Opinion: One little bird’s fate is intimately tied to the future of Great Salt Lake

If we can save Wilson’s phalarope, we will be saving Great Salt Lake and saving ourselves.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Saltair on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake is pictured below storm clouds on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.

Anyone who reads this newspaper is aware of the crisis we face with our drying and dying Great Salt Lake. But you might be less familiar with one of the most immediate consequences if the ecological collapse of Great Salt Lake continues — the loss of migratory bird species.

One of the most at-risk birds is the Wilson’s phalarope, an energetic little shorebird. More than 60% of the world’s population of Wilson’s phalarope rely on Great Salt Lake, using the lake as a way station to provide the sustenance (mostly in the form of brine flies and shrimp) for their fall migration to South America, which scientists think happens as a 4,000-mile nonstop flight — one of the longest migrations in the world.

Great Salt Lake is the most important stopover site in the world for Wilson’s phalarope, but it’s just one of many saline lakes the birds rely on that are in trouble. In recent years, Lake Abert in Oregon has mostly dried up four times because of agricultural water diversions. California’s Mono Lake, which is hanging on by a thread, is too small to support the population of Wilson’s phalarope should Great Salt Lake collapse.

That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, along with several other groups and scientists, are filing a petition to list the Wilson’s phalarope as threatened, which will give these birds the protection they need to avoid extinction.

The Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent extinction — 99% of the species protected under its care are still with us today.

One local example is the June sucker, a fish that lives nowhere else but Utah Lake and was listed as endangered in 1986. Habitat restoration to bring the June sucker back from the brink has been working, and in 2021 the fish population recovered enough to be moved from the “endangered” category to “threatened.”

Wilson’s phalaropes need similar protections. Restoring the Great Salt Lake to a consistently ecologically healthy level will ensure the survival of these shorebirds, and it will safeguard human health as well. Ensuring there is enough water for shorebirds will also mean the lakebed is safely covered, preventing airborne toxic dust that’s harmful to people as well as birds.

Two consecutive years of significant precipitation have granted us a short reprieve. But science shows that the grim progression toward a dewatered or severely degraded lake will continue without an enforceable plan to get more water to Great Salt Lake in the coming dry years.

Utah’s state leaders have taken some steps to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem, but new commitments to allow more water to flow into the lake fall far short of what is needed to prevent its collapse and protect people and Wilson’s phalaropes.

The looming collapse of Great Salt Lake has been an important catalyst for renewed discussion about Utahn’s water uses. Scientists say we need at least a million more acre-feet of water per year for the lake to be at sustainable levels, and we’re nowhere close to that. Wilson’s phalarope will only survive with huge infusions of water to refill Great Salt Lake.

This little bird’s fate is intimately tied to the future of the lake. And so is ours. If we can save Wilson’s phalarope, we will be saving Great Salt Lake and saving ourselves. This Endangered Species Act petition is an important step to get us there.

(Photo courtesy of Deeda Seed) Deeda Seed

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City council member, is the Center for Biological Diversity’s Utah Campaigner.

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