Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
American white pelicans are easy to spot on a summer day at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a 77,000-acre nature reserve in the northern Great Salt Lake. Dozens of the large birds drift lazily on the water. They occasionally band together in a semicircle to trap and scoop up carp in their giant bills.
Pelicans at the refuge have flown thousands of miles to reach the Great Salt Lake, where thousands of them will hatch chicks on desolate Gunnison Island, one of the species’ largest breeding colonies. After their young grow, the pelicans will migrate south through Mexico, some will go as far as Central America, before they return again next year.
An estimated 330 avian species use the lake as a breeding ground or a layover during migration.
But this important habitat is in trouble. Water levels at the Great Salt Lake are declining. For the pelicans, that means their breeding island is open to mainland predators, and there is less wetland habitat for them to fish.
“You hear about death by a thousand cuts, and that is kind of where pelicans are,” said Jaimi Butler, the coordinator for the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College.
As the lake gets lower and lower, no one is quite sure how the pelicans or the other bird species that call the lake home will respond. It’s possible migrating birds, which are used to traveling long distances, will be able to find new places to go in the future. But bodies of water all over the West are also shrinking as the Western United States faces extreme droughts.
“Any negative impact to the lake and the area is going to negatively impact millions of birds that use this area,” said Cooper Farr, director of conservation at Tracy Aviary.
If the marshes dry up and the fish vanish, it’s more than a loss for Utah; losing the Great Salt Lake could be devastating to migrating bird populations all over the Western Hemisphere.
A shrinking lake
The Great Salt Lake’s elevation has been trending downward for decades. The lake is currently down 20 feet from its high. That might not sound like a lot, but it makes a big difference because the lake is so shallow to begin with.
At its historic average of 4,200 feet, it covers about 1,700 square miles. Today, the lake’s surface area is approximately 970 square miles, according to U.S. Geological Survey numbers.
Less water means wetlands will dry up and salinity will increase, threatening both the fish and brine shrimp, which are staples of birds’ food supplies.
As the lake shrinks, the impacts on birds won’t be uniform. The lake is not a single entity, according to Brian Tavernia, saline lakes ecologist with the National Audubon Society.
“There’s a mosaic of different wetland habitats at the lake,” he said. “Changing lake elevation… may have unequal impacts on those different wetland types.”
So far, there isn’t evidence that the drying lake has impacted overall bird populations. A count of migrating birds showed stable or growing populations in several of the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands between 1997 and 2017, but that period does not include the worst of Utah’s drought. As other wetlands and lakes in the region also go dry, it’s also possible those numbers show an increase in birds being pushed to the Great Salt Lake as the drought takes other pieces of their normal habitat.
The cause of the lake’s decline is multifaceted, with blame shared between human-made global climate change and local water policies, according to Simon Wang, a professor of climate at Utah State University, although he believes climate change will have a slightly bigger impact in the long run. Hotter weather means more evaporation from the lake’s surface, while reduced snowpack means water isn’t coming to refill the lake.
And as the rivers leading to the lake dry up or get diverted, there’s concern for freshwater wetlands like the bird refuge, according to biologist Kyle Stone with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program. The Bear River Bay, an important fishing ground for pelicans, is almost dry this year. Farmington Bay resembles something closer to a river than a bay because there is so little water available.
For now, it looks like the lake will keep declining, according to Wang.
Coyotes near nests
Pelican breeding numbers have trended down in recent years, according to John Neill, an avian biologist with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program.
“We haven’t counted the pelicans for 2021, so I don’t know what the trend will be,” he said in an email, “but my impression is that 2021 is lower than 2020.”
Low water levels have allowed a land bridge to form between the mainland and Gunnison Island, allowing humans and predators to get to the island. Cameras stationed on the island by scientists have captured photos of coyotes on the nesting grounds.
Although there is no evidence that coyotes have eaten any live hatchlings, scientists are concerned that the disturbance will scare birds away from their nests. The coyotes have been seen preying on great blue herons, and they appear to have scavenged on dead pelicans.
There aren’t a lot of other safe places for pelicans to breed, according to Butler, since many freshwater lakes have boaters and people that disturb them. As pelicans lose more breeding spots, they are concentrated in smaller areas, which makes them more vulnerable if something goes wrong on the Great Salt Lake.
Less water in surrounding freshwater wetlands and the Bear River Bay could mean less fish, and, as a result, less food, for pelicans and their hatchlings. Baby pelicans also rely on the fish their parents bring back as their source of moisture in Utah’s arid climate.
The lack of water is apparent at the Bear River Refuge, where dry beds and grass fill spaces that used to hold water. State officials control water flow at the refuge, directing water into different sections of the reserve based on the needs of birds and other wildlife.
