Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
Editor's note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.
TIMPIE SPRINGS, Tooele County — Off of I-80 in Tooele County and past a mountain of salt from a nearby Cargill plant is Timpie Springs Waterfowl Management Area.
It's here that Sageland Collaborative ecologist Janice Gardner, along with Sageland Collaborative Executive Director Josh Wood and photographer Harrison Porter, began a survey on this muggy, overcast Friday morning. This flat, treeless site is a spring-fed playa wetland, with swaying grasses and a shimmering body of water in its center.
Some think wetlands like this are barren and lifeless, but they're extremely productive shorebird habitat, Gardner says. The insects provide a great food source for the birds, while the grasses give them a hiding place for predators.
Gardner, Wood and Porter are here because the shrinking Great Salt Lake is literally a matter of life and death for migratory shorebirds. Some shorebirds breed at the lake, laying their eggs and raising their young. Others stop at the lake during their migration routes, using the wetlands as a refueling station on their long journeys.
Shorebirds rely so heavily on the Great Salt Lake that one conservation group considers it one of the most important spots in the western hemisphere for the birds. Gardner says the lake is "like the best Maverik" gas station for dozens of shorebird species coming from all over the hemisphere.
"Without a doubt, the Great Salt Lake is the most important wetland in the Intermountain West," she said.
However, with the lake's water level dropping to historic lows two years in a row, shorebirds are slowly losing this critical habitat.
The Sageland Collaborative views the Great Salt Lake's wetlands as a missing piece in the wildlife conservation data puzzle of the Intermountain West. Yet a Great Salt Lake wetlands needs report compiled by the group in 2020 acknowledged a lack of data, as well as a lack of communication and collaboration between wetlands managers due to understaffing and other missing resources.
Enter the 2022 migratory shorebird survey.
About 100 volunteers surveyed 50 wetland sites across the Great Salt Lake last week, counting shorebirds and gathering data about how the creatures use the wetlands during the fall migration season. A total of 189 sites in 11 western U.S. states were also surveyed.
Surveying the Great Salt Lake
Equipped with binoculars, a long camera lens and a scope she mounts on her Subaru's window, Gardner drives along a dike around the water's edge, tallying up any shorebird she sees.
She sees black-necked stilts first, their long, pink legs trotting through the shallow waters as they poke their needle-thin beaks around in search of food. American avocets and willets float on the pond's calm surface nearby. Gardner then spots the bobbing heads of a snowy plover and its chick among the grasses. There are also pelicans corraling fish into a corner of the pond before gobbling them up.
This August survey is an effort to fill in a large data gap and gain a like-for-like comparison of how shorebirds are using various wetlands across the Great Salt Lake and the rest of the West. The last comprehensive effort to gather data on migratory shorebirds in the Intermountain West took place from 1989 to 1995, but there hasn't been anything else since.
Conservationists plan to repeat the survey at the same sites for the next three to five years during spring and fall migration periods to continue building up new data, Gardner said. Otherwise, making decisions about how best to protect the shorebird habitat on these wetlands without that data is like trying to operate a TikTok channel using dial-up AOL internet, she says.
"Doing shorebird surveys across the whole region like this allows us to fill in that information," Gardner adds. "We know that as we're losing water, our wetlands are drying, which means that there are no more bugs to eat in there. So we presume that that's bad news for the shorebirds."
Turning surveys into valuable information
The 1995 survey covered about 162 sites in the West and yielded a huge amount of valuable data about shorebirds and how they rely on wetlands in the region, said Max Malmquist, an outreach associate for the National Audubon Society's Saline Lakes Program, who is helping to count shorebirds during the survey period.
The survey told experts which sites were most important for shorebirds, such as Owens Lake in California, Lahontan Valley in Nevada and the Great Salt Lake. This 2022 survey will hopefully update that important information so that land managers can make decisions on how best to preserve them in the places they are now, Malmquist said.
"That kind of information and data is going to be critically important for them to think about how they manage their wetlands and what kind of management actions they can take to maximize the amount of habitat available for shorebirds," he said, "and help these birds and make sure that they continue to have the habitat and the food resources they need, especially during migration."
Without knowing how overall populations of shorebirds are doing, it's hard to do any specific management for them, said John Neill, a Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. He expects that the survey will reveal information about breeding and wintering trends for shorebirds.
"That will give us some credence to provide more management and shorebird habitat for these birds during migration," Neill said.
We're kind of on the verge of potential ecosystem collapse. And so I think the next couple years are going to be very telling of what is actually going to happen — and will happen — with the birds if we can't do something about the lake.
–Max Malmquist, outreach associate for the National Audubon Society's Saline Lakes Program
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the lake level near Farmington Bay was closer to average, and there was more saltwater there, Neill explained. But as lake levels dropped in the following years, the bay became more freshwater than saline, and more fish are present in the bay now.
That means that more pelicans, cormorants and terns now occupy the bay to feast on the fish. This new survey can help document those trends as birds' behaviors change and they fly to different areas around the lake.
A new challenge
The changing conditions of the lake mean that this survey is more challenging in some ways than the 1995 survey, though, Gardner said. Since the water level is lower, the shore of the lake is further away and less accessible now. Surveyors could once take an airboat out on the lake to count birds, but some of those areas have dried up, making boat travel impossible.
One portion of Gardner's survey includes an eerie half-mile trek across a lifeless mudflat that she speculates was once underwater.
Receding waters exposed craggy, reef-like deposits of sediment and microbes known as microbialites at Malmquist's survey area near Great Salt Lake State Park. It forced him to dodge the delicate obstacles during his count. And the low lake level means there is more surface area of shoreline now and more volunteers are needed to cover all that ground, Gardner adds.
Finding a consistent stream of volunteers to help with the twice-yearly surveys moving forward may be difficult, Gardner and Malmquist say. Gardner adds that counting at 50 sites and coordinating dozens of volunteers, all on the same day, can be as logistically complicated and stressful as planning a wedding.
But this work is important. Shorebirds have evolved using the same migratory paths for eons. If they are no longer able to come to the Great Salt Lake and have to recalibrate those paths, they can really struggle, Gardner says.
Malmquist and Gardner both hope that the surveys can give experts the crucial information they need about the lake to keep protecting that lifeline for shorebirds.
"If we're losing all these places at the same time, I think that really is going to test the birds' resilience and their ability to move from place to place and find habitat where it's available," Malmquist says. "If there's no habitat available we might start to see some very interesting things happen."
"We're kind of on the verge of potential ecosystem collapse," he adds. "And so I think the next couple years are going to be very telling of what is actually going to happen — and will happen — with the birds if we can't do something about the lake."