The Tale of Gillmor Sanctuary

Protecting critically important shorebird habitat at Great Salt Lake
Gillmor Sanctuary Unit 4 Looking West Summer 2018

This article was contributed by Ella Sorensen, Gillmor Sanctuary manager and Heidi Hoven, assistant manager.

Like so many things in life that become large and vibrant, Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary had a small, rather inconspicuous beginning. Following are a few milestones along the path that took the sanctuary from vision to reality. 

In May 1991, Wayne Martinson—now retired after working for National Audubon Society in Utah for 25 years—was asked whether Audubon would be open to accepting a donation of a 107-acre parcel in the Brown’s Island area on the south shore of Great Salt Lake. Frank Dunstan, long time director of Audubon sanctuaries flew from headquarters in Connecticut to evaluate the property. He was well-acquainted with wildlife areas throughout the country, having oversight of all Audubon sanctuaries.

Joining Frank was Peter Berle—then President of National Audubon Society—and both visited Great Salt Lake wetlands on the ground and in a flight over the lake, observing the extraordinary wealth of natural resources present. When title was taken to the 107 acres on December 30, 1992 the journey began as Audubon became actively involved in land-based conservation at Great Salt Lake.

In 1994, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission (Mitigation Commission) funded a study by Audubon to evaluate the feasibility of establishing a wetland preserve in a large complex of lowlands immediately adjacent to Great Salt Lake. In geologic terms, this area was shaped by the prehistoric Jordan River. For thousands of years the Jordan River meandered across the land depositing and moving sediments, leaving behind old river channels, basins, and islands. Since the late 1800s, humans have used this distinctive landform to expand, create, and enhance wetlands by lightly altering the prehistoric features and diverting water from the Jordan River back into its ancient waterways.

The study evaluated water availability, birds, vegetation, soil, and 1-foot contour lines and determined that the area was suitable and highly desirable for a restoration project. The topography of a major (but dry) river delta was relatively intact and a water delivery system could easily be developed with minor land alteration.

Bird tracks in Great Salt Lake mudflats

Perhaps the largest momentum for the project came during the feasibility study.  Florence Gillmor, the largest landowner in the area, was captivated by the vision of her land becoming the heart and catalyst for a large Great Salt Lake bird sanctuary. Between 1995 and 1996, Florence donated 1,319 acres of land to Audubon. She named it the Edward L. and Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary, after her father and his brother who used the land as a lambing site in a large sheep operation that extended throughout northern Utah.

Land and water acquisition by the Mitigation Commission and Audubon through purchase, donation, and agreements began in 1996 with assistance of The Nature Conservancy. To date, a total of 17 extremely complex land and water transactions have brought 2,804 acres of land and about 3,000 acre-feet of water under active Audubon management.

By 2007, with crucial land and water secured, a water delivery system was constructed with funding assistance from Natural Resources Conservation Service, Mitigation Commission, Florence Gillmor, and Jennifer Speers. This restoration followed three major guiding principles: preserving the natural topography of the old river delta; mimicking the natural seasonal flow of water; and focusing on shallow ephemeral saline mudflats that provide habitat for the wide diversity of shorebirds that occur at Great Salt Lake.

Audubon manages Gillmor Sanctuary through science-based adaptive management. A major part of our management includes monitoring changes in water levels and studying responses of birds and their habitat with weekly bird surveys and annual vegetation mapping. We also conduct studies to learn more about shorebird needs while they are at the sanctuary to help inform our management decisions. Over the past 20 years, we’ve observed an increase in the population of water birds nesting in this area, including American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, Cinnamon Teal, and Gadwall. 

Shorebird conservation on Great Salt Lake has been underserviced—most efforts focus on waterfowl. Yet Great Salt Lake is fringed with expanses of open mudflats that provide key shorebird habitat. With less water reaching the lake due to increasing human-related needs and climate change, and other issues resulting in habitat loss, much of the available shorebird habitat has declined in recent years. Audubon’s vision to preserve and sustain shallow ephemeral saline mudflats within the sanctuary is timely.

Gillmor Sanctuary Unit 1 Looking Northeast Summer 2018

Managing saline mudflat habitat for shorebirds is not commonly done and not well understood, and there are many nearly irreversible pitfalls. Through research and innovative adaptive management, we plan to share what we learn with other wetland managers, which is critical if this rapidly dwindling habitat and the millions of shorebirds that funnel through Great Salt Lake wetlands are to be preserved.

Adapted from an article previously published in the Friends of Great Salt Lake newsletter.