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Gunnison Island: Scientists pay rare visit to desolate Great Salt Lake breeding ground for pelicans

First Published      Last Updated Jun 03 2017 07:35 pm

Gunnison Island, Box Elder County >> Unless you count migratory birds as company, the loneliest places in Utah are the tiny salt-encrusted islands poking above the red surface of the Great Salt Lake's North Arm.

The public isn't even allowed to boat within a mile of the 155-acre Gunnison Island, home to one of North America's largest breeding colonies of American white pelican, the largest of the 250 species of water fowl that depend on the Great Salt Lake.

But officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in partnership with academic researchers, ventured onto the irregularly shaped mile-long island this month to install cameras in various locations — to not only observe the breeding pelicans without disturbing them, but to surveil for coyotes and foxes.

Biologists say the island's remoteness, far from food sources and fresh water, make it a tough place for pelicans to raise their young, but its isolation is perfect for deterring the intrusions pelicans cannot tolerate.

After the Great Salt Lake dipped to a new historic low last year, Gunnison's isolation is no longer assured and four-footed predators have been observed roaming the island's south shore.

A big concern is that just a few predators could make pelicans abandon the island.

With private grants that paid for the photographic equipment, Westminster College's Great Salt Lake Institute is coordinating the research, which will yield hundreds of thousands of images that researchers hope the public will help analyze.

"We have more questions than we have answers, and so if we can actively watch them and see what they are doing every five minutes we will answer some really cool questions," said institute coordinator Jaimi Butler.

Researchers envision crowd sourcing the stream of new data to Utah teachers, students and the general public.

"Tell us if you see coyotes. Tell us when you see the birds come in," said Butler. "The goal is to connect the people who live on the Wasatch Front to these charismatic birds."

Fecal riches • In 1896, artist Alfred Lambourne made his famous hermitage on Gunnison Island, growing grapes in hopes of establishing a "homestead." Lambourne resided on a bay on the island's east shore that now bears his name, but his solitude came to an end that spring with the arrival of thousands of gulls and pelicans, as well as swarthy human characters who mined the fecal riches deposited by the birds.

Lambourne made the best of the disruption by drawing the men he called "guano sifters."

They would eventually file for a mining claim on the excrement, which can be sold as fertilizer, effectively claiming title to the northern half of the island, even though their activity scared off the pelicans, according to Dale Morgan's "The Great Salt Lake."

Without pelicans, there was no more mineral wealth to harvest so the sifters gave up on the island, which nonetheless passed into private hands, where it remained until the 1980s when the state acquired it as a bird preserve.

Lambourne's vineyard didn't make it and after 14 months, friends sailed to the island to ferry the artist back to civilization. The birds soon returned to Gunnison to reclaim the nesting grounds in solitude.

This month, pelicans are again flying back to Utah from wintering range on the Pacific Coast for their annual mating and nesting sojourn on Gunnison, where up to 20,000 adults converge every March for the 12-week breeding cycle.

Up to 5,800 nests appear on Gunnison's shorelines every spring when mature adults arrive and form "subcolonies," or groups of nests close enough to offer a protection but far enough so that nesting birds can't hit each other.

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