By Mark Biddlecomb
Utah is dry—really dry. When thinking about Utah, most people conjure up images of redrock canyons or the barren Bonneville Salt Flats. Indeed, Utah only receives about 15 inches of precipitation annually. So as you might guess, this makes wetlands in Utah pretty scarce. In fact, only about 1 percent of Utah’s land mass is considered to be wetland habitat. You may ask yourself why, then, is Ducks Unlimited so interested in conserving wetlands there?
The answer, in large part, is the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Located in northern Utah along the west side of the Wasatch Mountain Range, Great Salt Lake supports 75 percent of Utah’s wetlands. Wetland types include what many think of as “typical” marsh, i.e., seasonal and semipermanent wetlands growing cattails and tules, as well as pondweeds, smartweeds, and other important waterfowl forage plants. However, vast mudflats and playas are also present, as are brackish areas located where freshwater inputs mingle with the salty water of the lake.
Great Salt Lake is the largest fresh-or saltwater lake in the United States after the Great Lakes. “Discovered” by the explorer and trapper Jim Bridger in 1825, Great Salt Lake covers an area of approximately 1 million acres. There are four main rivers that enter the lake: the Jordan, Weber, Ogden, and Bear. It is the terminal basin for a watershed that is more than 21,000 square miles in size.
The wetlands that surround Great Salt Lake total more than 400,000 acres and include both public and private marshlands. These wetlands support myriad waterfowl, shorebirds, other waterbirds, and a variety of other wildlife. The numbers can be truly astonishing. Five hundred thousand Wilson’s phalaropes, more than 1 million eared grebes, and more than 3 million green-winged teal, pintails, and other ducks call Great Salt Lake marshes home at some point in their annual life cycle. Many of these birds are drawn to the lake by the superabundance of invertebrates such as brine shrimp and brine flies, as well as the freshwater food resources provided in large, managed marshes such as the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and private duck clubs.
The Great Salt Lake system clearly is important for waterfowl. However, like so many places these days, it is also under siege from a wide variety of human use, degradation, and disturbance. Located directly adjacent to Salt Lake City and its suburbs, it is literally side-by-side to more than a million people, and this number grows by leaps and bounds every year. In fact, the Wasatch Front is predicted to be built out by 2050. That means that in less than 50 years, most all the remaining open land, land that is now irrigated pasture, alfalfa, corn, and yes, some of the wetlands, will be built over.
The juxtaposition of these wetlands to the city is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that this remarkable resource is so accessible to so many people. Birdwatchers, hunters, students, and people who just enjoy open space can all visit many of the wetlands that are just outside their door. Yet, this juxtaposition is the problem, too. Urban expansion continues to threaten the very existence of many of these wetlands. Water diversions, loss of water quality, loss of habitat to development, and loss of habitat to exotic species such as carp and phragmites are just some of the issues facing us today.