Blog: Mother Earth Heals
by Liora Leah

Pelican Comeback!

Decades after the Brown Pelican became nearly extinct because of DDT, they have made a comeback and may be taken off of the Endangered Species list.

Date:   2/11/2008 8:18:12 PM   ( 13 y ) ... viewed 1971 times

U.S. calls pelicans an environmental success story

Back in force
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
A California Brown Pelican takes a graceful flight over Newport Harbor. The Interior Secretary is expected to announce Friday that they plan to take the bird off the endangered species list.
Thriving seabirds, once devastated by DDT, no longer belong on the national endangered species list, officials say.
By Marla Cone, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

 
Pelicans have roosted on the nation's list of endangered species longer than nearly all other creatures. Now the winged icon of America's surf and sand is about to be officially declared healthy.

The Interior Department on Friday announced a proposal to remove brown pelicans from the national endangered species list, 40 years after they hovered on the brink of extinction.
A single threat caused most pelican populations to plummet, and a single savior brought them back. Their plunge toward extinction was stopped not by the Bush administration, or even the previous five administrations, but back in President Richard Nixon's day.

Pelicans suffered almost complete reproductive failure in the 1960s and early 1970s because the pesticide DDT accumulated in their bodies, weakening their eggs and killing chicks. When DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, the species started to rebound.

Today, more than 70,000 breeding pairs of pelicans inhabit California and Baja California, and total numbers have surged to about 620,000 birds along the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and in Latin and South America.

In announcing the proposal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall said the fish-eating, long-lived birds are no longer threatened with extinction, "either in the foreseeable future or in the long term."

"This species has had a long journey," Hall said. "This is truly a success story."

For several decades, the plight of the pelican has symbolized the fragility of nature as well as its fortitude. Their near extinction illustrated not only what can go terribly wrong when man-made chemicals such as DDT build up in the environment, but the ability of nature to rebound once the chemicals are removed.

Plunging headfirst into the ocean to trap anchovies in their gigantic pouched beaks, pelicans are instantly recognizable to many Californians. On summer days, they roost on whatever is handy -- a light pole, a jetty or a yacht. They are gregarious and social, and on land seem clumsy, with their heavy wings that span seven feet. But they are strong swimmers and when they take to the air, often with a running start, they form a graceful, silvery-brown squadron gliding effortlessly across the sky.

Unlike many seabirds, pelicans don't normally venture inland. They are like die-hard surfers, permanent fixtures of beaches and islands. So their collapse was easily noticed in the late 1960s, particularly in the Los Angeles region, where their DDT exposure was the highest.

"The pelican is one of the best indicators of environmental health," said UC Davis ecotoxicologist Daniel Anderson, who has studied California pelicans since 1971. "When you see a flock of pelicans fly by, you think all's well out there. When you don't see them, then you know something's wrong."

In Southern California, many scientists say that pelicans' reproductive failure was caused almost entirely by a single company, Montrose Chemical Corp., a DDT manufacturer that discharged tons of the pesticide into county sewers that empty off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The ocean floor off Palos Verdes remains heavily contaminated and the Environmental Protection Agency is still weighing a plan to cap the deposit with sand to stop it from contaminating fish, birds and people.

DDT is banned worldwide except for limited applications in malaria-plagued Africa. But it is slow to break down and residue remains in ocean ecosystems, as well as in human bodies, around the world.

The proposed delisting includes the California brown pelican -- the western subspecies that breeds from the Channel Islands to the Mexican mainland -- as well as subspecies along the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The Atlantic Coast population was removed from the list in 1985.

The proposal was prompted by a 2006 petition from a nonprofit group of international scientists. The agency will seek public comments for 60 days, and its proposal could become final in one year.

Little opposition is expected. Many leading scientists and conservation groups thought the California pelicans were ready for removal in the mid-1980s. Their populations now rival, or maybe even exceed, historic levels.

"I have no objection to delisting at this stage," Anderson said. "They're probably back to at least former numbers, maybe a little bit more. They are a pretty darn adaptable species."

The brown pelican was named a national endangered species in 1970, three years before the Endangered Species Act was enacted.

Even without the Endangered Species Act, pelicans enjoy wide protection. The Channel Islands, a primary nesting ground, are a national park, and Mexico has created reserves along the Gulf of California, where the vast majority breed.

Other laws prohibit harming pelicans and other migratory birds.

Greg Butcher, bird conservation director of the National Audubon Society, said conservation groups support delisting, particularly for the California population, which is thriving.

"We are always nervous about these things because we like to have a crutch to sit on. Oil spills, overfishing, any of these things could be a threat to pelicans in the future. But it makes total sense to recognize the gains we have made since the ban of DDT," Butcher said.

The biggest threats in California are starvation and human disturbance. During El Niño years, few pelicans are born because their food, anchovies, is scarce. Pelicans also need dry, secure, quiet roosting places. In Southern California, many of their spots are disturbed by boaters, dogs and airplanes.

Hall said wildlife officials are continuing to monitor pelicans and other birds of prey because "we do have a lot of residual buildup of chemicals in the environment."

Those compounds include brominated flame retardants, which may cause subtle effects on their reproduction and behavior.

Anderson said flame retardants "may be our next problem. But we can't keep the pelican on the endangered species list on the hint that it may be affected."

Last year, the Bush administration removed the bald eagle and the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the list. Hall said it's important to remove high-profile species because it shows the controversial law is working.

Bird lovers hope the pelican doesn't lose its place in the hearts of many Americans when it loses its special status.

"Just because it's not endangered anymore doesn't mean it's any less important," Anderson said. "Children should always look at the pelican and say, 'There's a special bird.' "

marla.cone@latimes.com

 
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