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Karen Telleen-Lawton: California Brown Pelicans Not Out of ‘Troubled Waters’

By | Published on 05/19/2014

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What species dives with the thrill of an Olympic high platform diver, is an ubiquitous sight skimming mere inches above the ocean surface, and is in serious trouble hatching and raising chicks? The California brown pelican.

Their multiyear plight at breeding colonies on Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands is alarming pelican experts and conservation groups. Almost as devastating is the difficulty of scraping together funds to monitor the status of this great bird.

Brown pelicans have a deep history: Their fossil record goes back 30 million years. This speaks to their flexibility in changing environments. They survived egg collectors, feather collectors, and hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It took DDT runoff and dumping to render them nearly extinct in the 1970s.

Recovery efforts mandated by the Endangered Species Act of the 1970s included shutting down DDT production and restoring habitat on their only U.S. nursery colony: the Channel Islands. (Most California brown pelicans breed in Baja.) Colony monitoring beginning in 1969 documented the largely successful efforts in bringing the majestic bird from the brink. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009.

For any species removed from the list, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is required to perform monitoring for 10 years to ensure a continued recovery. Unfortunately, the pelicans’ breeding records are revealing five successive years of breeding failure. Experts think the cause may be sardines and anchovies, pelicans’ favored food, which have been scarce in Southern California in recent years.

Starvation and malnutrition may be triggering these breeding failures as well as what are termed Unusual Mortality Events in juvenile and adult pelicans. Starving pelicans have taken to scavenging in urban areas like supermarket parking lots and feasting on the nesting colonies of other threatened or endangered species. Beginning in 2010, young pelicans have been seen attacking murre nesting colonies in Oregon, according to Robert Suryan of Oregon State University.

At the same time, the FWS has suffered drastic funding cuts. Since the delisting, colony monitoring has not been directly funded, nor have they published a required “Post-Delisting Monitoring Plan.” Audubon and other environmental groups are being asked to activate their volunteer networks to help track and protect pelicans.

Anna Weinstein, seabird program manager for the National Audubon Society in San Francisco, has led advocacy efforts on the part of the Audubon network. The group sent more than 2,000 activist letters to the FWS.

"We don't think it is OK for the service to do a high five [after the delinsting] and walk away from the brown pelican just as it seems to be entering troubled waters," Weinstein said.

Thanks in part to this action, the FWS has recently identified brown pelican monitoring as a priority activity for funding. But the nest monitoring needs funding now. The Santa Barbara Audubon Society voted just last week to contribute to this effort.

You can find out more about this and other ways Santa Barbara Audubon works to protect local habitat by attending an evening program on May 28. Click here for more information.

Meanwhile, continue to enjoy watching pelicans dive, while taking steps to ensure their population doesn’t dive.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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