Location of new state prison pits safety of inmates against the future of Great Salt Lake wildlife

Conservationists worry that too much pesticide near the prison aimed at staving off mosquitoes could threaten the sensitive wetland habitats they maintain.

Ella Sorensen’s job is, in a lot of ways, getting people to understand the importance of maintaining the wetlands south of the Great Salt Lake. The other part is actually maintaining them.

As the manager of Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary, she drives her silver pickup truck for miles across its gravel and dirt roads, taking people on tours of the mostly private bird preserve or recognizing when it’s time to flood the sanctuary’s parched mudflats.

Sorensen was blunt about her management of these marshes, west of the Salt Lake City airport: “We are growing insects for the shorebirds.”

Millions of birds depend on the Great Lake Salt and its associated wetlands as they migrate. Because of record-low water levels, they’re in trouble. Sorensen works to provide them with a viable ecosystem, and the insects are an important food source.

The sanctuary grew in 2020, when Epperson Associates, LLC, donated more than 400 acres of land. The emerging problem: That land abuts the site of the new Utah state prison.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ella Sorensen, general manager of Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary, tours the wetlands near the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

The prison is already dealing with a mosquito infestation. When inmates moved into the facility in July, they had few ways to stave off the nuisance insects. Even bug repellant wasn’t available to inmates as of early November, officials said.

Advocates and family members of inmates have argued that officials didn’t adequately prepare for the pests, and records indicate the Department of Corrections was still scrambling for solutions months after inmates moved in.

Next year, with the prison within eyesight, Sorensen will strategically flood parts of this new parcel, just like she does with other “water management units” on the 3,600-acre preserve. This particular mudflat, bordered with vegetation, will then become a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, standing to amplify the problem.

But Sorensen is obligated to provide habitat for birds, regardless of how that could affect the sanctuary’s new human neighbors.

Utah Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a Republican co-chaired the Prison Relocation Committee, said he knows Audubon leaders are concerned about having enough water to support the wetland habitats.

“But with more water probably comes more mosquitoes, and with more water will come more abatement — that we’re going to have to do,” Stevenson said. “But that’s kind of a fact of life living along the edge of the lakes.”

A collision of agendas

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new Utah state prison is seen from Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

Sorensen and Utah Waterfowl Association president Jack Ray warned about this collision of agendas years ago, when officials were searching for a location to construct the new state prison. So did Ary Faraji, with Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District.

But the state endorsed this site anyway, and once thousands of inmates and staff moved to it this summer, they were immediately inundated with biting bugs. Just as Sorensen and Ray expected.

“We knew there were going to be mosquitoes out there. Everyone did,” Ray said. “All you have to do is look at an aerial map and see you’re in the middle of [thousands of] acres of wetlands.”

Immediately after the facility opened, Sorensen worried that pressure to control the vital mosquito population would result in increased use of pesticides in the area — and records show she was right.

[Read more: Inmates ‘getting eaten alive’ by insects at new Utah prison. Officials knew it could happen, records show.]

She has compassion for the prisoners, she said, but she’s trying to preserve habitat that’s been there for “millennia.”

“You’ve got people not liking mosquitoes,” Sorensen said, “and then you’ve got a natural world that they’re building into.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

She and Ray also are concerned that increased efforts to kill mosquitoes may harm other insects, which could be disastrous for the ecosystem they work to maintain.

“You can have a pretty grocery store,” Ray said, “but if there’s no food on the shelves, it doesn’t do much good, right?”

Right now, Faraji said abatement crews have worked to make as little an impact as possible as they try to eradicate mosquitoes near the prison, spraying droplets smaller than the width of a human hair, which he said wouldn’t kill other insects, including beetles or moths.

Crews also spray during the evening, when bees and butterflies are less active, Faraji said, to avoid accidentally exposing those pollinators to poison.

If the abatement district was asked to spray for other insects, including deer or horse flies, they would use Environmental Protection Agency-approved methods, Faraji said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mosquito abatement trap is pictured at Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

Dr. Brian Moench, who founded Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said that regardless of EPA guidance, pesticides used in any quantity can impact the people and animals exposed to them.

