All Photos Credited to Mary Anne Karren

“We don’t own Planet Earth, we belong to it. And we must share it with our wildlife” –Steve Erwin 

Every year, the Great Salt Lake becomes a hub of activity as ten million birds descend upon its shores. Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem is a lifeline for 338 different species of birds, offering vital habitat to raise their young, rest, and replenish before they continue arduous migrations across the globe. 

This unique lake serves as a critical stopover for numerous bird species, including the Eared Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet, and Black-Necked Stilt. Without this vital resting point, these species face a heightened risk of endangerment. An astonishing 90% of North America’s Eared Grebe population relies on the Great Salt Lake, where they consume up to 30,000 brine shrimp each day. The availability of these tiny crustaceans is essential for fueling their migration and ensuring successful reproduction. Without them, the survival of many bird populations would be at risk of plummeting towards extinction. 

The importance of the Great Salt Lake extends beyond mere sustenance; its wetlands and surrounding mudflats provide essential habitat for 8-10 million migratory birds annually. Many species congregate in larger populations here than anywhere else on the planet. Breeding colonies of American White Pelicans and California Gulls, along with substantial populations of Snowy Plovers, Common Goldeneyes, and Cinnamon Teals all rely on these habitats for their survival.

With such dependence on the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, the future of these bird populations is intrinsically connected to the lake’s health. Habitat degradation, water diversions, pollution, and climate change threaten the survival of species reliant on Great Salt Lake. While there is no definitive evidence linking lower lake levels to a decline in bird numbers, the drying up of other saline lakes across the western United States has led to an increase in migratory bird populations at the Great Salt Lake. As similar ecosystems such as Owen’s Lake and the Salton Sea disappear, migratory birds are forced to  seek out new sources for the food and rest they need. The Great Salt Lake has increasingly become the last significant wetland habitat area on the Pacific Flyway, making its preservation critically important to global waterfowl and shorebird populations. As the Division of Wildlife has stated, migratory bird populations have increased at Great Salt Lake because, “they have no other place to go, all with less food available than before”

Despite these challenges, the resilience of migratory birds remains awe-inspiring. Wilson’s Phalaropes, for example, doubled their weight during their stopover at the Great Salt Lake, fueling a non-stop flight to South America. Eared Grebes, on the other hand, gorge on brine shrimp, doubling their weight and molting into a flightless state, creating a vulnerable reliance on the lake’s resources during this critical period.

While the possibility of a mass die-off of bird populations due to changes in the lake’s salinity remains a concern, the dispersal of migratory bird species along their migration routes makes it difficult to predict the extent of the impact. Nevertheless, the importance of preserving the Great Salt Lake and its fragile ecosystem cannot be overstated. Conservation efforts aimed at safeguarding this vital habitat are essential in maintaining the Pacific Flyway—the western hemisphere’s most significant migratory bird pathway. 

The Great Salt Lake stands as a beacon of hope for migratory and threatened bird species, offering a sanctuary amidst their perilous journeys. As stewards of this natural wonder, it is our collective responsibility to ensure its preservation for generations to come. Communicate with your elected officials about how they are focusing their attention and efforts on Great Salt Lake and all that rely on it.