News and Activities

Pelican Exodus at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge Probed

Date Posted: June 15, 2004

Biologists are trying to determine what caused the disappearance of thousands of white pelicans from nesting sites at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in late May, and where the pelicans may have gone.

Population counts conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on two of the three nesting sites at the refuge revealed a drop from about 27,000 pelicans on May 20 to 80 birds on May 28. A flight over the surrounding area on June 2 did not find any large numbers of pelicans. A third nesting site on the refuge is reportedly normal, with about 2,500 pelicans present.

The 4,385-acre refuge, located north of Medina, North Dakota, is home to the largest nesting colony of white pelicans in North America. The refuge also contains some of the most productive duck breeding habitat in the lower 48 states and provides important habitat for other migratory bird species such as Canada geese, shorebirds and dozens of songbird species including some rare grassland sparrows. In 2003, the American Bird Conservancy declared the refuge a Globally Important Bird Area.

Biologists found a small number of sick and dead pelicans at the refuge. Preliminary tests on these birds did not indicate the presence of any toxins or diseases, including West Nile Virus. Additional testing is taking place at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

The probe has not ruled out harassment by either animals or humans. Biologists found a coyote den relatively close to one of the nesting sites, and there is ongoing scientific research on the refuge.

The Service has contacted refuges and other areas around the Nation that have nesting pelican colonies, but none of these sites report similar abandonment, unusual hikes in pelican populations, or abnormal mortality rates.

This situation has puzzled many wildlife professionals, says Refuge manager Mick Erickson. The Service is working closely with state and other federal agencies to determine exactly what occurred, but at this point we don't have conclusive answers.

The Service urges residents of the surrounding area to report sightings of any large number of pelicans (more than 100 birds), but warns people not to touch any sick or dead ones. If you spot a large number of pelicans, please contact the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge at 701-752-4218, or contact any federal or state wildlife management agency.

Mick Erickson, (701) 752-4218
Rod Krey, (303) 236-4307


Last updated: June 12, 2015