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Can this tiny bird enlist the federal government to get more water to the Great Salt Lake?

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 29, 2024

Courtesy Ron Ozuna

Wilson’s phalaropes at Mono Lake, California.

Environmental groups on Thursday filed a petition to protect a bird that uses the Great Salt Lake as a migratory stop under the Endangered Species Act, a step that could in turn enlist the federal government to bring more water to the lake.

It’s a simple equation. The bird, Wilson’s phalarope, needs the Great Salt Lake to survive — if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as endangered, getting more water to the lake will likely be part of its plan.

“The federal government then becomes involved in overseeing the effort to save the species and there are federal levers that can be used to compel action by a state,” said Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups petitioning for the listing.

“The state government doesn’t want that to happen, but if the state doesn’t get its act together and ensure that we’re going to have more water to the lake, then federal action is what’s needed,” she said, speaking by the steps of the Utah Capitol as a group of roughly 50 environmental activists gathered to celebrate the petition.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines an endangered species as an animal facing serious risk of extinction — a threatened species is an animal that risks being endangered in the near future. According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, there are currently 18 animals in Utah that are listed, 10 of them endangered and eight of them threatened.

Among Utah’s endangered species are the June sucker, a fish only found in Utah Lake, and the California Condor, which famously nests in Zion National Park.

Groups can petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list a species as endangered. The service then has 90 days to decide whether that petition reaches the threshold for increased protections.

But listing a species is often a contentious move, evoking claims of federal overreach and escalating tension between state governments and Washington, D.C. Efforts to reintroduce wolves are a classic example, with hunters, ranchers and politicians in western states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming railing against the federal government-imposed protections on wolves for years. Congress delisted wolves in the Northern Rockies in 2011 and the Trump administration later stripped protections for all wolves in the U.S. in 2020. In 2022 a judge reinstated the listing, except for the Northern Rockies region.

The contention stems from a federal recovery plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intended to help populations rebound, but adds extra steps and costs for development and infrastructure projects. The groups speaking at the Capitol on Thursday are hoping the listing will do just that — get the federal government involved in helping the Wilson’s phalarope, while forcing the state to act.

It’s likely Utah will fight the listing, as lawmakers put $2 million into the Endangered Species Mitigation Fund this legislative session, which is used to push back against these petitions, while trying to delist other species.

During a Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee meeting in February, lawmakers discussed the request to add to the fund, which they ultimately approved. Russ Franklin with Central Utah Water Conservancy District told lawmakers the fund saves the state money in the long term, while “preserving the state’s management authority.”

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, told the committee “there are some extreme environmental groups looking at the Great Salt Lake and the fact that they’re even talking about these types of listing is ludicrous or not warranted.”

And Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said infrastructure projects all over rural Utah “get hindered by these kind of things.”

“They’re very resistant to having a federal agency tell the state what to do. That’s where the tension comes,” said Seed, who told Utah News Dispatch “the federal government has more resources than we do at the state level. This issue affects not just Utah but the entire Intermountain West, and in regard to the bird species, the entire western hemisphere.”

Wilson’s phalarope is a unique shorebird that makes an annual migration from Canada all the way to the Andes Mountains in South America.

After raising their young in western Canada, over one-quarter of the world’s Wilson’s phalaropes stop at the Great Salt Lake each year to shed and regrow their feathers while nearly doubling their weight on a diet of brine shrimp and brine flies.

“There’s only three big saline lakes in North America that can provide this habitat, and the Great Salt Lake is by far the most important,” said Ryan Carle with the group Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, who helped prepare the petition.

Researchers from Cornell University say the birds sometimes get so fat they can’t even fly, allowing them to be caught by hand and studied. Once they’ve had their fill, the Wilson’s phalarope flies south to lagoons in the Andes.

But as the Great Salt Lake’s health declines, so do populations of Wilson’s phalarope — author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams on Thursday referred to them as the “canary in the coal mine.”

“Their health is our health,” she said as a group stood on the steps of the Utah Capitol. “There is no separation between a healthy Wilson’s phalarope population and a healthy human population along the Wasatch Front. Both of our lives are threatened by a shrinking Great Salt Lake.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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