Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We are off the air in Vernal. While we work to resume service, listen here or on the UPR app.
A blue color gradient graphic shows a drop of water. Text reads, "Great Salt Lake Collaborative."
Great Salt Lake Collaborative
Great Salt Lake is at its lowest water level on record and continues to shrink. Utah Public Radio has teamed up with more than a dozen Utah organizations for the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a group that has come together to share multimedia stories and rigorous reports about the lake and ways to protect this critical body of water before it's too late.

Hundreds of pelicans return to previously abandoned Great Salt Lake islands

Several pelicans skim over a marshy body of water.
Gary Lewis
American white pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, in the marshes of Farmington Bay, Great Salt Lake.

Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have discovered American white pelicans nesting on two previously abandoned islands at Great Salt Lake.

Hat Island has not been used by these birds in 81 years, and Gunnison Island was first abandoned by the nesting colonies last year.

Aimee Van Tatenhove, a former UPR science reporter who just defended her PhD research on these birds at Utah State University, said she is overjoyed.

“Because you know, last year, they completely abandoned their breeding colony. And it was the only one around Great Salt Lake and really the only larger one in Utah," Van Tatenhove said. "So, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you know, the pelicans are leaving the state this is terrible.’ But it's great to hear that they're back, well, in small numbers, and really interesting that they're picking another place to nest at. So that was kind of unexpected.”

Historically, these islands served as vital nesting areas for American white pelicans because of the isolation and protection they offer nesting birds. This changed once the water levels at the lake started to decrease. Biologists believe the pelicans abandoned the Gunnison Island nesting colony last year due to repeated disturbances.

“As the lake shrinks, Gunnison has become just part of the mainland," Van Tatenhove said. "There's been this land bridge that has formed between the island and the mainland and that has allowed terrestrial predators like coyotes, and I believe they've had evidence of foxes getting over there as well. So, what we think is happening is just this predator presence.”

But on April 29, DWR biologists confirmed that about 1,300 pelicans had returned to Hat Island and 800 had returned to Gunnison Island. Van Tatenhove guesses this could be because it takes young pelicans four years to mature to breeding age.

“And we think the birds coming back may not really know what's going on with the predators," Van Tatenhove said.

Because Utah is the second driest state in the United States, there are few places for pelicans to breed. According to Van Tatenhove, the birds on these islands are the state's only breeding population.

“Historically, it was one of the largest breeding colonies in the western United States for pelicans. And so, you know, we think it's really important to that population as a whole to keep producing chicks that grow into adults and kind of recruit into the into the population as a whole," she said. "So, if we lose Gunnison or lose Hat Island, I guess now, you know, that just makes it harder for the western population to do well.”

She said it is important to keep an eye on these populations as they are a species of conservation and concern for several states.

“They are very resilient birds, in many ways. They have large populations or populations are increasing range wide, so that's a good thing," Van Tatenhove said. "But that could reverse so you definitely want to keep an eye on them.”

Clarissa Casper is a general reporter at UPR who recently graduated from Utah State University with a degree in Print Journalism and minors in Environmental Studies and English.