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.