The Conservation Column
By Pepper Trail

This month’s column focuses on a long-neglected but hugely important bird habitat in Oregon and the Great Basin: saline lakes. Lacking outflows, and too salty for fish, these lakes are perfect incubators for brine shrimp and brine flies, which in turn provide essential food for great concentrations of migrating birds, especially Eared Grebes, American Avocets, and Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes.

Eared Grebes show particularly extreme dependence on saline lakes as migratory stopover sites. Once reaching the Great Basin lakes following nesting in the northern Great Plains and Canada, they become completely flightless for months while building up large fat reserves by feeding on abundant brine shrimp and brine flies. Not only do they molt their wing feathers, but their flight muscles atrophy, while the organs involved in digestion and food storage greatly in-crease in size. This is then reversed when the birds are ready to move on: they increase heart size and reduce digestive organ mass to about one-quarter of its peak in preparation for the nonstop flight to their wintering grounds. This atrophy/hypertrophy cycle is repeated 3-6 times per year, and so the Eared Grebe has the longest flightless period of any flying bird in the world, in some cases totaling 9–10 months.

Sadly, all the West’s saline lakes, including Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Oregon’s Lake Abert, and California’s Mono Lake, are in trouble. A recent report has concluded that Great Salt Lake could go completely dry in five years ( That would un-leash catastrophic toxic dust clouds over Salt Lake City, as well as being a disaster for bird populations. Closer to home, Lake Abert in remote eastern Oregon north of Lakeview is also a critical stopover site for migrating grebes and shorebirds, and last summer it was almost completely dry.

Drier conditions under climate change will exacerbate effects of water diversions by decreasing flows to lakes and wetlands. Lower water levels increase lake salt content, altering the food web that resident and migrating shorebirds and waterbirds rely on. No other ecosystems in the arid West can meet these species’ unique requirements. Since shorebirds and waterbirds congregate in large numbers at these sites, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.
Maintaining healthy bird populations depends on proactively managing these habitats amid water demands across the region. Solving these water challenges will require collaboration, innovation, and flexibility in how we use, share, and manage water so that people, birds, and wildlife can thrive together.

Here is a summary of key findings from National Audubon’s recent Water and Birds in the Arid West report:
• Collectively, saline lakes in the West support global populations of birds, including over 99 percent of the North American population of Eared Grebes, up to 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes, and over 50 percent of Ameri-can Avocets.
• Saline lakes are critically important to migratory shorebird species, whose populations have declined nearly 70 percent since 1973.
• Water levels in saline lakes have declined dramatically in the last 100+ years due to draining, diversions of in-flows, and lake and groundwater extraction.
• Lower water levels have increased lake salinity, altering food webs and reducing invertebrate food sources for migrating and resident shorebirds and waterbirds.
• Drier conditions under climate change will exacerbate the impacts of water diversion on saline lakes by decreas-ing freshwater inflows.

Fortunately, these critical lakes are finally receiving much-needed attention from policy-makers. This December, the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act passed the House and Senate following a bipartisan effort led by Senators Jeff Merkley and Mitt Romney. This legislation will establish a scientific monitoring and assessment program to help save the Great Salt Lake and other saline lakes in the West, including Oregon’s Lake Abert.

Here are statements on the legislation taken from a press release by National Audubon:
“Our lands and waters—including saline lakes in Oregon like Lake Abert and Goose Lake—are integral to the survival of countless animals and migratory birds,” said Senator Merkley. “These ecosystems must be protected, but we can’t do that without sufficient data. With the passage of this bipartisan bill, we are one step closer to securing the studies and science needed to put long-term plans into action to ensure our saline lakes ecosystems can thrive for generations to come.”

“With the Great Salt Lake currently at the lowest levels ever recorded, we must do whatever is necessary to save it,” said Senator Romney. “I was proud to lead this legislation with Senator Merkley and Congressman Moore, which will establish a scientific foundation and ongoing monitoring system to inform coordinated management and conservation actions for threatened Great Basin saline lake ecosystems and the communities who depend on them.”
“Great Salt Lake and the network of saline lake ecosystems in the arid West face very serious challenges with increasingly low water levels, placing local communities and millions of migratory birds at risk,” said Marcelle Shoop, Saline Lakes Program Director for the National Audubon Society. “The additional resources and technical expertise provided within this indispensable science-based program will build on current efforts locally to conserve these habitats, while advancing collaborative solutions across the Great Basin to protect people and birds.”

The Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act would provide the U.S. Geological Survey—in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribal, state, academic, and nonprofit organizations—resources to conduct scientific monitoring and assessments to establish effective management and conservation efforts to preserve essential Saline Lake habitats within the Great Basin network.