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Brown pelican likely coming off endangered list

The brown pelican, once on the brink of extinction, has become so abundant that it should be removed from the list of endangered species, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said on Friday.
A sick brown pelican found along the California coast is treated at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, Calif.Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The brown pelican, once on the brink of extinction, has become so abundant that it should be removed from the list of endangered species, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said on Friday.

Under government supervision, the brown pelican has made a strong comeback after the species vanished from the state in the 1960s because of DDT contamination. The birds were poisoned when they ate fish laced with the pesticide. At the same time, the birds' numbers were dwindling elsewhere, for instance in California.

"The pelican has pulled off an amazing recovery after a steep plunge toward extinction," Kempthorne said. He said the agency would start the yearlong process to take the bird off the endangered species list.

The brown pelican was placed on the endangered list in 1970 throughout the United States, but it was taken off in 1985 along the Atlantic Coast and Alabama's Gulf Shore. It remains endangered in its western range, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, California, Washington and Oregon.

Kempthorne's comments also apply to the California brown pelican, a subspecies.

Two of the brown pelican's primary breeding grounds in the western United States are in the California's Channel Islands, officials said. The population on Anacapa Island peaked at nearly 8,000 nesting pairs in 2004. The population on Santa Barbara Island has an annual average of about 1,500 nesting pairs.

The bird is particularly important along the Gulf Coast, and closely associated with Louisiana, dubbed the "Pelican State." The bird was placed on Louisiana's official seal in 1804, shortly after Louisiana was purchased by the United States.

"In some ways, the brown pelican was the canary in the coal mine for Louisiana," said David Muth, vice president of the Orleans Audubon Society. "Its disappearance was the first signal that something was going wrong in coastal Louisiana."

Today, though, the bird is a common sight even in New Orleans, where brown pelicans hunt for fish on the Mississippi River near cruise ships and a tourist shopping center next to the French Quarter. Closer to the Gulf of Mexico, their abundance is in full display.

"It's an absolutely wonderful sight to go out to Grand Gosier Island, for example, and see tens of thousands of nesting brown pelicans. It's a huge racket, it's really quite a rich scene," said Dan Purrington, a Tulane University professor and avid bird watcher. He was one of the first ornithologists to document the disappearance of Louisiana's brown pelican in the 1960s.

There are some concerns that taking them off the endangered list would be premature because they nest on coastal islands and the future of those islands is anything but certain.

In the past five years, for example, powerful storms have clobbered barrier islands in the Gulf. Rising sea levels, land loss in coastal Louisiana and the likelihood of more storms battering coastal areas are grave threats to the pelican's habitat.

"Those are the living grounds for the brown pelican. Although today we might have strips of land out there, there isn't any living Louisiana scientist who will tell you with a straight face those islands will exist in 40 years," said Oliver Houck, an environmental lawyer at Tulane University.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said the analysis used to determine the removal of the pelican involved a review of habitat throughout the American continent and the Caribbean. He said the pelican's habitat is secure, despite Louisiana's eroding coastline and marshland.

"The brown pelican seems to be very adaptable to moving around and establishing new colony sites," Hall said.

There are about 620,000 brown pelicans in the United States, Caribbean and Latin America, according to the Interior Department. Louisiana's pelican population was restored by bringing in birds from Florida and more than 350,000 brown pelicans have hatched in Louisiana since 1971, officials said.