Article contributed by Keith Evans, Ph. D., retired ornithologist and co-author of Utah’s Featured Birds and Viewing Sites: A Conservation Platform for IBAs and BHCAs (Keith Evans and Wayne Martinson, 2008. Sun Litho, Salt Lake City, UT. 364 pp.).
I arrived at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on a brisk spring morning. We old-timers fondly remember the vintage “cuckoo clocks,” but modern clocks will sound off on the hour with many other noises—trains, dogs, cows, and yes, birds. As I listen to the sounds of spring on the marsh, I long to buy a “spring marsh" clock. I close my eyes and begin to relax as I hear Mallards, Canada Geese, Tundra Swans, American Avocets, California Gulls, Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and more. It’s tempting to get lost in the moment; however, my mind wanders to the value of these protected refuge marshes and the substantial contribution they make to the Bear River Bay Important Bird Area (IBA) and larger Great Salt Lake ecosystem. My heart yearns for a national ethic of sustainable land management with a high diversity of native species.
In Utah there are 22 designated IBAs. Five of these include the five major bays of Great Salt Lake, all of which are categorized as “global” in their area of influence, underscoring the significance of this large saline lake and its wetlands to North American bird populations. Audubon worked with landowners and other organizations using a nomination and technical review process to establish the five IBAs in 2004. According to Wayne Martinson, former Utah IBA coordinator, “Great Salt Lake could have been designated as one IBA, but then the variations of this complex lake system would have been lost. Salinity levels differ across the lake, resulting in different habitats and bird species. The fact that each bay easily qualified as a global IBA by itself further highlights the value of each site.” Additionally, the entire lake is designated a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of hemispheric importance. Both IBA and WHSRN designations are earned by meeting international criteria considered important for safeguarding bird populations and form the cornerstone for future monitoring and conservation efforts.
Collectively, Great Salt Lake’s five globally significant IBAs provide essential resting and staging habitat for large populations of migratory bird species, including 56 percent of the world’s population of American Avocets and 40 percent of Wilson’s Phalarope. In 2015, state biologists observed an astonishing 4.7 million Eared Grebes who rely on the lake's brine shrimp to gain enough weight for a long journey back to Mexico. More than 20,000 American White Pelicans breed at Gunnison Island and the largest colony of White-faced Ibis in North America nest in the wetlands of Bear River Bay, still rebounding from a dangerous population crash during the DDT pesticide days. There are many other bird species that rely on high-quality habitat at Great Salt Lake, such as Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Snowy Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Bald Eagle, Caspian Tern, Sage Thrasher, Canvasback and Sandhill Crane. Protecting IBAs will assure that these species continue to be our neighbors.
“What’s next for Great Salt Lake's Important Bird Areas?” is the driving question for future conservation. Currently, the largest threat with the most unknowns is driven by declining lake levels, and how this could worsen with increased water diversions, continued drought, and global climate change. In spite of—or probably because of—these unknowns we must strengthen conservation and leadership to minimize the potential catastrophic result of this scenario. We study history to understand that—what has happened in the past can happen again. It only takes a brief look at Owens Lake in California, the Aral Sea in Central Asia, or other “de-watered” areas around the world to know that the cities and human populations along the Wasatch Front could not exist if Great Salt Lake dries up and the ensuing high salt content dust storms destroy downwind vegetation. In most cases, protecting wildlife habitat is not only for wildlife, but for all life, including humans.