It may not be widely known that Louisiana, the Pelican State, had lost all of its namesake brown pelicans for almost a decade.
In the early 1900s Louisiana’s brown pelican population was estimated at 50,000 to 80,000. By the 1960s, however, the use of DDT had taken a huge toll on many bird species, including the brown pelican. By 1963, the bird was no longer found anywhere in the state. Today, the birds are back and their numbers are staying steady. But if wildlife biologists don’t make continuous efforts to protect the bird’s precious nesting habitat, its survival will once again be tested.
After brown pelicans were extirpated from Louisiana, a small group of very committed wildlife biologists from Louisiana and Florida joined forces to undertake a daring experiment. Beginning in 1968, they began to move hatchlings from coastal Florida to three of Louisiana’s barrier islands. Over the next eight years, more than 760 brown pelican chicks were relocated. In 1971, 11 nests were documented on Queen Bess Island, marking the first successful recolonization of brown pelicans in Louisiana. Biologists kept track of the growing numbers and documented a peak of about 4,000 nests on Queen Bess in 2008.
Now, with the pelicans back and relying on the island for critical nesting habitat, biologists have turned their sights on saving Queen Bess from the erosion that has reduced it to a fraction of its former size. “Supporting larger numbers of these nesting birds in this area is all about providing and maintaining the right habitat,” explained John Tirpak, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “We are going to use Deepwater Horizon settlement funds to keep Queen Bess from eroding away.”
The first post-oil spill restoration project for Queen Bess included $2 million for the engineering and design of a project in a future restoration plan that will provide 30 acres of brown pelican and wading bird habitat, seven acres of nesting tern and skimmer habitat and breakwaters on the southwestern perimeter of the island. The restoration project will cost another estimated $16.71 million and could begin this fall and could be completed by February 2020. “It has been an honor to work with our fellow Trustees, especially the state of Louisiana, on this project. This project is an excellent example of how collaboration between the federal and state Trustees can boost the likelihood that an avian species will continue to flourish. Our partnership on this project has been in place and it’s going to be supported by one funding stream or another for 50 years! That’s for longer than I’ve been alive,” Tirpak said.