Pelicans are disappearing from the Great Salt Lake

Jul 26, 2023, 5:48 PM | Updated: 6:49 pm

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education, and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

SALT LAKE CITY — Pelicans are large, smelly, and sometimes mean birds. They like to be left alone and undisturbed.

That made Gunnison Island at the Great Salt Lake a perfect home for them until recently.

“Gunnison Island is just a tough harsh environment,” John Luft, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said.

The land is isolated, surrounded by incredibly salty, pink waters – perfect for pelicans.

“Pelicans actually like nesting in really remote areas. They’re susceptible to disturbance,” Luft said.

Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources take trips to the island to band the birds.

“Let us know where they’ve been if they do return to the island and then survival,” Luft said.

To give the pelicans their space, DWR biologists fly over the island to take photographs and count the birds.

Luft said, “We average around 10,000 to 12,000 breeding adults.”

That number has dropped drastically this year.

“When we did our first aerial count there was 2,500 to 3,000 birds,” Luft explained. “Since that time all of them have succumbed to exposure or just being predated on.”

Luft and his team didn’t see a single pelican.

“There was a lot of dead chicks and eggs”, he said.

Footage from Chopper 5 showed a small group of the pelicans, just offshore.

Luft said, “A lot of the pelicans you see here at Great Salt Lake are not breeders. They’re out here just taking advantage of the fishery.”

Luft said a lot of them have moved to other western states because their search to find fish was simply too long.

“Bear River Bay or Willard Spur, that’s usually where a lot of these birds travel to,” he said. “That’s a 30-mile one-way fight.”

Due to low lake levels, Gunnison Island is no longer an island, making them vulnerable.

“It provides a land bridge for these predators, usually coyotes,” Luft added.

Scientists have tested the animals for disease.

He said, “None of the birds that we tested were positive for avian influenza.”

Luft said it’s still possible it impacted some of the birds, but there’s no indication that it has happened.

“The pelicans will be back next year,” he said.

Their absence is a reminder that the problems plaguing the Great Salt Lake are far from over.

“If they’ve got issues, then we’re going to have issues,” Luft said.

He also said he’s optimistic the pelican population will return and recover.

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Pelicans are disappearing from the Great Salt Lake