Heat, drought challenge Bear River bird refuge
Brigham City • Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge managers and the thousands of birds they work to preserve dance with nature every year, surviving floods, droughts and the fickle rhythms of the Great Salt Lake.
In the 1980s and early '90s, managers dealt with devastating high waters as salt-water overwhelmed freshwater marshes, destroying dikes and visitor facilities.
These days, Deputy Refuge Manager Sharon Vaughn and her staff grapple with the opposite extremes: heat and drought. They funnel what water there is to where it can do the most good, creating lush, watery pockets for thousands of birds.
One of these pockets is located along the refuge's 12.5-mile auto tour route, so hundreds of visitors from across the globe enjoy easy views of many of the world's winged wonders.
They might see, according to the refuge's most recent bird survey, hundreds of Canada geese, mallards, white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, white-faced ibises, black-necked Stilts, American avocets and California gulls inhabiting the refuge.
"There's lots of dry out there," said Vaughn, who wakes up in the middle of the night to check her computer to view Bear River flows on a gauge located in nearby Corinne. "When you see water, it's very deliberate."
One place, for example, is being kept wet to allow researchers from Utah State University to complete a study on phragmites, an invasive plant species.
Summertime bird numbers typically fall from the height of spring and fall migrations, when water is more plentiful. But many of this season's birds need the human-managed marshes and nearby lake to nest. For example, the refuge, as part of the Great Salt Lake, hosts the world's largest breeding colony of white-faced ibises.
So managers and biologists move limited water into areas where there are the most nesting birds a tricky exercise because waterfowl sometimes nest in unexpected places.
"I move the water where biologist Howard Browers tells me to move it," Vaughn said.
Managing the Bear River's limited water requires refuge bosses to work with canal and power companies as well as a tri-state commission, which oversees the river. Though the refuge has senior water rights, it must defer to even more senior agricultural uses this time of year.
A lack of water, though, can benefit the refuge's birds and managers.
For example, invasive carp hurt the water quality. When an area goes dry, many of these fish die, not only providing food for gulls and turkey vultures but also eliminating some of the problem species.
Phragmites can be controlled by grazing cattle on land that in a normal or wet year would be too soggy.
The low water also allows a Youth Conservation Corps crew led by Ruben Davila and Gloria Hammond to remove fences, post boundaries and build trails.
Vaughn is particularly proud of the YCC. After all, she graduated from the program in the early '80s and credits it with helping to steer her to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But make no mistake the low water and concentrated habitat can be perilous. Birds relegated into smaller areas are more vulnerable to predators. Avian botulism in low-water areas poses such a threat that dry marshes will not be filled even if water becomes available until the fall migration and hunting seasons.
Still, there is plenty to see at the refuge. On Wednesday, cars drove slowly across the tour route.
Many stopped to look at the eared grebes and snowy egrets. A few might have taken advantage of the free 25-minute audio tour, designed and narrated by seventh- and eighth-graders from the Promontory School for Expeditionary Learning in nearby Perry.
Jane Bywater, a volunteer greeter at the visitor center off the Forest Street Brigham City exit, said guests representing 38 countries came to the refuge last year.
"We get all of these visitors from foreign countries," she said, "yet I talk to people from Brigham City who have never been out here."
About the bird refuge
This 76,000-acre Great Salt Lake wetland was established by presidential proclamation and Congress in 1928.
Its mission: Provide feeding, breeding and resting habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife while maintaining the natural diversity of plants and animals native to the Bear River Basin.
A globally significant bird area, the refuge is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and is recognized by the National Audubon Society.
The Great Salt Lake hosts the largest populations in the Western Hemisphere of breeding American white pelicans, migrating snowy plovers and Wilson's phalaropes.
The refuge boasts a spring peak population of 18,000 shorebirds and a late-summer, early-fall tally of 69,000 shorebirds. It has 12 percent of the world's white-faced ibises and up to 60,000 tundra swans each fall and winter.
The James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center is located a quarter mile west of Interstate 15 off Exit 363 near Brigham City. Its hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. It is closed Sundays and federal holidays. A 12.5-mile auto tour is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
For more information, go to http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bear_river_migratory_bird_refuge/