Oil Spill Impact on Loons, Pelicans Studied

A major, mutli-year study to determine the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Minnesota’s loon and pelican populations is underway, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced yesterday.

Minnesota wildlife biologists are concerned about the potential long term impacts of the oil spill on common loons because most loons hatched in Minnesota in 2008 and 2009 were in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill. The cooperative multi-agency project involves the Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and University of Connecticut.

Adult loons are tagged and studied. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/nongame/projects/loonsgulf_slideshow.html
Adult loons are tagged and studied. Photo: MN DNR

“This project will help us learn if the oil spill has had a negative impact on loon and pelican populations,” said Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the Minnesota DNR Nongame Program, who will serve as project manager, “and if we need to initiate future conservation actions to protect and restore their numbers.”

Sub-adult loons do not return to Minnesota until the spring of their third year, and they typically do not start breeding until they are five years old. Sub-adult white pelicans spend a year in the Gulf of Mexico prior to returning to Minnesota, so pelicans hatched in 2009 would have also been present during the oil spill.

The purpose of this project is to carry out two years of population monitoring on loons and pelicans as well as analysis of loon blood and tissue and pelican eggs, blood and shed bill knobs. These samples will be tested for the presence of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon), which is a toxic material associated with the crude oil, and Corexit, which is the oil dispersant used to treat the oil spill.

Population counts will be compared with long-term monitoring data, which goes back to 1994 for loons and 2004 for white pelicans. Minnesota has a statewide population estimate of 12,000 loons and 16,000 pairs of white pelicans. In addition to the population monitoring, the U.S. Geological Survey will implant satellite transmitters and geolocators on Minnesota loons to document their wintering grounds and foraging depths. Blood and tissue samples will be derived from those loons and from dead loons found on Minnesota lakes. These samples will be analyzed by the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of Connecticut for concentrations of PAH and Corexit, following necropsy analysis of the dead loons by the Wisconsin DNR.

The Legislative-Citizens’ Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) recently approved $250,000 to help pay for the project. This funding, from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, is derived from state lottery proceeds. An additional $47,000 will be used from proceeds of state conservation license plate sales.

Sixteen breeding colonies and twelve summering areas used by pelicans are being surveyed by University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology researchers. North Dakota State University scientists are carrying out on-the-ground studies of nesting pelicans, including collecting samples of eggs and blood. They also are collecting shed bill knobs on nesting islands, which may contain contaminants from the Gulf of Mexico. The eggs, blood, and bill knobs will also be processed at the University of Connecticut to check for the presence of PAH and Corexit.

Find additonal information on the study HERE.

A Brown Pelican sits in heavy oil on the Louisiana coast Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A Brown Pelican sits in heavy oil on the Louisiana coast Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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