Over the last 10 years, while guiding kayak tours at Anacapa Island and along the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island - part of the Channel Islands National Park – there’s always one seabird more than any other species that clutters the volcanic sea stacks and craggy spires at locations like Cathedral Cove and Scorpion Rock. As the years have blown by, I thought it was just me, but it seemed like there was a steady increase in the population of California Brown Pelicans.
On February 8, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne formally proposed removing the California Brown Pelican from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List. The proposal was spurred by a 2006 petition from a nonprofit group of international scientists. Public comments will be taken for 60 days, and the proposal could become final in one year.
The ungainly seabirds were named a national endangered species in 1970, three years before the Endangered Species Act was passed.
Opposition to the delisting is expected to be minimal because California Brown Pelican populations are as great, if not exceeding historic levels across the west, east and gulf coasts of North America, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. There are now approximately 620,000 of these gregarious, social birds that are known for their comical posturing and seven foot wingspans outstretched while soaring in perfect formation.
“The legal protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, coupled with the banning of DDT in 1972, provided the means for the Service and its partners to accelerate the pelican’s recovery,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall. “State wildlife agencies, universities, private ornithological groups and individuals participated in reintroduction efforts and helped protect nest sites during the breeding season.”
Pelicans are a great indicator of how healthy ocean environments are. They are one of the most recognizable creatures on mainland beaches with their long sword-like beaks as they dive headfirst into the ocean to fill their pouches full of anchovies When you don’t see them, you know something is out of balance in the food chain. In the 1960s, DDT was just being recognized as a pesticide having grave effects on the aquatic food web. It caused pelicans and other seabirds, peregrine falcons and bald eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs that were crushed during their incubation cycles.
Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands are the primary rookeries of brown pelicans on the west coast of the United States, due to their dry, secure and quiet roosting and nesting places. In 1970, only one chick out of 550 nests survived. However, over the past decade their populations have rebounded dramatically. Above the sheer 300 foot high cliffs on West Anacapa Island the annual average has been 4,600 nesting pairs. In 2004, the Anacapa breeding population peaked at nearly 8,000 nesting pairs. To the south on tiny Santa Barbara Island, there has been an annual average of about 1,500 nesting pairs, with an estimated high of 4,000 nests in 2006. Pelicans on that island nest in different locations each nesting season. A couple of years ago they took up nesting at Landing Cove, the only place for visitors to get on the island. The tiniest island off California was shut down until breeding and nesting season was complete. They rule the roost
“The recovery of pelicans is a tremendous milestone for conservation in our country,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau. “This species has been safeguarded by the Endangered Species Act, as well as sheltered within a national park, on remote islands that provide undisturbed nesting and roosting habitat.”
Although a delisting appears imminent, brown pelicans will continue to be monitored by conservation groups because DDT is still prominent in the aquatic ecosystem, especially off of Los Angeles and Catalina Island. Also, there are other laws protecting pelicans and other seabirds.
“Thanks to decades of coordinated efforts by conservation groups,” said Kempthorne, “the brown pelican has rebounded to historic levels.”