Back off the cliff: Once-threatened pelicans thrive on Washington Island

Annette Cary / Tri-City Herald

One of the largest bird species in North America is breeding on the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities, prompting the Washington state status of white pelicans to change from “endangered” to the less serious “vulnerable” designation.

But the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission still considers them at risk and monitoring will continue.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife staff and commissioners are concerned that the state has only one consistent breeding population, the Columbia River Badger Island.

It’s down from the Tri-Cities in the McNary National Wildlife Refuge near the Wallula Packing Corporation of America plant.

There are more than 2,000 pairs of white pelicans on the island, according to state Fish and Wildlife biologist Derek Stinson, plus some young pelicans that have yet to breed.

Since about 2014, the number appears to have been stable, with some spikes possibly due to birds arriving from Oregon during drought years but returning to their original islands when water levels rise there.

Their status was downgraded from endangered to threatened in Washington state in 2017 before being relisted at the commission’s meeting on Friday.

Washington state’s lone large breeding area — two less successful breeding populations near the Pacific Ocean — worries biologists.

They are also sensitive to people’s concerns.

In 2021, at least 40 nests were counted on Padilla Bay Island in northern Washington, but all nests there were abandoned the day after July 4th.

Miller Sands Spit at the mouth of the Columbia River has had between 100 and 350 nests in the past eight years, but the adults there are also often disturbed and may abandon their nests.

Badger Island is closed to the public to prevent people from disturbing the nesting pelicans. The island is surrounded by shallow water, which is isolated from most recreational boats during the breeding season.

If disturbed by humans or predators while nesting, they tend to abandon their eggs or leave them or their young in front of predators. They usually produce only one chick per year.

Other risks to their survival include the state’s competing demands for water, climate change and drought, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

Under the new “vulnerable” designation, not only will monitoring be carried out, but an updated review of their condition will be carried out every five years.

The Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-3 last week to list the species as vulnerable rather than endangered.

Commissioner Melanie Rowland was concerned that the numbers had leveled off in recent years rather than continued to rise, and that drought remained a threat, particularly in relation to climate change.

Commissioner Lorna Smith said she was concerned about a wider view of the struggles to establish white pelican populations in the West.

Concerns have also been raised about its dependence on a single successful breeding colony.

WA decades without white pelicans

White pelicans are now a familiar sight in the Tri-Cities, including those foraging under dams like the Wanawish on the Yakima River in the Horn Rapids area.

But the birds were exterminated in Washington state from 1940 to 1993.

Stinson says their numbers declined in the 19th and 20th centuries in the west due to demand for their decorative feathers, water projects, persecution and the insecticide DDT, which interfered with their reproductive cycle.

White pelicans began nesting on Badger Island in 1997.

Historically, the birds nested at Moses Lake, but there have been no published records of them nesting there since 1926.

White pelicans do not dive like some other pelican species, but they eat fish close to the surface of the water.

This includes non-game fish such as western carp, minnows, walleyes, minnows and pikeminnows.

But they are also opportunistic and will dine on the smell of endangered salmon. On Badger Island, termites, cormorants and gulls are of greater concern to salmon survival than pelicans.

Stinson says that from Hanford on the Columbia River to Bonneville Dam, they are eating bright fall chinook upstream in significant numbers. They may also ingest odors emitted from Yakima River hatcheries.

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