SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 Utah) – One of the largest American White Pelican nesting grounds in the world is right here in Northern Utah, but the breeding ground is threatened. 

Banding pelicans on Gunnison Island has gone on for years, but a change in the population numbers this year may be directly related to our weather patterns. It’s the young American White Pelicans on the ground that have caught the attention of wildlife scientists and keep volunteers in awe.

“They are just great paradox of beautiful and gawky at the same time depending on what they are doing at the moment,” says volunteer Rosalie Winnard.

Banding young pelicans with tags on their wings and around their legs is far from easy, but has proven critical to wildlife biologists because it provides insight into the birds’ migration paths and mortality rates.

John Luft, the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program Manager, explains, “What we are trying to do is give them some identification…so that people, normal birdwatchers, anybody that is out, can see those birds, read the number and report those back to us.”

Because Gunnison Island is owned by the state and walked on by few, it is the perfect place for nesting pelicans. But, that hasn’t always been the case. Because of last year’s record breaking low water levels, wildlife researchers  and volunteers  were forced to drive across a land bridge to get to the flock of birds.

Now, it turns out that scientists weren’t the only ones crossing the land bridge. The land bridge also allowed predators to access the island. The land bridge and the hungry predators that traversed it had a huge impact on the pelican population.

“We have typically 3 to 4 thousand young birds that would fledge over the island. This year, it’s decreased by more than half. i flew over the island last week, I estimated 700 fledglings here. that’s far less than three thousand that we would expect,” says Luft.

This close examination of the plight of these pelicans has revealed more to researchers, and it has little to do with these feathered flyers

Luft says, “This is a warning to us, really, these pelicans not making it to fledgling or even surviving, it’s basically a reflection of the lake itself.”

Luft also says pelicans are an indicator species. The water bird is singing a song of change, warning us of possible trouble.

“We as humans don’t see the impact out on Gunnison Island. we’re probably the only people that come out here. The issues are too far away, so people don’t realize that the lake is shrinking and it’s causing problems,” says Luft. 

The Great Salt Lake has fluctuated greatly over the last 30 years. The largest noticeable change in water levels is the blowing dust when storms move through. That dust can contribute to poor air quality and can cause health issues for many.