Periodic Status Review for the American White Pelican (2022)


Published: July 2022

Pages: 55

Author(s): Derek W. Stinson

Executive Summary

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large, colonial nesting bird that eats mostly nongame fish, such as carp, suckers, and sticklebacks, as well as amphibians and crayfish, but sometimes feeds on salmonids. The breeding population and range of the American White Pelican (or ‘white pelican’) were reduced throughout the 19th and early 20th century due to habitat loss, persecution, and pesticide contaminants, especially DDT. The species was listed as state endangered in Washington in 1981, but populations have since recovered from pre-1970 declines. Western colonies of white pelicans contained an estimated 50,400 breeding adults in 2018 and the species was down-listed to state threatened in Washington in 2017. Despite overall improved status, the species remains of some conservation concern, primarily because of the concentration of birds on relatively few breeding colonies, and their vulnerability to disturbance and water level fluctuations. At the federal level, white pelicans are not listed under the Endangered Species Act but are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In 1994, after an absence of breeding for ~50 years in Washington, a breeding colony established on an island in the Columbia River north of the mouth of the Walla Walla River. Since that time, the number of white pelicans nesting in that section of the Columbia River has grown steadily, with an estimated 5,594 breeding adults present in 2018, and 3,655 estimated from oblique aerial photos in 2019. In 2010, another colony formed on Miller Sands Spit in Oregon waters of the Columbia River estuary that has hosted up to several hundred nesting birds, but has been abandoned due to disturbance in recent years, with some shifting to re-nest on Rice Island. Inland waters of eastern Washington also seasonally host significant numbers of non-breeding (1–2 year-old) pelicans, especially along the Columbia River from The Dalles to Chief Joseph Pool. During summer, up to 2,000 birds are observed in the Potholes region, though many are likely adults from Badger Island; smaller numbers remain in winter, but most winter in southern California.

Although the diet of white pelicans often consists mostly of carp and suckers, they can be a significant source of mortality on gamefish and do consume some fish of conservation concern. White pelicans are large conspicuous birds, and many observers assume they are impacting salmonid runs, but the pelicans nesting at Badger Island and Miller Sand Spit colonies do not appear to be an important source of mortality for most ESA-listed juvenile salmonids. However, a recent analysis of Upriver Bright Fall Chinook indicated that pelicans from the Badger Island colony can have a significant impact on that run, and other observations suggest that impacts on other runs are significant at certain times and places in tributaries (e.g., hatchery outflows during low water).

The western population of white pelicans has recovered substantially, and given the size of the Badger Island colony and number of non-breeding white pelicans in Washington during the past several years, a change in listing could be considered. The species remains somewhat vulnerable, however, as only the single colony regularly forms in Washington, and white pelican colonies are highly sensitive to disturbances; adults will desert and/or leave eggs and young exposed to predation following disturbances. We recommend the species be down-listed to Sensitive. A Sensitive species is, “vulnerable or declining and is likely to become endangered or threatened in a significant portion of its range within the state without cooperative management or removal of threats” (WAC 220-610-110).

Suggested citation

Stinson, D. W. 2022. Periodic status review for the American White Pelican in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 22+iii pp.

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Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.

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