Young pelican numbers dwindle in Utah, why breeding ground is threatened

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – You can find one of the largest pelican nesting grounds in North America, right here in Northern Utah, on Gunnison Island. Crews from the Division of Wildlife Resources and volunteers visit the island, in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake, every year to band young birds and track their migration pattern. The annual trip this year, though, left biologists and bird enthusiasts disappointed.

“It’s kind of a bummer to have fewer birds in years past. Water is really important, there have been predators coming out on the island now, it’s kind of sad to see that happen,” said Cooper Farr, a volunteer on the banding trip.

This year could have been the last banding trip to Gunnison Island do to the lack of young pelicans. ABC4 Utah has been on the banding trip for the last several years where crews always banded about 500 pelicans, but this year, only about 75 birds were tagged.

“We’ve predicted this would happen the last few years, It hasn’t we’ve been lucky, the birds have still survived, even with it easier for coyotes to access this island. This year we just weren’t so lucky,” said John Luft of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project.

Many people believe the heavy snow year and wet spring were helpful, but at the end of the day, the Great Salt Lake only rose about two feet.

“It kept us from hitting an all-time low, but we are still in dire straits as far as the lake level goes,” said Luft.

Water is critical when it comes to nesting pelicans because, with dry conditions, which we’ve experienced for about the last five years before our good winter, Gunnison Island changes into a peninsula. A land bridge to the south side of the island allows for predators, mainly coyotes, to feed on young birds. Cameras on the private island have caught images of the coyotes and ABC4 Utah cameras caught video of the predators in previous trips.

“We normally produce four to five thousand chicks, and this year, we produced maybe 500 at best,” said Luft.

There is typically no freshwater on Gunnison Island, but our soggy spring changed that. Freshwater ponding or puddling allowed coyotes to stay on the island longer than usual, which means they feasted on fledglings or young pelicans, and breeding birds waited longer to nest. John Luft says we would need about five serious winters in a row to get the lake back to where it once was and believes that’s not likely.

With fewer birds and an almost non-existent contribution to the American White Pelican population this year, this could be the last time a banding trip happens. DWR also monitors pelicans from the air and has been doing so since the 1980s.

“We’re basically down to nothing here, I am hoping this bounce back. Just as a kind of way to say the lake is doing better,” said 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.

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