He thinks spraying for mosquitoes this year may have contributed to recent reports of scientists seeing fewer brine flies around Great Salt Lake this year — a first sign of the lake’s ecological collapse. His group has advocated to stop spraying all together because of health risks associated with exposure.

Larvicides, he said, are generally less harmful to humans and the ecosystem than aerial adulticides, which aim to kill swaths of mature mosquitoes. But abatement crews have largely been using adulticide on the vast majority of acres they have sprayed this year, data shows.

The best way to control mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile virus, Moench argued, is to eliminate standing water. But you can’t do that on all the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, he said.

“That just illustrates the absurdity of trying to attack an unsolvable problem with that kind of arsenal,” he said.

Shorebirds ‘depend’ on the wetlands

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of birds fly over Kennecott’s Inland Sea Shorebirds Reserve and the adjacent Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

The Gillmor Sanctuary was established in 1994 on the southeast shore of the Great Salt Lake and has grown in donated or bought bits since then, under the stewardship of Sorensen and others.

The wetlands still exist because of water rights agreements that bring in millions of gallons from the Jordan River into what would otherwise be a dried-up water delta, where the river previously flowed before seismic activity thousands of years ago pushed it east, to its current location.

Faraji said the Audubon and duck-hunting clubs surrounding the prison use their water rights with a “use-it-or-lose-it mentality.”

“So whether they need the water or not, they’re constantly flooding the fields, letting it dry down, and then re-flooding it,” Faraji said, “and that’s what mosquitoes love.”

Neither Sorensen nor Ray agreed with Faraji’s characterization of water rights use.

“Obviously,” Ray said, “the managed wetlands want to have their property flooded because they’re wetlands after all, not dry lands.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have left many shallow ponds dry before they are re-flooded for the benefits of shorebirds at Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

Ray said that people like to focus on the salty parts of Great Salt Lake, but this fringe of freshwater wetlands that surround its south, north and east ends are particularly important habitat for birds. And while some species exclusively eat products of the saline lake, like brine flies, most don’t.

“The vast majority of the birds absolutely, critically, essentially depend on the wetlands that surround the lake,” Ray said, “and so when you impair those wetlands, you’re really damaging the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and in a way, that’s disproportionate to the actual acreage involved.”

Sorensen sees it similarly. The wetlands and the lake are inextricably linked. During an October tour of the sanctuary, she pointed out a red-eyed, duck-looking eared grebe floating on a shallow pond. They survive primarily on brine shrimp. Yet, there were some swimming in her freshwater ponds.

“It’s sort of like asking me the question, ‘Is your arm survival important for your whole body survival?’ The wetlands are part of the Great Salt Lake,” she said.

Ray worries that the prison could catalyze more development in the area, setting up more collisions between economic and ecological interests. Indeed, setting up infrastructure for development was one of the prison relocation commission’s selling points for choosing this Salt Lake City parcel, records show.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ella Sorensen, manager of the Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary, is joined by Jack Ray, president of the Utah Waterfowl Association and chair of the Great Salt Lake Alliance, as they tour the Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

Stevenson said the prison will likely be the edge of any future development, and argued that that ultimately benefits the wildlife areas, since private landowners may have developed the land in ways that disrupted the area even more.

But the area has already been disrupted. Years ago, where shiny distribution facilities now sit along the edges of the dry river delta, Sorensen said there were once vast fields of grasses and trees, home to burrowing and short-eared owls, as well as long-billed, spindly-legged brown curlews and black and gray shrikes, known for impaling their prey on thorns or other spikes.

Sorensen has taken it upon herself to show developers what they’re encroaching on and why they should protect it — by taking them on tours of the sanctuary.

This year, she’s noticed fewer birds at the sanctuary. Maybe it’s because the weather stayed so abnormally warm so unseasonably late. Maybe, it’s something else.

As Utah’s population grows, Sorensen said the key to managing these competing interests is finding balance.

“I think everybody thinks mosquito abatement [is] you go out, and there should be zero mosquitoes, but that’s not the reality,” she said. “You’ve got these wetlands they’ve encroached on, the ecosystem of Great Salt Lake and its associated wetlands.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Columns of courting midges fly above floating ducks in Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

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