A remote island sees just a third of its pelicans return for breeding season

Low Great Salt Lake levels mean coyotes can get onto the island.

  • Biologists try to contain dozens of juvenile American white pelicans. This year, they were able to tag only 74 juvenile pelicans.

  • Scientists on the coast of Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake in August, just over 40 miles from Utah’s densely populated Wasatch Front. Though there are few signs of humans in the area, the ecosystem has been drastically impacted by the region's water usage and the altering of the lake’s geography.

  • John Luft checks for pelican nests while hundreds of California gulls circle. The island is a major nesting site for a variety of birds due to its isolation and lack of predators. As the lake level has dropped, coyotes have been able to reach the island, disrupting the nests, Luft says.

  • Kim Savides holds an American white pelican as she and other biologists tag and examine the birds.

  • The waters of the Great Salt Lake glow red on the beach of Gunnison Island. The little water remaining in the lake is so high in salt that only halophile bacteria survive, giving the water its unique color. A railroad causeway artificially cut off the north arm from the rest of the lake for decades. A small opening was created in it in 2016, but the north arm still receives little fresh water.

  • Dozens of juvenile American white pelicans are packed together. In previous years, scientists counted up to 5,000 fledgling pelicans on the island, banding about a quarter of them. In 2019, the number was around 700.

  • The carcass of a migratory bird on Gunnison Island.

  • Marion Clement, a research fellow with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, grabs a juvenile pelican. Scientists visit the island when the fledglings are nearly full-size, but still too young to fly.

  • A new band hangs around the ankle of a juvenile pelican. Gunnison Island’s birds have been tracked throughout the Western United States and Mexico.

  • Juvenile pelicans are fenced in until they can be examined and tagged.

  • The body of a dead migratory bird chick is coated in salt.


Gunnison Island has provided a haven for at least three groups in the last century or so. In 1896, artist Alfred Lambourne attempted to establish a vineyard on the fertile soil of the rugged island in the northwest corner of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. But the next spring, the land was reclaimed by thousands of pelicans on their annual migration. Later, a group of miners attempted to capitalize on the birds’ valuable fertilizer, and for a time, they even drove out the pelicans. But without the birds visiting to replenish the resource — and in the face of other business challenges — the guano business went bust, and the miners left.

Ultimately, the pelicans won out, and now the island is closed to the public. Starting in March each year, the birds take over for 12 weeks. Both sexes work to pile up gravel and sand into a bowl, 2 feet across and 8 inches deep, to house their eggs. In 1992, over 10,000 nests were counted, the island dotted white with over 20,000 breeding-age pelicans.

But now, Gunnison Island is no longer an island. The Great Salt Lake’s sinking water level has created new land bridges, allowing coyotes from the mainland to reach the pelican haven. While the new residents don’t appear to be hunting birds, their very presence could be enough to disrupt the nests and ruin the hatchlings’ chances, according to biologist John Luft, director of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program.

When Luft and his crew of researchers boated to the island this August for their annual count, they expected to find reduced numbers. In this May’s aerial survey, their preliminary count found just 3,414 nests — a 66% reduction since 1992, and almost half last year’s count. There were no pelicans on the south side of the island, where the land bridges are, and the few nests that were built were quickly abandoned.

The remote desert island has been one of the largest pelican nesting sites in the world. Photographer Benjamin Zack traveled with the researchers as they tagged the few birds born this year at the ancestral breeding grounds, counted carcasses from last year and wondered where the rest might be.

“I would guess this is probably what it’s going to be like,” says Luft when considering the future of Gunnison Island and the thousands of missing birds. Luft is quick to acknowledge that regional pelican populations are doing fine and the birds aren’t threatened. However, Luft sees the pelicans on Gunnison as the canary in the coal mine for the entire lake. 

“It’s an indicator of lake health,” says Luft “and overall the lake is in poor health.”

Benjamin Zack is a photojournalist based in Ogden, Utah. His work often focuses on the environment, education and community in the West. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.