The Great Salt Lake Is Low, What Does This Mean For Wildlife?

Sep 13, 2021

Gulls and cormorants fly over waters of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
Credit Aimee Van Tatenhove

As the Great Salt Lake continues to decline, not only is wildlife is being impacted around the lake, but across the region.

The size of the Great Salt Lake is measured by height above sea level. The record height of the lake was just over 4,211 feet in 1980s, but as of late August this year, the lake is estimated to have dropped to around 4,190 feet. This is a decrease of about 20 feet, making the surface area of the shallow Great Salt Lake 44% smaller than it was in the 80s.

So, what does it mean for wildlife as the lake gets smaller, and saltier?

Over 330 different species of birds use the lake and surrounding habitat for migration stopover points, and for breeding. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge alone sees 250 different species passing through by the millions each year.

Cooper Farr is the Director of Conservation at Tracy Aviary, a non-profit focused on avian conservation and outreach around the Great Salt Lake.

“Over 75% of Utah's wetlands are actually located within the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. So they're in this area that is surrounding the lake in this area, where the freshwater comes and meets the saltwater. And wetlands are really, really important for birds, especially as breeding areas for birds. So as water decreases, and you get a loss of some of these wetlands, it really impacts the birds that are relying on these areas to nest and to feed and to live throughout the year,” Farr said.

According to Farr, decreasing water levels can lead to a myriad of issues, including less food for wetland birds. Less food means fewer nestlings will hatch and the ones that do are less likely to survive. For migratory birds needing a boost in calories for their long journeys, a decrease in food can lead to mass die-off events.

“Lower water levels could concentrate birds in these areas and these kinds of remaining patches of wetlands. And so getting them really close together can also spread diseases,” Farr said.

When it comes to disease, crowding isn’t the only concern. As water levels decrease, water temperature increases, causing bacteria to grow and allowing diseases like avian botulism to thrive.

Farr also emphasized the fact that low water levels aren’t just a problem in Utah; the megadrought we are experiencing is widespread across the Western US. So, even though birds can fly to other areas, there aren’t suitable areas to go to.

“So many of these saline lakes, particularly in the West, are all being impacted. And we're seeing lower water levels at all of those, and in some cases, the birds that we have at Great Salt Lake now are there because their habitat and other places has already been lost,” Farr said.

Rich Hansen, the manager of the Ogden Bay State Waterfowl Management Area expressed a similar fear.

“Well, it's just really scary with the Great Salt Lake reaching an all-time historic low this year. We have millions of ducks that migrate through Utah, and the Great Salt Lake is a very important part of that. So I'm afraid that, you know, a couple million birds might come and see that Bear River Bay is dry, Willard Spur is  dry, Farmington Bay is dry, and they might continue on to California, find it dry too,” Hansen said.

​​Water levels are liable to impact fishing as well. The Weber and Bear Rivers, which feed into the Great Salt Lake, have been significantly lower than average this year, leaving fishing holes dry. Farther upstream, tributaries to these rivers have been lower as well, threatening areas where fly fishers snag trout. In response to extremely low water levels, the Division of Wildlife Resources increased angler bag limits twice this summer, anticipating die-off events as fish are concentrated in shallower and warmer bodies of water as the drought continues.

Both state and federal lands have seen impacts from the drought. Erin Holmes of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the project manager at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge complex, said they’ve struggled with water levels this year. With evaporation happening quickly, Holmes believes the water shortages have impacted wildlife on their property.

“In my opinion, the drought has impacted other wildlife, and it could be from everything from invertebrates that live in the mud flats and shallow waters to other wildlife,” Holmes explained. “We also have noticed more deer at the refuge, and I think they're trying to find the water.”