It's a skunk-eat-pelican-eat-trout world out there

 

Each spring, on the shores of Nevada's Pyramid Lake, fishermen in waders stand 50 feet out in the water, on stepladders, casting long, narrow loops for huge Lahontan trout. They look a little like Kodiak bears lined up on an Alaskan river. But, these men aren't the only fishers around. American white pelicans glide long, slow stretches over the lake, skimming above their coal-and-ivory reflections.

Pelicans are charismatic, and stirring to watch. So a recent dispatch from Idaho caught my attention: the state's Department of Fish and Game just released three badgers and two skunks on Gull Island in the Blackfoot Reservoir, which, like Pyramid Lake, hosts one of the 13 to 15 major breeding colonies of white pelicans in the West. These mustelids are charged with just one thing: devouring pelican eggs. The department wants to reduce the colony's populations from 2,400 birds to 700, because they apparently threaten the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout that live in the reservoir and spawn in the Blackfoot River. They also scarf up stocked rainbow trout, to the aggravation of anglers.

Admittedly, the thought of fewer white pelicans in this world pains me. With their ungainly bills tucked to their necks, pelicans seem so aloof, so guileless. But they devour plenty of fish: In 2007, nine of 27 Yellowstone cutthroat tagged in a radio telemetry study on the Blackfoot reservoir-river system turned up in pelican nests. Meanwhile, trout counts in the river dropped from 4,700 in 2001 to less than 100 in 2007. The count rebounded to 500 fish in 2008, a five-fold increase that may be correlated with a drop in pelicans that year. But that's nowhere close to the 10,000 to 15,000 fish the department hopes to see spawning regularly in the river.

Others argue that the trout are in trouble not because of pelicans, but because of us — agricultural diversions, subsequent runoff, increased water temperatures, algal blooms, and selenium from upstream mines. Lower water levels might make it easier for pelicans to snatch trout as they head from the reservoir to the river. But some scientists, such as David Delehanty, an Idaho State University biology professor, say the evidence that pelicans are responsible for the crash in the trout population is far from clear.

Fortunately, white pelicans aren't endangered: though their numbers took a dive in the middle of this century, the U.S. population has climbed to over 45,000 birds since then. Still, they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and, last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department criticized the Idaho agency's management plan (see the PDF link on the left side of their Web site) to "take" pelicans, and spray eggs with vegetable oil (which would suffocate the embryos), calling the proposal an "eradication program." So the Idaho department is being a tad sneaky and taking advantage of a loophole: releasing skunks and badgers almost certainly will impact the pelican's nesting success, but it won't violate the Migratory Bird Treaty. Who knows how much it will help the Yellowstone cutthroat, however, or what will become of those skunks and badgers when the pelicans fly off this fall.

It may be that the pelicans should be managed. (Ironically, badgers existed on Gull Island as late as 1992, when the department removed the population; 200 pelicans immediately colonized the place.) They're agile predators. At Pyramid Lake one evening, I watched a flock of ten or 12 float in a zigzag toward the shore, when, all at once, they plunged their heads into the water, making a terrific, synchronized splash. When they shook their faces free of the lake, one had a two-foot-plus trout roiling in its stretched, diaphanous pouch; they had been herding or stalking the fish as a group. Instantly, the lucky pelican was attacked by some of the others, who stabbed viciously at its pouch with their bills. But it broke away and paddled toward the middle of the lake, tossing its heavy load, trying to figure out a way to swallow its monstrous catch.

A two-foot fish — I almost choked.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.