Great Salt Lake Dying?

These Northern shovelers and green-winged teal are wintering at the Great Salt Lake. They will soon be joined by millions of other birds.

There are numerous features on our landscapes that we take for granted will always be there, at least within ours and our great-grandchildren’s life times. Imagine a world without the Grand Teton or the South Fork of the Snake River. How about the iconic Southern Butte or the Menan Buttes or the Lost River Range? These places define our world.

Of late, Utah politicians are coming to the conclusion that the Great Salt Lake, another icon impossible to imagine not there, may be dying. It is now at a 170-year low and continuing to decline in the face of a mega-drought affecting much of the West. Utah legislators have approved spending $46 million dollars on projects intent on restoring lake levels (precisely the opposite of the millions spent to get rid of water in 1983 after an overabundance of spring melt sent lake waters crashing over dikes and freeways). Experts consider these actions too little, too late.

Certainly the lake, the last meaningful puddle left behind from Lake Bonneville, has seen drought before. This time though, humans have had a hand, taking most of the water intended to maintain lake levels and using it for agriculture (65% of the water in the GSL drainage is allocated to farming) and for a burgeoning human population and their insatiable need for water for drinking, cleaning, watering lawns and golf courses.

To those new to the area, there might be a big, “so what?” lingering in the back of their minds. A big salty lake goes dry, who cares? Well, those who make their livelihoods extracting minerals, salt and brine shrimp, with a combined annual impact on local economies of $1.3 billion dollars, likely care.

Even more far reaching though, with tentacles extending into much of the continent, is the impact to wildlife, especially migrating birds. Great Salt Lake and its surrounding habitats support 330 bird species. That is impressive enough. However, the incredible variety of species is exceeded by the sheer volume of birds that are dependent on the lake during migration. Here are some figures from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources: half the world population of eared grebes, five million of them, count on the Great Salt Lake as a major stopover during migration. Six hundred thousand Wilson’s phalaropes, more than a third of the world population, depend on the lake as the largest single staging area on Earth. Snowy plovers, 21 percent of the continent’s population, funnel through Great Salt Lake and take advantage of the abundant food there. Millions of ducks of many species also utilize the Great Salt Lake. And that is just a smattering of the 330 species.

Some will argue that birds have wings and can just shift locations. Shift to where? We haven’t left them much room in a system where resources are stringently (over) allocated and flexibility is a dirty word. There isn’t much habitat that isn’t already being used, certainly not enough to absorb millions of extra mouths to feed.

The Great Salt Lake may not go dry, but the changes that are occurring may not be reversible. There are two invertebrates that live in vast numbers in the lake. Brine shrimp biomass equals that of all the people living along the Wasatch Front and brine flies are equally numerous in season. As the water levels drop, total habitat area declines as well. A drop of a single foot in the lake level can dry out thousands of acres. In addition, what is left becomes even saltier, further reducing habitat for these two species that all others depend upon, and changing the lake chemistry and productivity forever.

Last week we drove by Sevier Lake in west-central Utah. It’s plantless vast dry lake bed, symbolized by a white body with dashed blue lines through it on the Utah road map, was stark and depressing. It is unimaginable that future maps may depict the Great Salt Lake in this same way—dry, desolate and lifeless—after serving wildlife for millennia, but we are at its doorstep and we may not be willing or able to do anything to stop it.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho