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Know the West

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.


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.