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50 years after near extinction Louisiana's brown pelican population exceeds 100K

Published: Jul. 24, 2018 at 2:11 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 31, 2018 at 4:27 PM CDT
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GRAND ISLE, LA (WAFB) - Fifty years ago, there wasn't a single brown pelican in the entire state of Louisiana. Queen Bess Island has a population of over 8,000. And that's just the adult pelicans.

Today, it's hard to imagine a time when there were none -- not just here, but in the entire pelican state.

"In 1961, was the last nesting pair. '63, they were effectively gone from the entire state," said Michael Seymour, who keeps an eye on the pelican population for the state. "Right now, there are probably 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs on this island," he added

The pelican's demise in the 1960s can be traced to the dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane pesticide, commonly known as DDT.

Touted as a miracle chemical back in the 1950s and 60s, DDT worked so well at killing insects that it nearly eliminated the threat of malaria from mosquitoes. Its effect on large birds, including the bald eagle and the pelican, was devastating.

"It caused their eggshells to not be as thick as they should," Seymour explained.

Weak shells meant fewer births until there were none left.

However, in 1968, scientists from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries hatched an idea. If they could get young pelicans to call Louisiana home, maybe the birds would come back to breed.

"I don't think people knew," David Richard, who was one of those scientists. "There were so many unknowns with the project."

Richard and his research partner transported fledgling pelicans from Florida to Queen Bess Island with no parent to care for them. "Through persistence and gumption, it worked," Richard said.

In 2009, the brown pelican came off the endangered species list. Today, close to 100,000 brown pelicans call the Louisiana coast home. But the birds' future is still uncertain.

"The middle of the island, now, is a big pool of water at this point. It has subsided so much in the middle of the island that you can't use that for nesting, obviously," Seymour said.

Using funding from the Natural Resources Damages and Assessment, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority hope to rebuild Queen Bess to its original 36-acre footprint. At a proposed total of $17.5 million, the project would encourage the pelican repopulation on the Louisiana coast for years to come.

If approved for NRDA funds, construction could be complete by late 2020.

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