Jen Wright, a biologist working for the refuge, said current water levels at the refuge are much lower than normal this year, although she thinks the birds have enough fish for now.
“The water that we get... a lot of it has been pulled already for agriculture and other uses,” she said. “We manage what we can, and this year is going to be difficult... We are doing the best we can with what we have.”
Losing the humble grebe
Pelicans aren’t the only birds that need the lake. A number of species, including eared grebes, snowy plovers and black-necked stilts flock to the lake to eat brine flies and brine shrimp, which are found in hypersaline lakes, according to Wildland Resources professor Mike Conover and Ph.D. student Mark Bell of Utah State University, who published a chapter on the subject in the book “Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change.”
The eared grebes, diving birds that look like tiny, black ducks, could be in more immediate danger if the lake keeps shrinking.
It is estimated that over 85% of the North American population of eared grebes can be found at the lake during the fall. Conover and Bell say the lake is becoming the “last bastion” for the species.
As water levels drop, the salinity gets more concentrated and could get too high for brine shrimp, Bell said, and that would be a catastrophe for grebes.
Although brine shrimp can survive at levels of salinity up to about 30%, the plankton they feed on suffer at around 17%, according to Stone. The lake’s southern half, which is bisected from the much saltier and mostly birdless northern half by a railroad causeway, is currently sitting at about 15% salinity, higher than its 20-year average of 13%, said Stone.
The low runoff this year meant the salinity did not decrease when it normally does in the spring, and hot summer days could mean increased evaporation. That could mean less plankton, less plankton could mean less brine shrimp, and that means less food for the grebes.
The grebes, which stay at the lake from the end of July to November or December, molt at the lake and gorge themselves on brine shrimp to store up fat supplies for their winter migration, when they disperse for Southern California and Mexico. They temporarily lose their ability to fly while at the lake.
Fall is also the time of year when the lake is the lowest, said Bell. He is concerned that 5 million grebes could be stuck at the Great Salt Lake, at the same time as the lake becomes too salty for proper brine shrimp to survive.
“If there’s no food and they can’t leave, that would be a horrific scene,” he said. He said the birds don’t have many alternatives since many saline lakes in the West face similar threats as the Great Salt Lake.
That mass die-off could happen soon if things don’t turn around.
“We are in that area of concern, will we reach 16, 17% [lake salinity] this year?” said Stone.
If next year brings a great snowpack, things should be OK, said Stone. But if next year is like this one, it would be time to worry about the grebes.
The pelicans are in danger now; people will be next
As the lake rapidly vanishes, there is still a lot to learn about the birds on the lake, and how to protect them.
In May, Sen. Mitt Romney introduced legislation for an assessment of saline lake ecosystems, including the Great Salt Lake. The legislation, which Audubon supports, would authorize a USGS study to create a plan for conserving saline lakes. Migratory birds are included in the text of the legislation as a priority.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has received funding for a new pelican tracking project to see how many young pelicans successfully leave Gunnison Island in a given year, said Neill. The DWR wants to look at how much food is available for birds at the lake, and whether it is enough to sustain them. So far, that study hasn’t found funding.
Water policy may ultimately determine what happens to the lake. The lake is vanishing because of the drought, but also because of diversions upstream for agriculture and drinking water.
The lake is resilient and has rebounded from low levels before, but if levels are too low for too long, it might never recover, warned Marcelle Shoop, director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society.
Shoop said the state needs to find ways to make sure more water is going to the lake by preserving open lands around the lake, looking at how water is used in a way that considers the lake.
Ultimately, if the lake continues to dry up, it isn’t just birds that will suffer.
The Great Salt Lake is important for industries like tourism and the harvesting of brine shrimp eggs. A dry lake would mean the end of the “lake effect,” which brings Wasatch Front ski resorts its fabled “Greatest Snow on Earth” and provides some of precipitation for the Salt Lake Valley. A report commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council on eight other saline lakes that are drying around the world found that drying lakes can result in billions of dollars in economic losses.
The dust left behind by a dry lake wouldn’t stay put. Dust from terminal lakes like the Great Salt Lake often contains high concentrations of chemicals that are dangerous for people, according to the report. Salt dust would worsen the Wasatch Front’s pollution problem, exacerbating asthma cases, lung diseases and infections.
A dry Great Salt Lake would be an “environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scales,” according to Butler.
The pelicans and grebes would just be the start. “They’re the peli-canary in the coal mine,” said Butler. “Humans and other animals are going to suffer from the same things that are happening to pelicans. They’re just the first ones that are really going to be seeing those effects.”