Back From the Brink: Once Threatened Pelicans Are Thriving on a Washington Island


One of the largest species of birds in North American is breeding on the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities, leading to a change in the Washington state status of white pelicans from "threatened" to the less serious "sensitive" designation.

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

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

It is downriver from the Tri-Cities on the McNary National Wildlife Refuge near the Wallula Packaging Corporation of America Plant.

The island has more than 2,000 pairs of white pelicans, according to biologist Derek Stinson, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist, plus some younger pelicans not yet breeding.

The number appears to be stable since about 2014, with some spikes that may be because birds have arrived from Oregon during drought years but then returned to their original island when water levels increased there.

Their status was downlisted from endangered to threatened in Washington state in 2017, before being downlisted again at a commission meeting Friday.

Washington state's single large breeding area — with two far less successful breeding populations closer to the Pacific Ocean — remains a concern to biologists.

They also are sensitive to disturbance by people.

At least 40 nests were counted on a Padilla Bay island in northern Washington in 2021, but all nests there were abandoned the day after July 4.

Miller Sands Spit in the Columbia River estuary has had 100 to 350 nests in the last eight years, but adults there also are often disturbed and may abandon their nests.

Badger Island is closed to the public to avoid humans disturbing the nesting pelicans. The island is surrounded by shallow water, providing isolation from most recreational boating during breeding season.

If disturbed by humans or predators while nesting, they are prone to desert their eggs or leave them or their young exposed to predators. They typically raise just one chick per year.

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

Under the new designation of "sensitive," not only will they be monitored, but an updated study on how they are faring will be done every five years.

The Washington state Fish and Wildlife Commission split 5-3 on last week's vote to list the species as sensitive, rather than threatened.

Commissioner Melanie Rowland was concerned that numbers have leveled out in recent years, rather than continuing to increase, and that drought remains a threat, particularly with climate change.

Commissioner Lorna Smith said she was concerned by a broader look at struggles to build white pelican populations across the West.

Concerns about depending on a single consistently successful breeding colony also were raised.

Decades without WA white pelicans

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

But the birds were wiped out in Washington state from the 1940s to 1993.

Their numbers decreased across the West in the 19th and 20th centuries due to demand for their decorative feathers, water projects, persecution and the insecticide DDT, which interfered with their reproductive cycle, according Stinson.

The white pelicans began nesting on Badger Island in 1997.

Historically, the birds nested at Moses Lake, but there are no published reports of nesting there since 1926.

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

That includes nongame fish, such as carp, suckers, chub, minnows and pikeminnow in the West.

But they also are opportunists and will dine on smolt of endangered salmon. At Badger Island, terms, cormorants and gulls are bigger concerns for salmon survival than pelicans.

But from the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River down to Bonneville Dam they eat significant numbers of upriver bright fall chinook, Stinson said. They also may eat smolt released from Yakima River hatcheries.