Emily Downing

NAWCA in the Intermountain West: Great Salt Lake

Tundra swan, northern pintails, gadwall, ringnecks and American widgeon rest in a lake.

In the Intermountain West, two landscapes stand out for their continental-scale significance to migratory birds: 1) the Great Salt Lake wetlands, and 2) the Southern Oregon-Northeastern California (SONEC) region. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) program was signed into law in December of 1989 as a new continental conservation funding mechanism and has played a critically important role in these landscapes to catalyze conservation partnerships for the protection, restoration, and enhancement of habitats that sustain millions of birds. In celebrating NAWCA’s 30th Anniversary, the IWJV compiled the following story about the collective impact of NAWCA in one of our two highest priority wetland landscapes.

Landscapes patchworked by publicly-managed wetlands and nearby private lands can create important areas for wetland-dependent birds in the otherwise arid Intermountain West. Many privately-managed wetlands serve as discrete oases for migratory bird species while also functioning as part of a network of wetlands (both public and private) critical to waterbird populations at the larger landscape scale. National Wildlife Refuges, state Wildlife Management Areas, and privately-managed wetlands in the West are all under significant pressure due to urban and exurban growth, altered hydrology, invasive species, degrading infrastructure, and other factors that threaten their existence and function. The influence of NAWCA funds and partnership efforts in the Great Salt Lake wetlands is helping land managers address threats, build habitat resilience, and improve water management in ways that benefit the entire watershed.

The Great Salt Lake wetlands host some of the highest concentrations of wetland birds in North America. More than four million wetland birds migrate through the Great Salt Lake every year providing critical stopover and breeding habitat for nearly 60 avian species. However, comparing the 217 million waterfowl use-days the ecosystem sees in the fall to a mere 60 million waterfowl use-days in the spring indicates a need to preserve these highest priority wetlands complexes to provide full life-cycle needs for migratory birds in the Intermountain West.

The NAWCA program has been pivotal to developing effective partnerships focused on addressing primary stressors to migratory bird habitats including water scarcity, exotic/invasive species, urban development/landscape fragmentation, and wetland management infrastructure in this region. Overall, 12 NAWCA grants have been awarded in this critical landscape since 1991 representing over $14.6 million in conservation fund leveraging and providing over 65,000 acres of protection, restoration, and enhancement of critical wetland and associated upland habitats. These NAWCA partnerships work across private, county, state, and federal lands to protect wetlands through fee-title acquisition, restoring wetland function from impacts due to hydrologic alterations and invasive species, and enhancing water and wetland management efficiencies to address water scarcity. In sum, NAWCA projects have made a continental scale impact on migratory birds.