North Dakota’s Chase Lake
National Wildlife Refuge is
the nation’s largest sanctuary
for American white pelicans. It hasn’t
always been so. Early last century,
unregulated hunting of the birds for
their plumes had pushed them to the
brink. In 1908, President Theodore
Roosevelt took action, designating
Chase Lake as a bird refuge. Only 50
pelicans were counted there that year.
Since then, pelicans have regularly
returned – and flourished.
Still, when today’s 30,000-strong flock
arrived at Chase Lake Refuge last
spring, the pelicans’ primary nesting
island had shrunk by about 40 percent
since the previous spring.
For reasons yet unknown and despite
normal precipitation, the lake’s water
level is rising. Since the 1990s, the island has slowly shrunk, leaving less and
less pelican breeding habitat. Not since
records have been kept, however, has so
much habitat disappeared so quickly.
Other anomalies have stumped
biologists. In 2004, nearly 30,000 pelicans
left the refuge, abandoning their chicks
and eggs. The following year, there was
a chick die-off. Again, adult pelicans
abruptly departed. The exodus defied
explanation. It was so massive that
biologists hypothesized several factors
must be at play.
None of this seems to have had
permanent impact on the pelicans; they
are raising chicks by the thousands. Still,
the anomalies are troubling.
Coincidentally, Chase Lake Refuge
hosts a National Ecological Observatory
Network (NEON) core site. Refuge
manager Neil Shook is looking to NEON
to help solve the mystery.
Funded by the National Science
Foundation, NEON is building 106 sites
nationally to measure causes and effects
of climate change, land use change, and
invasive species on a continental scale.
Once it is fully operational in 2017,
NEON will provide free data, educational
resources and scientific infrastructure for
NEON will also monitor atmospheric
conditions (amount of carbon released
and absorbed, temperature, humidity)
and soil conditions (pH, humic matter,
exchangeable acidity). Fiber optic
equipment will live-stream data to
NEON headquarters in Boulder, CO,
where they will be analyzed and made
“These data will be offered up in real
time to any entity that wants to use
them,” says NEON manager Andrea
NEON also will deploy seasonal field
crews to observe biological systems.
For instance, crews will conduct
annual breeding bird surveys and trap
mosquitos and ticks to study how climate
change might affect the insects’ role as
This isn’t the first time Chase Lake
Refuge has housed a major scientific
research center. Woodworth Station
Waterfowl Production Area, site of the
refuge’s headquarters, was the primary
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility to
study the life history, habitat needs and
potential management of waterfowl and
other migratory birds from 1963 to 1989.
It was shuttered when the Service lost its
biological research arm, but data remain
“So much of what we know about
wetlands and waterfowl – all of that
research – started here at Woodworth
Station,” Shook says. “NEON will allow
us to leverage that valuable 50-year
baseline and also enter into a new and
exciting realm: climate change research.”
Species are responding to climate change
in unpredictable ways, Shook says.
Some once-complementary species are
no longer interacting, which disrupts
complex interrelationships ecosystems
need to thrive.
“We know that some birds are
nesting earlier than ever before,” he
says. “Pelicans are arriving 16 days
earlier than they did when we started
documenting their arrivals 50 years ago.
Some plants are flowering up to three
weeks earlier than they did previously.
These relationships are out of sync,
and we need reliable data to measure
the changes so we can make wise
Meanwhile, Shook keeps an eye on the
Chase Lake island mystery and other
unexplained changes in prairie plant and
Ryan Moehring is a public affairs
specialist at the Mountain-Prairie
Region office in Lakewood, CO.