Photo Credit: Mary Anne Karren

 One of Great Salt Lake’s most unique residents is the Wilson’s Phalarope. The grayish-colored migratory shorebirds generally have rusty highlights on their long white necks and a wingspan of approximately 17 inches. They breed in wetlands, marshes, and shrubby areas before taking their nearly 4,000 mile migration in the winter to salt lakes and wetlands in southern South America. Since the 1980s, Wilson’s Phalarope populations have decreased by around 70%. This decrease in population has been caused by extensive destruction of lake and wetland habitat in North and South America. The bird’s most important remaining habitat is the Great Salt Lake.

Does the Wilson’s phalarope merit protection under the Endangered Species Act? Earlier this week, a group of scientists and conservationists officially started this discussion by submitting a 119-page petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This petition kicks off a process of state and federal assessment and planning. Depending on Utah’s response, this could bring more resources to the battle to restore Great Salt Lake or result in a jurisdictional struggle over sovereignty.

Wilson’s Phalarope is a naturally paradoxical shorebird most prevalent in the Western United States and Canada. They are the only shorebird that regularly swims in deep water–bobbing on the surface and spinning in circles like a ballerina—to bring food within reach. Interestingly, the Wilson’s Phalarope rejects conventional avian gender roles. Unlike most birds, phalarope females are bigger and more colorful than males, and the responsibility of raising chicks falls on the wings of the males. 

Shorebirds like the Wilson’s Phalarope are declining at an alarming rate due to their reliance on saline lakes with specialized habitats and prey. The Wilson’s Phalarope rely on tiny brine shrimp to collect enough energy to survive their strenuous migratory journeys. In North America, brine shrimp are primarily found in saline lakes like Lake Abert in Oregon, Mono Lake in California, and our own Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Upstream water use is driving these lakes to extinction all around the world, making the Wilson’s Phalarope’s primary resource and habitat increasingly scarce. Due to this loss, phalaropes and other migratory birds become more dependent on one of the few remaining functioning saline lake ecosystems: Great Salt Lake. 

As of now, Wilson’s Phalarope are only protected in Minnesota. However, the species has been observed in every state of the union, meaning that this petition could have major ripples. If there are grounds for listing, it would trigger a 50-state planning process to protect their habitat. The country’s eyes would be on Utah, Oregon, and California, since that is where the most critical habitat occurs. 

So is this petition somehow attacking the state of Utah? Absolutely not. Endangered Species Act petitions are filed when a species is in decline. The state of Utah has made major efforts to understand Great Salt Lake and they recently rolled out their strategic plan to gradually return the lake to a healthy level. But this is a major undertaking. In fact, it’s unprecedented. No community anywhere in the world has succeeded in restoring a large saline lake after it began to decline. In short, this is going to take a lot of help, money, and focus. It also means that the impact of success is that much greater. Could our community be the first to trace a path of saline lake stewardship?

Even if the petition to list this unique species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act is not successful, it could trigger state and federal governments to take significant action to ensure protection for the Wilson’s Phalarope’s. Because Great Salt Lake’s watershed extends into Idaho and Wyoming, this could be game changing as far as bringing people to the table and coming up with a comprehensive approach.

While focused on the phalarope, listing the species and protecting its habitat requires getting more water to Great Salt Lake. This change stands to benefit the ecosystem, economy, and all of our health. 

This coming Wednesday at 7pm, Grow the Flow will be hosting an expert panel to discuss the petition. Check out the details on the calendar here.

“We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history” (Sonia Johnson).