Wetlands Under Siege

Facing water shortages and rampant development, the wetlands of the Intermountain West are among North America's most imperiled waterfowl habitats

By Matt Young

Once labeled the Great American Desert by 18th century geographers, the dry and rugged Intermountain West might seem an unlikely place to find marshes teeming with waterfowl. However, in a few special areas of this arid region, where torrents of mountain runoff flood fertile valley lowlands or broad shallow basins with life-giving water, highly productive wetlands spring to life.

The scarcity of water in the Intermountain West makes these habitats particularly vital to waterfowl and other migratory birds. During the spring and fall, they serve as rest stops for an estimated 12 to 18 million migrating ducks, geese, and swans, as well as equally impressive numbers of shorebirds, raptors, and neotropical songbirds. The region also supports significant numbers of breeding ducks, including the majority of North America's cinnamon teal.

The wetlands of the Intermountain West face many threats, foremost among them declining water quality and quantity. During the past decade, rampant human population growth has caused a dramatic rise in the demand for water, and competition for limited water supplies will only increase as more people settle in the region. The continued expansion of many other forms of development, including urban sprawl, power generation, and mining, also present significant challenges to the region's wetlands and waterfowl.

Given the great importance of western wetlands, DU has launched a new initiative to conserve these critical habitats. In cooperation with several government agencies, foundations, corporations, and other conservation organizations, DU's Intermountain West Initiative is working to conserve wetlands and associated uplands throughout Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of California and Oregon. DU and its partners carefully target their conservation efforts in the most valuable and threatened wetland ecosystems in the Intermountain West.

The Great Salt Lake

The extensive marshes adjacent to Utah's Great Salt Lake are among the most productive wetlands in the world. Historically, these marshes annually produced more than 500,000 ducks, primarily mallards, redheads, pintails, and cinnamon teal. An additional 1 million waterfowl used the marshes each year for molting and staging habitat.

During the mid-1980s, high lake levels inundated the majority of the Great Salt Lake marshes, devastating many wetlands that were being carefully managed by government agencies and private duck clubs. When the floodwaters receded, DU joined a number of partners to restore these critical waterfowl habitats. With funding from two North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants, as well as support from private foundations, DU and its partners have conserved more than 15,000 acres of critical wetlands in the region. Some recent examples of DU projects either completed or under way in the area include:

  • On the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, DU engineers designed an improved water delivery system that will allow the Utah Division of Wildlife to independently manage wetland units to provide optimum habitat conditions for waterfowl and other wildlife. Completed in the summer of 2001, this project enhanced more than 6,000 acres of wetlands on this popular public hunting and wildlife viewing area.
  • DU is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to improve waterfowl breeding habitat on the 17,000-acre grassland unit on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. DU engineers and USFWS construction crews restored several brood ponds to encourage greater use of the area by breeding ducks, especially mallards and cinnamon teal.
  • Members of the Ambassador Duck Club joined DU, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, and Natural Resources Conservation Service to repair dikes, install water-control structures, and improve water-delivery systems, restoring or enhancing 2,600 acres of club property enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program. Waterfowl production, as well as the number of migrating waterfowl visiting the area, will increase as a result of improved habitat conditions.

While great progress has been made in conserving these critical wetlands, the Great Salt Lake marshes continue to face an uncertain future. The Wasatch Front is currently home to approximately 1.6 million people. Over the next 50 years, the population is expected to soar to more than 5 million. Such rapid growth will undoubtedly place extreme pressure on water supplies, open space, agricultural land, and wildlife habitat. Projections indicate 273,000 additional acres of land in the region will be developed by 2050.

In response to these threats, DU has stationed a biologist and an engineer in the area to coordinate conservation activities, partnership development, and funding acquisition. Ensuring adequate supplies of freshwater for high-value wetland habitats will also be critical in the years ahead. DU is presently seeking funding for research that would design geographic information system models that will help determine the likely impacts future water diversions would have on the Great Salt Lake marshes.

The Klamath Basin

The Klamath Basin, located along the Oregon-California border, once supported more than 5 million migrating ducks, geese, and swans-the largest known concentration of waterfowl in the world-inspiring President Theodore Roosevelt to establish a national waterfowl refuge there in 1908. Although widespread wetland losses have resulted in a significant decline in the abundance of waterfowl that now visit the region, the Klamath Basin continues to host peak numbers of more than 1 million waterfowl in the fall, primarily on the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges. This includes nearly the entire Pacific Flyway population of white-fronted geese, as well as large numbers of cackling Canada geese, snow geese, mallards, pintails, wigeon, teal, and shovelers. The region's wetlands and surrounding agricultural lands provide critical resting areas and food for the birds, many of which arrive in depleted physical condition after crossing vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean while migrating from their distant Arctic breeding grounds.

Significant numbers of waterfowl also rely on Klamath Basin habitats during spring migration. Recent satellite telemetry research supported in part by DU has revealed that a large proportion of pintails that winter in California's Central Valley stage in the region for several weeks from March through May. Female pintails must acquire fat reserves at this time to sustain them during their arduous migration north and to successfully breed. In addition, studies suggest that half of the hen mallards that breed in California's Central Valley molt on Klamath Basin wetlands. Without these habitats, molting hens may have to disperse to less secure wetlands in other areas, which could decrease the birds' survival.

Despite the tremendous importance of Klamath Basin wetlands to Pacific Flyway waterfowl populations, these habitats are currently threatened by severe water shortages. Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges currently receive much of their water from the Klamath Irrigation Project, which also supplies 220,000 acres of surrounding agricultural land. In 2001, a severe drought forced federal authorities to divert water from the irrigation project to provide habitat for several endangered fish species, preventing farmers from irrigating their crops and restricting water deliveries to the refuges. This also resulted in a dramatic decrease in the habitat available to waterfowl last fall, as well as greatly diminished hunting opportunities for waterfowlers. DU has joined the Wildlife Management Institute, National Audubon Society, Audubon Society of Portland, and National Wildlife Refuge Association in support of a series of measures to improve wetland management at both the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges. The coalition also supports changes in irrigation policy and land use that would ensure more reliable water deliveries to the refuges during times of peak waterfowl use. In addition, pending funding approval by Congress, DU and the USFWS will conduct an extensive topographic and water-delivery-system survey of both refuges in an effort to improve wetland management and water-use efficiency. This will be the largest survey effort ever undertaken by DU biologists and engineers. Lastly, DU and its partners' recommend additional wetland habitat restoration work on both public and private lands.

To date, DU has helped to conserve, restore, or enhance more than 17,000 wetland acres in the Klamath Basin, with an additional 25,000 acres of wetlands to be restored in the near future. DU is also exploring opportunities to expand its conservation work in the region by helping farmers flood harvested croplands and restore habitat on lands enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program. All of these conservation activities will not only provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other wetland wildlife, but they will also help improve water quality and quantity as well, benefiting people and fisheries.