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Tests suggest Minn. pelicans exposed to oil contaminants in Gulf

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American white pelican
An American white pelican sits on its nest and chicks on Big Island on Minnesota's Marsh Lake on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. That island alone is home to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 pelican nests. Researchers are trying to determine whether pelicans carry residue from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says a second round of testing indicates migrating pelicans picked up oil spill contaminants in the Gulf of Mexico.

  Earlier testing found contaminants in pelican eggs. A new round of tests on bill knobs, which pelicans shed each year, found oil related contaminants in three-fourths of the birds tested. Oil dispersant chemicals were found in one-third of the birds. 

"Now that we know that's present it's going to raise some questions about what might this be doing to the population of pelicans in the long term in terms of reproductive success or longevity or hatchability of the eggs," said DNR non-game wildlife program supervisor Carrol Henderson.

He said the test results don't definitively prove pelicans were contaminated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

"One of the aspects of good research is not to jump to conclusions," Henderson said. "We've got some really interesting results starting to come in. But we need to continue this work before we draw any conclusions on what the long-term impacts might be."

Henderson said researchers will also compare the bird contamination chemicals with the "fingerprint" from oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in an effort to confirm the source of the contamination. The DNR is also awaiting results of tests on blood and feather samples from loons. 

• Click for more photos of Minn. pelican nests

The first phase of the study will be completed next summer, Henderson said. A group of scientists will convene sometime then to review the results and decide what the next phase of the study should be. 

About $300,000 is earmarked for the first phase of the study. The DNR will request additional funding from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to expand the study.

About 20,000 pairs of white pelicans nest in Minnesota which is home to the largest pelican colony in North America.

• Follow Dan Gunderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gundersondan