats.”

NGS stock photo by Bates Littlehales

With removal of the brown pelican from the list of threatened and endangered species, federal agencies will no longer be required to consult with the FWS to ensure any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not harm the species. However, additional 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, FWS said.

FWS has developed a Post-Delisting Monitoring Plan, designed to monitor and 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 or other information shows it is necessary to prevent a significant risk to the brown pelican.

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The pouch suspended from the lower half of the pelican’s long, straight bill really can hold up to three times more than the stomach, according to the USFWS Brown Pelican Fact Sheet. “In addition to being used as a dip net, the pouch holds the pelican’s catch of fish until the accompanying water–as much as three gallons– is squeezed out. During this time, laughing gulls may hover above the pelican, or even sit on its bill, ready to steal a fish or two. Once the water is out, the pelican swallows the fish and carries them in its esophagus. The pouch also serves as a cooling mechanism in hot weather and as a feeding trough for young pelicans.”

NGS stock photo by Robert Madden

Monitoring brown pelicans from now on will be done in cooperation with the State resource agencies, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Mexico, other federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and individuals, FWS said this week, adding, that the service 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.