When Brigham Young and his fellow pioneers descended the Wasatch Mountains and took their first look at the Great Salt Lake, one of the primary features of their view would have been Antelope Island. This forty-two square mile island has an important spot on the horizon looking west from Salt Lake City.
European settlers were not the first to see this island. Native Americans had already inhabited and visited Antelope Island for thousands of years. Besides Native Americans, the first group to visit Antelope Island included John Fremont in 1845. Fremont would name this island after the game animal he harvested during that trip. For a decade or so after the new settlers appeared, the island provided forage for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ herds of cows and sheep. Before the beginning of the 20th century, however, this land had been ceded into private ownership. That started to change in 1969 when the state bought a few square miles of the northern part of the island. It all became public land in 1981 when Utah purchased the rest of the island.
Many people know of the hunting opportunities available on Antelope Island. In the late 1800s, bison were introduced and by the early 1900s approximately 100 could be found on the island. Given the wholesale slaughter of bison occurring at that time, it was one of the largest herds of these animals in the nation. The island’s bison population now ranges between 550 and 700 animals. Each year several tags are granted to hunters to help keep this population in check. The island is also home to one of the most expensive deer tags in the nation, generally auctioning off for at least $250,000. Highly regulated big game hunting is the only type of hunting allowed on this island.
Antelope Island now receives over a half million visitors each year. The proximity of this state park and its open space led to a near doubling of visitors during the pandemic. It is a wonderful place to take a drive or hike and still have Salt Lake City’s skyline in view.
While most people in this region know of Antelope Island, few would be able to tell you how many islands are in the Great Salt Lake. According to the Utah Geological Society, there are 17 officially named islands. Depending upon the water level the number of true islands ranges between 0 and 15. The three largest islands are Antelope, Stansbury, and Fremont. It is hard to say much about Stansbury, as access to public land on that island is difficult.
There is good news concerning Fremont Island. Last November this island was purchased by a land conservancy group. Following the purchase, a conservation easement was developed with the Nature Conservancy and ownership was handed over to Utah. The easement limits the public to day use but allows for activities such as hiking, picnicking and bird watching.
Hunting is not permitted on this island. It should be noted that prior to this purchase, the island had been privately owned. It was first settled by pioneers in the late 1800s but the most recent owners had designs towards real estate development. While I have not made it to this island, it can be accessed by boat or a six-mile bike ride north from the Antelope Island causeway.
Another unique Great Salt Lake island is Gunnison. Even though this island doesn’t cover a square mile, it is home to the continent’s largest breeding colony of American White Pelicans. This island’s remoteness in the northern part of the lake means these birds must travel to at least the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to find a place to eat. The remote location of the island does result in high survival for the young pelicans. The recent low water levels, however, means there is now a land bridge to the island which predators can easily traverse.
The lowering water level in the Great Salt Lake will continue to be a challenge to the wildlife that inhabit the lake’s island. Just a few years ago Bighorn Sheep had to be eliminated from Antelope Island as they had caught a disease from domestic sheep. The wild sheep were likely infected when one of them wandered off the island. This disease is just one of the many exotic life forms managers would like to keep off these islands. Figuring out how to keep enough water in the Great Salt Lake to protect these vulnerable and valuable ecosystems will continue to be a task for those who love wild places and want to maintain their quality of life along or near the Wasatch Front.