Protecting the pelican: Plans rise to restore Louisiana state bird habitat

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BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) – Louisiana wildlife officials are helming a $19 million project to save their state bird’s breeding space from shrinking coastlines.

Subsidence and coastal erosion have dwindled the brown pelican habitat on Queen Bess Island to roughly six acres. Officials with the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, along with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, hope to restore damaged rookeries using settlement funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

“Those birds need a little more room to spread out,” said Todd Baker, a state biologist aiding the reconstruction project. “Hopefully we can provide that for them.”

The project would add 30 acres for pelicans to nest, with another 7 acres for terns and skimmers. Biologists say the grounds must be high enough for eggs to stay above water — and low enough to hide from predators.

Construction is slated to cost $17 million. Roughly $2 million have already gone toward design. The project would be the first of its kind for the state.

“Louisiana has never gone out and purposely restored a rookery for the purpose of restoring a rookery,” Baker said. “It will teach us a lot about how we’re going to do projects in the future, not just for brown pelicans but a whole suite of colonial waterbirds.”

The eroding Gulf Coast hardly marks the first threat in the brown pelican’s history. In 1961, brown pelicans stopped hatching in Louisiana, after heavy use of the pesticide DDT made eggshells too thin to incubate. By 1963, the birds disappeared from Louisiana marshes.

State officials started reviving the pelican population in 1968. They shipped chicks from Florida and brought them fish twice a day until they got old enough to fly. In 1971, the birds returned to Queen Bess and laid 11 nests, from which the population gradually rose. Brown pelicans were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009.

While federal officials banned the use of DDT in 1972, another threat took hold in 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed hundreds of pelicans. But the incident was not enough to diminish the population fully. Roughly 100,000 brown pelicans live in Louisiana today, according to state wildlife personnel.

“Birds come down and greet you and wonder what you’re doing at their doorstep,” Baker said of Queen Bess Island. “It’s just a really magical place.”

Baker hopes restoring the nesting grounds will keep the birds from leaving Queen Bess Island.

“It’s on our flag, our state symbol, and most importantly, it’s an indicator of the health of our marshes,” he said.

If all goes as planned, work on the rookeries would begin in September. Most repairs would be done by next year.

Public comment for the proposal remains open through Jan. 22.

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