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The mystery of North Dakota's missing white pelicans
Chuck Haga, Star Tribune (Mpls)
June 27, 2004 PELI0627

MEDINA, N.D. -- Nobody saw it happen. So far, nobody can explain it.

But in late May and early June, as many as 27,000 white pelicans -- the largest nesting colony of the great, gawky birds on the continent -- abandoned nests, eggs and hatchlings and flew away from Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota.

A smaller flock of 2,000 birds remained in a separate nesting area a few days longer, but they also abandoned Chase Lake, leaving a vast, heartbreaking litter of unhatched eggs and dead, featherless young.

Biologists and others have advanced many theories -- involving disease, predators, weather, food sources and other factors -- but so far none has been proven.

Nor is it clear where all those pelicans went before heading to the Gulf Coast for winter. But larger than usual numbers of pelicans have been spotted recently on waters near the Canadian border, on the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana and in wildlife refuges in South Dakota and Minnesota.

White pelicansStar Tribune"From now into July, we'd normally see 40 or 50 white pelicans here," said Wayne Brininger, a biologist at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes, Minn.

The refuge lies about 150 miles from Chase Lake.

"About 10 days ago, we had 600 to 1,000 of them on a couple of lakes, and 1,500 on Flat Lake," he said. "They're spread out, foraging. They aren't nesting."

Brininger said he's had reports of pelicans in numbers on Leech and Cass lakes in addition to the usual nesting colonies on Marsh Lake in the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area near Appleton and on Lake of the Woods.

Through bandings and radio transmitters, Chase Lake biologists know that the pelican diaspora in northern Minnesota includes some of their birds.

"They went north, south, east and west," said Ken Torkelson, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck.

What happened?

"We wish we knew," he said.

So does Janean Schmidt, who with her family relocated from Medford, Minn., last year to operate the Chase Lake Country Inn near the refuge, offering beds to birders from across the country and beyond.

"The pelicans are a sight to see," she said wistfully. "They make even geese look miniature. In the spring, if they don't come back, it's going to hurt."

Creating a refuge

With practiced stealth, two sleek egrets step through the shallows of Chase Lake, beaks poised to stab for supper.

Hawks glide and bank overhead, surveying the prairie for their next meal, as hordes of ducks nest in the lake's reeds and songbirds flit from one spray of wildflowers to another.

Baird's sparrows, eagles, piping plovers -- nearly 300 bird species find sanctuary here in the heart of North America's prairie pothole region.

But the pelicans are gone, their absence overwhelming.

The prairie pothole region, also vital to migrating geese and ducks, took shape thousands of years ago as the last glaciers retreated. Great chunks of ice broke off, settled and melted, forming depressions and closing off natural drainages.

Wetland plants and prairie grasses -- yellow coneflower, big bluestem, switchgrass -- attracted waterfowl. Islands in the shallow lake offered nesting grounds protected from predators -- except those with guns.

In 1907, H.H. McCumber asked the federal government to establish a refuge at Chase Lake to preserve a dwindling colony of nesting white pelicans.

"The settlers do not consider the pelicans of any economic value," he wrote, "and they make a practice of going there on Sundays and seeing how many they could kill by shooting them."

With President Theodore Roosevelt's support, the lake and wetlands became one of the first national wildlife refuges. McCumber became its first manager, and the flock of maybe 50 surviving pelicans grew to become the largest nesting colony in North America.

In 2000, aerial photography registered 35,000 pelicans on the lake. The birds had returned in similar numbers each year since, including this spring.

Now they're gone, the nests abandoned, a year's production of young wiped out.

"We don't think it was anything [to do] with their food source," said Mick Erickson, the refuge manager. "We have good wetlands conditions, so the food is there. And if it was starvation, you'd see dead adults, too."

It may be that while the amount of food hasn't diminished, a wet cycle has scattered it, said Chip Euliss of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D. Salamanders that would have stayed close to pelican feeding lakes in a dry year are distributed more widely throughout the wetlands.

In 1997, at the start of the latest wet cycle, researchers caught more than 10,000 salamanders in site-specific traps, Euliss said. In 1998, the number dropped to 5,500; in 2003, about 500.

"The prairie is an extremely dynamic place," he said. "The total numbers of salamanders may be comparable to last year, but there's so much water now that it gives them more places to seek refuge.

"Maybe ... the numbers of pelicans got to be higher than the prairie can sustain on a long-term basis," he said.

Disease, predators

West Nile virus took some young pelicans last year, and one bird this year tested positive for botulism. "But would that cause them all to leave?" Erickson asked. "And you'd expect to see more dead adults. But mortality this year was actually lower than normal."

Blood and tissue samples have been sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for tests. Results may take weeks, Erickson said.

Two coyote dens were found on or near the refuge, Torkelson said, "but coyotes have been there as long as the pelicans have, and they never caused an abandonment before."

The coyotes were removed after the large pelican exodus, but that didn't stop the departure of the second group.

Late May and early June were wet and cool, but that's hardly an aberration in North Dakota. "Big thunderstorms and hail have been pretty regular, too," Torkelson said.

Human harassment? The refuge headquarters is about 12 miles away from Chase Lake, and staff aren't able to monitor the lake and its environs daily, but Erickson and Torkelson both doubt that explanation, too. Access to the remote refuge is over 8 miles of gravel turning to what is charitably called a prairie road.

"It's very disturbing when you don't know the reason that has had such an effect on the critters we're duty-bound to protect," Torkelson said. "But we'll have an answer to one of our questions next spring: Will the pelicans come back?"

He expects they will. So do Erickson and Euliss, a wildlife scientist. "I couldn't imagine they wouldn't," Euliss said.

Erickson said it was painful to inspect the ground that recently teemed with nesting pelicans. The birds normally are quiet -- you sense rather than hear them overhead, or you see shadows like those caused by puffy clouds, or you hear the soft, rhythmic thrum of 9-foot wingspans. But this was a different silence.

"I understand nature, and nature can be cruel," Erickson said. "But it's very difficult to see something like this."

Chuck Haga is at [email protected].

19 Posts
About 15 years ago we saw around 1o pelicans on the Mississippi river north of St. louis thought it was neat. Every year there were a few more, until now there are thousands. The shallow water lakes were the pelicans feed, that used to hold countless crappie, bass and various other species now are almost devoid of anything except gar and carp. Now I can't say that the pelicans are the only reason that the fish are gone but it is quite a coincidence. I personally would like to see something done to help the fish or control the pelican population.
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