Pelican vs. trout: Idaho F&G's still out

There was an increase in the number of the huge white pelicans in Idaho in 2007, although the number of nests is down this year.

These are not common, nor widespread birds, but some anglers (mostly reservoir anglers) want them destroyed, even though they eat far more trash fish than trout.

Once again, we face the problem that the state widlife department relies on money from birds, mammals and fish that people take.

Pelican vs. trout: F&G’s still out. The agency is considering a plan that could call for destroying eggs from some pelicans, which anglers say are devouring trout. By John Miller. AP.

White Pelicans on Chesterfield Reservoir in eastern Idaho.
Photo copyright Ralph Maughan. July 2008






  1. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    As an avid angler, I think the attitude that pelicans are responsible for low trout numbers is absurd. They may be key in spreading diseases such as whirling disease, but that is not their fault and they shouldn’t bear the brunt for human stupidity. The same idiots that want to kill the pelicans will toss white fish up on the bank with the assumption they are eating food that otherwise would support more and fatter trout. A bit of Biology 101 should be required for anybody getting a hunting or fishing license.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I was impressed that a lot of the trout aren’t even wild, but planters from the hatchery.

  3. TPageCO Avatar

    My sentiments exactly, Ralph. Put-and-take rainbows are an example of a “trash” fish, if such a thing exists. These things are manipulated to spawn in winter, in order to reach proper size in time for the summer stocking.

    There are large colonies of pelicans on the Madison River, too. You don’t hear much complaining there. Maybe it’s because the trout are wild and predator aware.

  4. Ryan Avatar

    “Still, David Teuscher, the regional Fish and Game fisheries biologist in Pocatello, said pelicans along the Blackfoot River where it flows into the reservoir are skilled anglers.

    More than 4,700 spawning cutthroats were counted in 2001; the number dropped to just 14 in 2005, before rebounding to 540 this spring. Anglers must release cutthroat, because their numbers are so low.

    “The pelicans have really lined up on the banks and rocks of the Blackfoot River,” Teuscher said, adding 70 percent of surviving fish showed scarring from birds. Hazing efforts, including the use of rumbling ATVs, have proven ineffective.”

    I disagree to a certain extent, we deal with the issue here on the columbia of unnatural populations of caspian terns and cormorants that take a huge chunk of the endangered salmon and steelhead smolt population. It sounds as though it is affecting certain native populations of cuttthroat pretty severely. Removing a few doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Unsaid in the article is that the danger to the trout, the other fish and pelicans, is the huge phosphate strip/open pit mines upstream from the Blackfoot River Reservoir which are leaking highly toxic selenium from their spoils piles.

    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is making a major effort to get a cleanup of these mines (most of which are superfund sites) and to prevent the creation of a new one in Smoky Canyon.

    See Phosphate Mining. Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

    Caribou Clean Water Partnership

  6. Buffaloed Avatar

    Actually, many of the rainbows stocked into Blackfoot Reservoir are sterile triploid fish so as not to hybridize with the Yellowstone cutthroat there. That still doesn’t address the issues with competition and predation on the native cutthroat though. On the other hand it also may pad harvest numbers so that there is less temptation for anglers to illegally keep cutthroat.

    I don’t think that killing pelicans will address the real concerns of habitat degradation to the tributary streams but since there are so many human caused changes which allow this to happen it is hard to know exactly what is pelican/human caused or what is simply human caused.

    I say leave the pelicans alone and give the cutthroat more cover in the areas where they are vulnerable to predation.

  7. TPageCO Avatar

    It’s worth noting that cutthroat populations in the rivers of the west were very high in the past, if 18th and 19th century records are taken at face value. Most people here know that the salmon runs on the Columbia were enormous well into the early 20th century too. I suspect that when the salmon and cutthroat runs were that large, pelican predation had negligible impact on the viability of the species. Now that our western cutts and the Columbia salmon are so depleted, the pelicans take a proportionally larger chunk of the fish. Depleted flows due to dewatering or drought also make the fish more vulnerable.

  8. vicki Avatar

    I fish a ton in North Park, CO. There is a concern for the trout in Lake John, Delaney Buttes, and several other fisheries in the area. The pelicans bellies litteraly bulge from the trout they consume. The twist is, they fire noise shells and canons when they release stocker trout, yet do little to maintain populations of trout already present.
    They need to use diversionary tactics, but the local hired to deter the pelicans from eating obsurd amounts of the stockers say that the noise shells do little to sway the pelicans. I was even told that more than half of all fish stocked were eaten by water foul within the first few hours of release.
    It is worth noting that the North Park area also plays home to a large refuge of predominantly birds, some endangered. The pelicans were not an original migratory foul in all of the area to my understanding. So that leads us to beg an answer to the question, “Why do the pelicans now seek out these fragile habitats?” That answer, along with the depleted water and habitat for NATIVE trout and other fish, are in dire need of attention.
    You would have to wonder, if the trout were not so readily stocked and easy prey, would the birds move on? If they moved on, where would they go, and to what detriment or aid of that place?
    There is no one easy answer here. But the questions still need answered, no matter how hard the solutions may be to achieve.

  9. Alan Gregory Avatar

    F G funding: It’s the same situation here in Pa., where the “Game” Commission gets all of its funding from license sale revenue. Only in Missouri (to my knowledge) do all citizens contribute (through one-eighth of one percent of the state’s sales tax). Idaho should be proud to have American white pelicans breeding within its borders. When I was an intern on the weekly paper in American Falls, I would often head out to the reservoir to watch these big birds.

  10. kt Avatar

    In some of the western states BPA and other salmon and steelhead “mitigation” funding provides a significant chunk of funding that keeps the Game Departments operating. This is being used not just for special projects, but pretty much to keep Wildlife Areas operating.

