Coordinated Conservation and Filling Data Gaps for Saline Lake Bird Populations Needed

Amid listing petition, Audubon is focused on increased resources and sound science.

In the last 50 years, we have seen the tragic loss of 3 billion birds in North America. While some populations of waterbirds and waterfowl have increased due to active conservation of wetlands over the last 40 years, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative reported in 2022 that more than half of bird species in the United States are declining in population.

This week the Center for Biological Diversity, along with other organizations, filed a petition with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the Wilson’s Phalarope be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

“We know that many species are in decline across North America and around the world,” said Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s Senior Director of Conservation. “We believe that on-the-ground conservation combined with filling critical data gaps to better understand population trends for birds like the Wilson’s Phalarope is key to recovering and maintaining bird populations now and into the future.”

With the decline of saline lake ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere and the deterioration or loss of these irreplaceable habitats, National Audubon Society (Audubon) is concerned about the food webs and the vulnerable species that rely on this network. Birds that rely on saline lake systems during migration along the Pacific Flyway include Wilson’s Phalaropes, Western Sandpipers, Long-Billed Curlews and Eared Grebes. These key species face challenges as habitat conditions in saline lake ecosystems and other habitats degrade due to aridification, increasing temperatures from climate change, water declines from drought and human consumption and increased salinity.

Audubon is working to drive funding and resources toward these needs both at the state and federal levels in the western U.S, focused on Great Salt Lake, Salton Sea, Owens Lake, Mono Lake, Lake Abert and others.

Audubon and many partners were heavily involved in supporting passage of the “Saline Lake Ecosystems of the Great Basin States Program Act”. This legislation provides funding to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for implementation of a needed program to bolster understanding of hydrology and bird usage of terminal lake ecosystems across the Intermountain West. USGS recently issued the Integrated Science Strategy for Assessing and Monitoring Water Availability and Migratory Birds for Terminal Lakes Across the Great Basin, United States (Science Strategy) as an important step in implementing the legislation. The USGS Science Strategy noted that the current state of knowledge and data collection for birds and various habitats at saline lakes and their surrounding wetlands need to be improved to better understand bird abundance and how the habitats are used as an interconnected system. Audubon and its partners continue to advocate for additional federal funding to satisfy this need.

At Great Salt Lake, Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program is working in collaboration with many others to advance voluntary water transactions to benefit the Lake and its wetlands, while Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary provides more than 3600 acres of habitat for shorebirds and other waterbirds on the Lake’s south shore.

Additionally, with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies, Audubon, Point Blue Conservation Science, and a network of more than 70 organizations including state and federal wildlife agency biologists, Audubon chapter volunteers and other NGOs have been spearheading the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys. This coordinated effort between biologists and over 200 volunteers strive to help us understand shorebird populations and their distribution across the Western U.S. for the first time in three decades.

Audubon California is working at the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, to develop solutions to stabilize the Sea for the communities and birds in the region, as water inputs to the Sea are reduced.  One of Audubon’s projects is implementing a demonstration project at Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea to expand, stabilize, and restore 560 acres of wetlands that have emerged along desert washes that no longer reach the Sea itself. The project includes measures to reduce noxious, wind-driven dust that contributes to high rates of respiratory diseases in surrounding communities and will provide habitat for some of the estimated 300 species of birds found at the Salton Sea. In addition, these wetlands will provide recreation opportunities for the local people such as picnicking, bird watching, and hiking.

Audubon’s efforts are focused on driving resources and sound science, including to determine the vulnerability of species that rely on specialized habitats such as saline lakes, how they move and use habitats, not just in North America but across the flyway, to help identify specific actions to improve or protect places that birds need. Filling these data gaps will provide essential information to make management decisions and identify durable solutions that ensure the viability of the many species that rely on these habitats.

Audubon has not taken a formal position on the petition.