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GUNNISON ISLAND, Box Elder County — Every year, John Luft gathers a few dozen volunteers and biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and travels to a remote island in the northwestern end of the Great Salt Lake, where humans typically aren’t around.
They go there to band pelicans and track their migration patterns. But there was a big difference when the group trekked out toward Gunnison Island Tuesday morning: They found there were a lot fewer pelicans to band than in years past.
“Normally, we have about 10-12,000 breeding adults out here,” said Luft, DWR’s Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager.
The agency started marking pelicans on this island in 2014 to track their migration patterns, lifespan and population rates. They even launched a website where people can track some of the tagged birds. As of Wednesday, three of the birds that can be tracked online were in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico.
The desolate, hot and mostly protected island makes for a perfect breeding ground for the bird species. It’s why pelicans usually thrive here, but that wasn’t the case this time around.
There were just 75 pelicans on the island to choose from Tuesday. That’s significantly fewer than the 4,000 to 5,000 pelicans typically out when Luft’s crew comes to the island to band birds.
“We had a couple thousand fewer that started nesting here,” Luft said, “and then, overall, the success is way down.”
So what caused this decline? One possibility is that coyotes were able to make their way onto the island. They don’t typically hunt pelicans, but they do scare them away.
However, the declining water levels in the lake are likely the biggest problem, Luft said.
“We predicted this was going to happen for the last five or six years just because of low lake levels,” he said. “(I’m) disappointed for sure.”
Despite the lower numbers Tuesday, wildlife biologists say the birds aren’t in any significant danger. That said, they want people to still pay attention as water levels shrink.
That, biologists say, does leave an impact on some 10 million birds that use the Great Salt Lake.
“We need to be a little more diligent about how we use our water and how much water actually gets to the lake,” Luft said. “To me, this is a warning to us about what’s going to happen with the lake.”