    That is certainly the case in Washington where cowboy-loving Gov. Chris Gregoire, apparently aided by some conservationists, has cut a sweetheart deal with ranchers to let them trash lands acquired as wildlife habitat – including lands acquired and partially operated with BPA rate payer and federal tax dollars in various forms – ranging from USFWS Section 6 funding to other avenues.

  11. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I agree with Alan. We must start funding fish and wildlife departments from other sources. Whether it is wolves, pelicans or other predators, they will be in danger as long as hunting and fishing fees are the main source of money for our state F&G agencies with their game farm mentality.

  12. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Hey Larry, how are you going to replace that over a billion dollars a year that hunting and fishing provide for habitat restoration?

    Just Curious?

  13. vicki Avatar

    Keep the funds from hunting and fishing, end oil company kick backs, and use some of those funds too.

    It isn’t that the birds are not beautiful to see, the point is that they are now in areas that are non-traditional for them. Also, that we control fish, game and habitat, but not pelicans.
    I say we have seasons for all kinds of things that become too numerous and begin to have a detramental effect on habitat and other species…(ex: elk, black bears, deer, mountain lions) those seasons and the numbers of permits issued are based on the species and scientific data (in theory)….so we may need one for pelicans too. Just food for thought.

  14. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Eastern Idaho/Northern Idaho is prime habitat for white pelicans and has been so all my life. I don’t know their long term history.

    Of course large bird can become too numerous, but the pelican population is not rising much (according to the article).

    They are hardly depleting the area of wild cutthroat. No one commented on my earlier comment, but the threat is selenium from the nearby phosphate mines.

  15. TPageCO Avatar

    Ralph –

    It would be interesting to see the effect of bird predation on cutthroats over the last ten years, when peak flows have arrived earlier and with less volume. This leaves a lot less water in the river during traditional cutt spawning runs in July. The biologist cites 70% of surviving fish with bird scars. That’s a huge percentage.

    Low flows, selenium, whirling disease, dams, competition… whatever the cause, once the fish numbers get really low, avian predators are going to have an impact.

  16. kt Avatar

    Hopefully there is a credible biologist/ornithologist who has been tracking pelican problems (and by this I mean habitat probelms FOR pelicans – not trout) that reads this Blog that can provide som einsight.

    The last I heard, and this was a while ago:

    1) Whining (carping) good old boy anglers in a couple of places in Idaho had long been compalonging about pelicans eating “their” fish. Idaho Fish andf Game USED TO (pre Butch Otter) laugh at, or ignore them for the greedy whiners that they are

    2) Many of the pelicans one sees in southern Idaho are actually NON-breeding birds, just waiting/hoping for some of the very limited breeding habitat to open up. The rise of the Great Salt Lake and flooding of portions of Bear River Refuge in the 1980s flood wiped put a lot of suitable nesting habitat.

    We need to know:

    1) What are the current status and trends of white pelican populations and habitats.

    2) Which is really in more trouble – a very long-lived piscvorous bird at the top of the polluted food chain that has only a very limited nesting area – or some hatchery and some native trout?

  17. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I suspect the scars on cutthroats are from the low water years, preceding this one.

    Both Chesterfield Reservoir and the much larger Blackfoot River Reservoir and far higher than usual, and so is the outflow into the Blackfoot River. I was actually amazed at the volume when I went there about a week ago.

  18. vicki Avatar

    In all honesty, I am no expert on bird migration. But I have heard “old-timers” talking about the increase of pelicans in the areas they fish (Keeping in mind I fish in Colorado-mostly). I ask lots of questions where ever I go.
    I am not at all sure of the exactness in Idaho, but I have no doubt that humans have impacted what would have been a very different balance of pelicans and trout.
    Colorado is also impacted by whirling desease, and now we have huge concerns for non-native muscles. No doubt, humans have tweeked that as well.
    My parents reminded me of an incident when we traveled through Montana in @ 1978. There was a town (I don’t recall what town) that we stopped in and we couldn’t use the water for ANYTHING, and the town was under quarantine…due to polluted ground water courteousy of a mine. The town, from my recollection became a ghost town for many years. It is a classic tale of how no action to prevent a problem was taken, and the consequences were dire. Since the government had a hand in the mining of the town…it never made a huge rumble.
    I absolutely agree that there are far bigger issues than birds. Who wrotes about that? I am becoming a strong believer that unless an issue concerns an animal doing damage(according to one human group or another anyhow), it is very low on the media priority or hype list.

  19. TPageCO Avatar


    I don’t think there are very many positive trends when it comes to the long-term future of native cutthroat populations in the Rockies. Some, yes, but the overall outlook is not good.

  20. Mark Avatar

    In the late 1800s, pelican populations in Yellowstone were decimated because they were blamed for declines in cutthroat populations in Lake Yellowstone and the river. The fact that there were no regulations on how many fish, a fisherman could keep was never considered the problem (but it was).
    As for cutthroat migration out of Blackfoot Reservoir, while the numbers are down, this is mainly because of low water years. There is some evidence that the cutts are staying in the river and not returning to the reservoir. Finally, as for Ralph’s nice picture of Chesterfield, that reservoir would benefit from trophy regulations and natural management instead of its current put and take philosophy (good water years like this would also help) and not from killing off pelicans.

  21. Ryan Avatar

    What is missed in this discussion is that the pelicans wouldn’t have the habitat if it weren’t for the resoviors being built which mimics the same situation on the columbia with the terns building nests on rice island (i think thats the name) which is just tailings from an army corps of engineers dredging project. I have seen several of the studies done in the columbia on it and the death toll is huge for out migrating smolts, not completely the brid fault as man has changed the river so much, but still a serious issue.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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