This article was contributed by Jack Greene, lifetime environmental educator and current education chair for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Birds, Beaver, Water, Climate—sounds like the ingredients for an interesting story. So it came to be. Utah, one of the driest states in the nation, is losing its water from a shrinking snowpack and increased water diversions. Water means birds—especially shorebirds and waterfowl for which Utah is renowned. With three national wildlife refuges and a plethora of state waterfowl management areas, we are richly endowed with superb wetland bird habitat, which seems contradictory for this desert state.
Climate change is projected to exacerbate habitat declines in these critical bird areas, reducing water supply, raising temperatures and aridity, and disrupting phenology—the timing of seasonal natural phenomena such as spring floods, plant flowering, and insect hatching.
As pointed out in a recent Audubon report, “water development over the last 150 years has reduced river flows to Great Salt Lake by an estimated 39 percent, leading to roughly an 11 foot drop in lake levels and a 48 percent reduction in lake volume. Potential increases in upstream water diversions, coupled with drought, climate change and other pressures could have severe consequences for the habitat and the millions of birds that depend on Great Salt Lake annually.” The lake’s 400,000 acres of wetlands comprise three-quarters of all wetlands in the entire state of Utah.
Sophisticated models indicate that 314 bird species in the U.S. will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080, 142 of which are found in Utah. Climate models also indicate there will be a 10-15 percent increase in precipitation levels with different projections between southern and northern Utah. Rising temperatures mean this will occur more frequently as rain—leading to less snow accumulation and an earlier snowmelt. Over 80 percent of water along Utah’s populous Wasatch Front comes from snowmelt. Because snowpack is instrumental in holding water and preventing loss through runoff, less snow and earlier melts could lead to more droughts and shortages.
All of the above can have severe negative consequences for certain bird species, including Utah’s state bird—the California Gull—and our nation’s emblematic Bald Eagle.
Enter the master dam builders who lack the usual civil engineering credentials but have 20 million years of on-the-job experience. This marvelous flat-tailed wonder may play a significant part of the solution in maintaining Utah’s wetlands.
According to a pilot study in the Escalante watershed of southern Utah, beaver dam-building leads to a cascade of effects that increase stream complexity, benefiting a wide variety of species. Beaver dams trap sediment; create wetlands; slow runoff; mitigate impacts of floods; extend seasonal streamflow; raise downcut streambeds (often reconnecting them with their floodplains); increase vegetation; and create or increase habitat for diverse and sometimes rare wildlife species, including amphibians, fish, small mammals, and birds. As a result, beaver are increasingly being used as a critical component of stream and riparian restoration. And beaver are much less expensive.
In 2016, Bridgerland Audubon received a grant from National Audubon Society to help “Spread the Word” regarding projected climate change impacts on our birds. The chapter decided to include beaver and water in this campaign, considering their importance to birds and people.
In its third year, the ambitious Utah Birds, Beaver, and Water in a Changing Climate program has engaged more than 1,200 people with field trips and presentations to classrooms, interfaith groups, chambers of commerce, and multiple conferences and festivals. Additionally, our sister Audubon chapters in Utah—Red Cliffs, Great Salt Lake, and Wasatch —are helping us “spread the word” about birds, beaver, water and climate around the state. You can help us, too. Learn more at: https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/birds-our-changing-climate.