Pelicans return to nest at Great Salt Lake island for 1st time in 81 years

May 7, 2024, 10:47 AM

An American white pelican splashes down at Farmington Bay on May 17, 2020. Over 1,000 pelicans are ...

An American white pelican splashes down at Farmington Bay on May 17, 2020. Over 1,000 pelicans are believed to be nesting at Hat Island, for the first time since 1943, state wildlife officials said on Monday. (Carter Williams,

(Carter Williams,

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.

GRANTSVILLE — Some of Utah’s pelicans have found a new home at the Great Salt Lake, after many of the state’s pods completely abandoned a long-standing nesting site on another part of the lake last year.

About 1,300 American white pelicans were found nesting at Hat Island during a survey conducted last week by state wildlife biologists in the area north of Stansbury Bay by the Great Salt Lake’s western edge, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reported Monday. It’s not the first time pelicans have nested on the island, but it was last recorded in 1943.

The update comes after Utah wildlife biologists determined last year the species had completely abandoned its massive colony on Gunnison Island at the lake’s northwestern edge, once home to up to 20,000 nesting pelicans. Biologists reported some birds have returned to the island to nest, but the pelicans remain spread out.

“As far as we can tell, pelicans are nesting at Hat Island, again, because some may be a little ‘gun-shy’ about nesting at Gunnison Island after the disturbances that led to the colony abandonment last year,” John Luft, the division’s Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager, said in a statement. “So this year, some birds decided to find a new location to nest.”

Pelicans had nested on Gunnison Island because of its remoteness. The species seeks to avoid disturbances when it settles down and the island offered that since the water kept predators away and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources closed it off to visitors to protect the rookery.

However, it became less secluded as the lake’s levels dropped to an all-time low in 2022. Land bridges began to form by the island as the water dropped, opening pathways for coyotes and other predators to walk to the island. The division estimates the average number of nests at Gunnison Island over the last 10 years is around 4,290, with 8,580 breeding adults.

About 2,500 to 3,000 birds were counted during one 2023 estimate, but state biologists couldn’t find a single pelican during a tour last summer. Luft told KSL-TV at the time it appeared some had succumbed to exposure and others were attacked by predators.

An undated photo of a pelican pod huddling around Gunnison Island. The island was once home to about 20,000 pelicans, but populations dwindled as the Great Salt Lake levels dropped. (Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

The surviving pelicans likely fled to other locations in the area. The state determined the abandonment had “little impact” on the total pelican population.

Some of those birds have since returned as the lake begins to recover. The Great Salt Lake’s southern arm has gained almost 6½ feet of elevation since it’s new all-time low, while its northern arm has only risen about 3½ feet — closing up some of the land bridges. Biologists estimate that there are about 800 pelicans still at Gunnison Island, based on last week’s survey.

State wildlife biologists believe that many pelicans fled to Hat Island this spring because it’s also remote when water levels are closer to the lake’s normal and — like Gunnison Island — it’s closed off to visitors. It’s also just as close to where all the food is on the lake’s eastern shore wetlands.

John Neill, a state wildlife biologist, explains that the species finds most of its food by the Bear River and Farmington bays, which typically get a boost in fish during good snowpack runoff years.

That said, Neill points out that both islands remain susceptible to “land-based disturbance.” That will remain a threat until the lake rises to a point where both are fully islands again.

While that’s still a concern, state wildlife biologists say they are also thrilled to see pelicans find homes on Hat and Gunnison islands after what they witnessed last year.

“Overall, pelican populations are doing well,” Luft said. “Seeing birds nesting at both islands again is a good sign that shows the resiliency of breeding pelicans to reestablish historic pelican nesting colonies.”

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Pelicans return to nest at Great Salt Lake island for 1st time in 81 years