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Louisiana marks the 50th anniversary of the reintroduction of the brown pelican

Brown pelicans nest on Queen Bess Island (LDWF) Brown pelicans nest on Queen Bess Island (LDWF)
(WVUE) -

Johnny Bradberry remembers growing up on Grand Isle in the 1960s and rarely encountering a pelican.

"The brown pelican was almost extinct," said Bradberry, Chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.  "You couldn't see it."

Biologists blamed the widespread use of the pesticide DDT for the pelican's demise.

The chemical contaminated fish, the pelicans food source, and was magnified through the food chain.

"It led to reproductive failure in brown pelicans," said Todd Baker, biologist director for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Researchers found pesticide contamination led to the thinning of egg shells.  In both pelicans and bald eagles, it turned egg shells to omelets as the shells cracked under the weight of the adult birds trying to nest.

By 1963, the state bird of the pelican state was gone.

Five years later, however, Wildlife and Fisheries reintroduced the birds on Queen Bess Island northeast of Grand Isle.

700 young birds were brought from the Atlantic coast of Florida in a pilot program to repopulate the species.

"It was done without a lot of data," said David Richard, who worked on the program in the years to come. 

Richard joined Wildlife and Fisheries and CPRA officials last week in marking the 50th anniversary of the bird's re-establishment in Louisiana.

"It was just done with bravery and a lot of consternation," Richard said.

DDT has long since been banned, and in 2009, the federal government removed the brown pelican from the endangered species list.

However, there have been other challenges along the way, including the April 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the resulting spill.

"Queen Bess was in the bulls eye of that spill," Baker said.

At the height of nesting season, Baker said the oil impacted more than 1,000 birds on Queen Bess alone.
 
Four other smaller islands impacted by the spill in Barataria Bay have since eroded and sunk below the surface.

"As we lose that habitat, we lose nesting grounds for these birds," Baker said.  "So, they will start to disappear again and we're already starting to see some evidence of that now."

"The island is almost a shell of what it once was," said Michael Seymour, Non-game Avian Ornithologist with Wildlife and Fisheries. 

Once 36 acres encircled in rock, most of Queen Bess has sunk below the surface of Barataria Bay.

Now, four thousand nesting adults and their offspring squeeze onto the remaining five acres.

The state plans a $17 million restoration project to pump sediment onto the island and raise its elevation.

"The idea is to put an island on top of this island," Seymour said.  "We're using this as the bed basically."

While the work is slated for next year, state planners must work around the pelican's nesting schedule.

"We hope to start that work in September when you have the least number of birds," Bradberry said. 

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