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Sign our petition in support of a white pelican impact assessment and potential population control for pools of the Upper Mississippi River

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To encourage specific research on the diet of white pelicans on the Upper Mississippi River. If results show significant consumption of game fish relative to population estimates for these species in the River, see the establishment of a maximum white pelican population number by pool on the Upper Mississippi River above which population controls would be implemented to prevent harmful over-predation of valuable game fish species.

How many pelicans are too many? At what point is the ecosystem out of balance?

It would be logical for the research required to establish these maximum numbers to be conducted first on Pool 13 since it harbors a large breeding population from Spring through Fall. While white pelican numbers are increasing across the entirety of the Upper Mississippi, Pool 13 is currently the only known breeding colony.

White pelicans are native to the Upper Mississippi River. However, their population plummeted during the mid-1900s due to harmful pesticides such as DDT that accumulated in the fish that the pelicans ate. 

Following the ban on DDT and other chemicals, white pelican populations recovered. They were again seen on the Upper Mississippi River in the early 1990s, and established a breeding colony in lower Pool 13 just north of Clinton, Iowa. White pelicans spend the winter in the extreme Southern United States and Mexico, but appear on the Upper Mississippi as early as March and stay as late as November — a period of about 8 months.
Hundreds of white pelicans crowd a Pool 13 island.
The number of white pelicans on Pool 13 has increased dramatically over the last several decades and more and more are observed on other pools, as well. The most recent population estimate by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials for Pool 13 during months when the birds are present is approximately 4,000 — ten times more than around the time the breeding colony was established.

White pelicans are primarily fish eaters. Research has shown that adult pelicans consume 2.5 to 4 pounds of fish per day (Hall 1925; Anderson 1987). White pelicans do not dive for fish, feeding only as deep as their necks can reach. Although they are often said to feed mainly on small schooling fish of little value to humans, such as gizzard shad and rough fish, they are non-selective and will eat fish that are available to them at any given time.

A single white pelican regurgitated this pile of bluegills, yellow perch, crappies, and largemouth bass on a Fulton, Illinois golf course in 2021.

Because white pelicans are restricted to fishing in relatively shallow water and will eat all kinds of fish, the potential impact to game fish populations on the Upper Mississippi River is theoretically high. This is because fish such as largemouth bass, northern pike, crappies, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and yellow perch spend much of their time in shallow backwater areas where white pelicans often forage. Additionally, white bass are known to spend time schooling high in the water column where they are vulnerable to pelicans.

With an estimated 4,000 white pelicans on Pool 13, fish consumption per day using the average cited above would be 10,000 to 16,000 pounds of fish per day. The annual total for the months that pelicans are present would be in the millions of pounds.

Although long-term resource monitoring has not shown any obvious coincidental patterns involving reductions in game fish populations and increases in white pelican abundance, many river users are increasingly concerned that an unchecked white pelican population could negatively impact fish populations. Many of the species of concern (centrarchid fish such as largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie) are already facing survivability challenges from dwindling overwintering areas caused by continued sedimentation of backwaters. (Pitlo 1992; Raibley et al. 1997; Lubinski 1999)

Double-crested cormorants inhabit the same areas as white pelicans. The excrement of these fish eaters contains chemicals that alter soil chemistry and kills vegetation and trees growing in roosting areas. The resulting open areas attract white pelicans for breeding and loafing. High numbers of pelicans add to the soil damage and suppression of wood vegetation growth. Bare islands are more susceptible to erosion from strong currents during high water periods. This can ultimately lead to island loss. Destruction of trees and other vegetation also alters bird communities that formerly utilized the compromised islands.

Recreational fishing brings with it a large amount of economic benefit for communities along the river. Fishermen spend money on bait, tackle, fuel, food, drinks, and lodging among other things on their way to and from the river. Reductions in game fish populations would ultimately lead to a reduction in revenue related to fishing.

A 1995 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that nearly 29% of all recreational activity on the Upper Mississippi River was related to fishing. When that percentage is applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate of $4 billion in revenue generated by all recreational activities in the Upper Mississippi River corridor, the result is an estimated $1.16 billion in revenue from recreational fishing.

You can read more about a study currently taking place at lower Green Bay in Wisconsin here: Green Bay Cormorants and Pelicans.

At over 1 million acres, Green Bay on Lake Michigan is significantly larger than the Upper Mississippi River. For reference, Pool 13 has 28,117 acres of aquatic habitat. Many species of fish also utilize greater depths on Green Bay during certain times of the year where they are out of reach for white pelicans vs. the tendency for fish such as largemouth bass and bluegills to stay in less than 3 feet of water on the Upper Mississippi.

Another study was completed in Montana. Like the artificially created breeding and loafing habitat (Pelican Island) on Pool 13,  the Montana study area featured constructed dust abatement ponds including islands that has enabled rapid expansion of the white pelican population.

White pelicans should be subject to the same necessary population controls as other wildlife. Just a few examples of wildlife with population control measures through hunting, trapping, and other methods include: 

White-tailed deer

River otters


Double-crested cormorants

A group of concerned taxpayers and license holders who enjoy the Upper Mississippi River’s amazing fish and wildlife resources.

After the petition is live long enough to collect a significant amount of signatures, it will be closed and presented to appropriate state legislators, state departments of natural resources personnel, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with the request for a formal study.

Anderson, J.G.T. 1987. Foraging behavior of American white pelicans Pelecanus erythrorhynchos in western Nevada. Ph.D. Diss. Univ. Rhode Island. Kingston, R.I.

Hall, E. R. 1925. Pelicans versus fishes in Pyramid Lake. Condor 27:147-160.

Lubinski KS (1999) Floodplain river ecology and the concept of river ecological health. Chapter 2 in U.S. Geological Survey (ed.) Ecological status and trends of the upper Mississippi River System – 1998. United StatesGeological Survey, La Crosse, Wisconsin. (accessed12 Jul 2014)

Pitlo Jr J (1992) Mississippi River investigations. Project F-109-R-4, FinalReport. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines

Raibley PT, Irons KS, O’hara TM, Blodgett KD, Sparks RE (1997) Winter habitats used by largemouth bass in the Illinois River, a large river-floodplain ecosystem. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 2:401– 412

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