(ABC4) – It may be surprising to learn that Utah, a landlocked state, is home to 17 islands. A little less surprising is the fact that all of these are located in and around the Great Salt Lake.
The largest of these islands is Antelope Island – known for its herd of free-range bison, antelope (of course) and sweeping views of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front beyond. The serene natural beauty of the area, in addition to pandemic-prompted interest in the outdoors and immense population growth in the Salt Lake region, have prompted a dramatic increase in users to Antelope Island in the last year.
“Back when the state put a mandate that you recreate only in your own county, that opened the door for a lot of people in Davis County to really look at Antelope Island,” adds Wendy Wilson, assistant park manager at Antelope Island State Park.
According to the Utah State Parks website, Antelope Island saw over 1 million visitors in the 2021 fiscal year, making it the third most visited state park, after Moab’s Dead Horse Point State Park and Sand Hollow State Park. The visitor numbers represent a marked increase; Antelope Island had only about 611,000 guests in 2020.
But with this renewed focus on the park comes a renewed focus on the island’s past – and uncertain future.
Before the island was given its current name by John C. Fremont in 1845, the land was used by Utah’s native tribes as a hunting ground. After the Latter Day Saint pioneers settled in Utah and the area became more populous, the island became home to many newly-introduced animal species, like cattle, horses, sheep, deer, pheasants, and bison, and also housed mines and oil wells, and for 133 years, a ranch. The island was converted into a state park in 1981.
But as for the future, Antelope Island is on uncertain ground. According to Jaimi Butler, Coordinator at Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute, climate change is taking a toll on Antelope Island, just as it is many treasured natural areas across the globe.
“We are seeing a warming planet, a changing planet,” Butler says. “And this place is not immune to that.”
One of the biggest, most obvious signs of climate change in the Salt Lake area is the decreased water levels in our namesake lake. According to data collected by the United States Geological Survey, the water level in the lake reached an all-time low in July 2021, representing in a 44% loss of total lake surface area.
In fact, Antelope Island isn’t really even an island anymore. Decreased water levels have resulted in the creation of a land bridge that connects it to the shores of the Great Salt Lake – and the Valley beyond. According to Butler, this affects the wildlife that calls the island home.
“The lake is really, really shallow,” she says. “When lake levels drop, even just a couple of inches, it exposes lots more shorelines, and that includes land bridges. I’ve heard reports of bison crossing the land bridge and getting off the island.”
And indeed, Wilson says that other animals have wandered off, too, with the most severe incident resulting in the decimation of the island’s herd of bighorn sheep.
“A few years ago, some bighorn sheep wandered off the island, mingled with some probably domesticated sheep, and contracted a respiratory illness that they brought back to the sheep on the island and ended up wiping out the whole herd,” she says.
To combat this issue, Wilson says the team at Antelope Island State Park has built an 11-mile fence along the south end of the island to prevent problematic migrations.
But decreasing water levels even affect animals that don’t use the land as their primary means of travel. The 338 species of birds living in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem are especially hard hit, Butler says.
She cites Egg Island, another island/non-island in the Salt Lake, as an example of what might be in store for Antelope Island. Egg Island is known for being a prime habitat for cormorants, herons, and other birds, but now that the island is connected to the shore by a land bridge, animals like coyotes can hunt in the area. And though the island is closed to human visitors year-round, people often traverse the land bridge, too, wreaking havoc on the animal’s habitat.
Another threat to wildlife on Antelope Island’s shores is threats to freshwater sources. Despite being surrounded by the saltiest saltwater imaginable, Wilson says the island is home to over 90 freshwater springs.
“As water levels drop, due to drought, there’s just a correlating drop in the reliability of some of those springs,” Wilson says.
So as we continue to visit Antelope Island and the many other scenic areas in our state, it’s important to remember how special these places are – and the importance of preserving them.
“The cultural components of Antelope Island are something that need to be explored a little bit deeper,” Butler says. “I’m a scientist and so I kind of try to sick with my bugs and birds, but Antelope Island has been a pretty special place for people.”