Utah's Great Salt Lake is the "Bird Crossroads of the Intermountain West" with its productive wetlands serving as a hub for migratory waterbirds in both the Pacific and Central Flyways. It is a designated a Western Hemispheric Shorebirds Reserve Network site not solely for this reason but because it is also home to the largest breeding colony of white pelicans and snowy plovers in the west, host to the largest migrating population of Wilson's phalaropes in the west, resting area for thousands and thousands of pie-bill and eared grebes, gourmet kitchen for millions of other resident and migrating waterbirds, and more "best," "biggest," or "most" designations than many birder enthusiasts can keep straight. The importance of this giant salt-water wetland, and its associated freshwater components, to migratory birds cannot be understated.
But not just birds call the Great Salt Lake basin home. Close to two million people live here, with thousands more arriving each year. A recent National Geographic Society article on urban sprawl identified this part of the Intermountain West as one of the top 15 fastest growing regions in the country. Those that have lived here for more than 10 years can testify to the amount of development that has occurred along the Wasatch Front and to the dramatic increases in land values.
Thus a conflict arises between the lifecycle needs of Great Salt Lake wildlife and the development desires of their human neighbors. In most circumstances these are mutually exclusive conditions and development wins, but not always. In 1999, a unique conservation partnership was formed to safeguard existing and restore degraded wetland wildlife habitat before it was too late. This partnership was the Great Salt Lake Wetlands Project (Project), which used a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to protect and restore over 16,500 acres of wetland habitats associated with the Lake.
The Great Salt Lake Wetlands Project partnership consisted of Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, The Nature Conservancy, Utah Wetlands Foundation, Davis County, the Ambassador and New State ducks clubs, the Friends of Bear River Refuge, and the Burton Foundation. These partners combined match from a variety of wetland habitat conservation activities along the Wasatch Front lakeshore. The outcome has been a partnership protecting over 1,000 acres of vital wetland and associated upland habitats through fee-title and conservation easement acquisitions, as well as restoring hydrologic regimes to over 15,000 acres of wetlands on federal, state, and private areas.
The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest private habitat managers in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area and many of the areas protected through the Project are located within TNC's Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve. Davis County has also contributed significantly to protecting wetlands by adhering to its Wetland Conservation Plan by acquiring and donating easements on properties with important wetland values to both The Nature Conservancy and the Division of Wildlife Resources.
The bulk of the wetland restoration efforts were focused on the southern part of the Lake. Ducks Unlimited provided the coordination for each project by designing and having constructed each restoration project. On the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, the Project was able to renovate and reconfigure the water management system to allow for precise and stable water control for over 5,000 acres. Similarly, at the Ambassador and New State duck clubs the water management systems were restored to allow them to manage for the highest quality waterbird habitat possible.
Other restoration activities occurred on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Box Elder County. Here the Refuge was able to restore over 500 acres of seasonal waterfowl brooding and nesting wetland habitat in their Grasslands Unit. Freshwater nesting and brooding habitat is one of the most limiting wetland habitat types in the northern part of the Salt Lake Basin. With the completion of these projects a marked increase in the amount of waterbird production has already been observed.
The wetlands and waterbirds of the Great Salt Lake are signatures of the intermountain region. The wetlands of the Great Salt Lake are the backbone supporting the tremendous waterbird populations that we all enjoy and expect to see each spring and fall. The joy of seeing 500,000 Wilson's phalaropes or 300,000 northern pintails up close cannot be replaced. Without the dedication and continued support of conservation partnerships, these irreplaceable habitats and their associated wildlife will slowly degrade and disappear.
The Great Salt Lake Wetlands Project ended in 2002, then continued with the implementation of a Phase 2 NAWCA grant, which protected and restored an additional several thousands of acres of Great Salt Lake wetlands. As more and more people understand the importance of wetlands, society as a whole will realize our dependence on them. As our population centers expand closer and closer to these vital ecosystems, the need for wetland conservation will only continue to grow.