Ella Sorensen joined Audubon in May of 1994 to study the feasibility of establishing a sanctuary for shorebirds on the south shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah. During the nearly three decades that followed, Ella served as manager of Gillmor Sanctuary and was instrumental in the many negotiations that led to critical land and water transactions in the region. Ella’s tireless work and drive throughout her entire tenure helped ensure that birds and the habitat they depend on in and around the sanctuary were conserved. She helped deepen community partnerships and grow the sanctuary to what it is today: over 3,500 acres (and still growing).
Over the span of her career, Ella was able to take a question and turn it into the reality of Gillmor Sanctuary. What began as a feasibility study quickly turned towards land acquisition and managing a sanctuary for migrating and breeding shorebirds. Acquiring land is a slow process, it takes time, patience, and perseverance, plenty of which Ella possessed.
The key to Ella’s work was partnerships. She understood that the conservation of Gillmor and the Greater Salt Lake was dependent on working together, even if some partners were not directly within the conservation field. While acquiring the necessary land puzzle pieces, Ella began pulling together and coordinating with key partners to secure funding to design and implement the water control infrastructure necessary to deliver water to the fourteen independent water management units currently found at Great Salt Lake. This work required nurturing critical long-time partnerships with other nonprofits, state and federal agencies, and private companies. And in many cases, those close partnerships evolved into close and trusting friendships. Longtime partner and friend, Chris Brown, stewardship director of The Nature Conservancy, shared the first time he met Ella:
“I first met Ella about 22 years ago on a trip, after spending that time with her I was hooked. I had so much fun with her and we had a friendship from there on out. It has been a pleasure working with her over my 23 years working along the Great Salt Lake, we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I have always respected her opinion and insight into the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. There is no one with a greater love for the Great Salt Lake and associated shorebirds than Ella. Her passion is unrivaled and truly amazing to see. I will miss working with Ella, she is truly a great friend and a great peer. I hope to spend many days in the future spending time with Ella out at our properties birding and just enjoying her company. The Great Salt Lake and surrounding areas are better off because of Ella and her mark is forever imprinted along the lake. Ella, I thank you, the shorebirds thank you, and the Great Salt Lake thanks you for your passion, drive, and love of a precious resource.”
Chris was not the only person to come to know and love Ella. In a recent conversation with Charlie Gillmor—the sanctuary’s namesake—he said at first, he only knew Ella as “the bird lady.” But through the years she has become like a family member to Charles and his family. Another close friend and colleague, Ann Neville, shared:
“Ella has been called ‘the lady of the lake.' I am grateful for her and have learned so much from her about birds, conservation, strategic planning, friendship, neighborliness, constantly asking questions, land management, and beautiful writing. Well done, Ella, for speaking up and doing everything for the Great Salt Lake birds! Your long-time influence has shaped how Great Salt Lake is finally being esteemed.”
And Wayne Martinson, a former Audubon coworker said:
“Ella had a passion for birds, wildlife, and the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. She took this passion, energy, and intelligence and became an expert in other fields including wetlands, botany, water engineering, fundraising, advocacy, and strategic planning. A few words and phrases to help describe Ella: tenacious, territorial, detail-oriented, capable, curious, compassionate, sympathetic, driven, bright, friendly, complicated, open-ended, and caring. Ella’s intellect, knowledge, and commitment contributed significantly to the creation and success of the Gilmor Sanctuary. Thank you, Ella, for all your great, passionate, capable work!”
While Ella’s influence and impact grew, so did Gillmor’s. Gillmor not only became a very special and sacred place for Ella but for others as well because of the countless hours she spent observing and learning in the field. She shared what she learned and loved about the lake with others.
Over her many years with Audubon, Ella not only significantly impacted the conservation and protection of Gillmor Sanctuary but was also key in helping anchor Audubon’s conservation impact across the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Her work has strengthened Audubon by expanding our footprint, visibility, and collaboration with partners around Gillmor Sanctuary, Great Salt Lake, and the state of Utah. I know I speak for everyone at Audubon and beyond when I express how deeply I appreciate Ella’s service to Gillmor and the organization and wish her the best in her next chapter.
Finally, thanks to Ella’s work, Gillmor Sanctuary is well-positioned to continue to be conserved and truly provide sanctuary for Great Salt Lake’s many shorebirds and other water birds for years to come.
To learn more about Gillmor Sanctuary, click here. Learn more about Great Salt Lake here.