The Problem With the Pelicans

Climate change is the blame but how can we help rescue the winged ones?

Pelicans are dying in record numbers. Wildlife experts statewide say the the formerly endangered California brown pelicans are in a crisis.

Since mid-January, hundreds of sick, injured and dead brown pelicans have been found along the state's coastline, the California Department of Fish and Game said. But those on the front lines say it's part of an ongoing phenomenon that could put the pelican back on the endangered list.

"In all the 30 years we have been rescuing animals," Rebecca Dmytryk with WildRescue says, "we have never seen what we're seeing now. Ever."

A team of wildlife biologists on Monday blamed the mysterious deaths on lack of food sources.

"We think it's probably related to El Niño and the big storms," said Esther Burkett, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. "When the ocean gets all mixed up, the fish are moving around and the birds cannot find them. The majority of birds we found were just weakened by the lack of food."

But rescuers on the front lines say it seems each year, more and more birds are dying in what Dmytryk calls "recurring anomalies that seem to be intensifying in frequency and magnitude."

In 2007, after hundreds of marine birds washed up along Monterey in a mysterious event, the Department of Fish and Game determined they had been coated in a substance formed by an underwater algae that normally blooms in warm, nutrient-rich waters. But, it bloomed off-season -- in the winter, while the ocean was churning Dmytryk said. When the waves broke up the blooms, it turned them into a soap-like substance that the coated the pelicans' feathers. They lost their waterproofing, couldn't find food and died.

Last October, Dmytryk and her colleagues went to Oregon to help the Coast Guard retrieve nearly 500 birds that were coated in a similar substance. Despite their hard work, 10,000 marine birds died.

But determining the problem is just the tip of the iceberg, wildlife rescuers say. Rescuing and rehabilitating the winged creatures is another whopper of a problem. Most of the hands to help come from volunteers but there simply aren't enough to save the species.

As Mother Nature's off-cycle becomes more predictable, the pelican die-off continues. What was once an occasional phenomenon has become a seasonal event that Dmytryk says needs state and federal help and fast. Dmytryk says the same issues that plague the pelicans may be affecting all marine life and speculates the absence of famed sea lions on San Francisco's Pier 39 might also be linked.

But, the state or federal government will step in and won't help offset the costs associated saving the pelicans because there is nothing indicating the event was caused by man. There's no "smoking gun," or a specific man-made event that caused the deaths. If the birds were dying because of an oil spill, for example, there would be nearly unlimited source of funds to save the dying birds, Dmytryk says.

We're just not prepared to handle it," Dmytryk says. "And the resources agencies have yet to step up and fund the rescue and treatment of the animals impacted."

Dmytryk, through her organization WildRescue, is working on a contingency plan for California and the West Coast which includes development of a war chest to fund their rescue efforts when the next natural disaster strikes. The funds will be used to deploy rescue teams and see the animals through the rehabilitation process until they can be released.

Four rescue organizations throughout the state have appealed for state and federal help. Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Center, says the they might have to temporarily close the facility while they deal with the pelicans because of lack of funds. The organization asks people to help save the pelicans by "adopting" one. With the donations, they'll be able to help feed and rehab the birds.

In the meantime, Dmytryk is afraid the pelicans won't evolve to the rapidly changing environment and fears they will go the way of the dinosaurs.

"They say it is a natural event and therefore let nature take its course." Dmytryk said. "This is not nature. We are witnessing major changes, man-related or not, we need to step up and work together -- the agencies and the rescuers must come up with a national emergency response plan for major natural disasters impacting hundreds or thousands of wild animals."

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