Westminsters Great Salt Lake Institute Studies Climate Change Impact on Pelicans

Salt crystals in Great Salt Lake

Jan 25, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY—A bleak island with no fresh water, few plants and a dense layer of salt doesn't seem like a pleasant place to start a family. But for thousands of pelicans, Gunnison Island in the north arm of Great Salt Lake is an ideal breeding ground. The island is isolated from natural predators and closed off to tourism. However, drought, increasing demands on water and dropping lake levels are threatening the home to one of the largest North American breeding colonies of American white pelicans.

Tracy Aviary awarded Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute a $9,000 grant for their "Great Salt Lake PELI Project: Partnership for Education and Longitudinal Investigation of American White Pelicans." The grant jumpstarts the PELI project, which will study the impact of climate change and upstream water demand on the nesting birds. The funds allow Great Salt Lake Institute to purchase needed equipment for the upcoming field season.

The Great Salt Lake Institute will lead outreach aspects of the project in partnership with ongoing pelican research by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) at Gunnison Island. In the PELI project, Westminster undergraduate research students will fill data gaps and join DWR employees in studying pelican population status and movements.

"Our partnership with the DWR Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program gives our students access to explore this restricted island where only researchers are allowed," said Jaimi Butler, Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator. "We will see breeding pelicans and their babies in the stunning landscape of Gunnison while providing data for their protection"

Butler is working with professors David Kimberly and Bonnie Baxter to build the academic team.

Students will look at the timing of island arrival and departure, and factors that influence fledgling mortality, such as siblicide and weather conditions. Great Salt Lake Institute will use existing data from banded and tracked birds in combination with remote video camera technology. The information will provide a better understanding of pelican migration, drought impact on migration and potential management solutions.

"The pelicans need advocates, and Westminster's team can provide interested students as well as educate the public about the birds' plight," said Karina Sanchez, who works with the DWR and is a Westminster alumna.

Utilizing "citizen science," Great Salt Lake Institute will engage birders, photographers and school groups to increase the number of pelican sightings in as many locations as possible. PELI will also collaborate with a Tracy Aviary project that tracks pelican flight paths. These collaborations not only increase population count accuracy but will also build awareness for conservation and research.