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Report details climate change dangers to Utah's migratory birds

SALT LAKE CITY — A new national report highlighting climate-change dangers posed to migratory birds identified a few Utah species especially vulnerable to harm, including the sharp-tailed grouse and the salt-loving wader called Wilson's phalarope.

With the marshes and wetlands of the Great Salt Lake serving as a prime breeding ground along one of four major North American "flyways" for migrating birds, the 2010 "State of the Birds" report underscores vulnerabilities that may haunt local bird watchers, conservationists and hunters in years to come.

Released by the Department of Interior last week and discussed in a teleconference by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the report is the result of a collaboration of efforts by the American Bird Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, among others.

Salazar said that as climate change brings longer and hotter fire seasons, deeper and longer droughts, more intense flooding, an uptick in invasive species and changes in precipitation levels, the threats to birds continue to mount.

"We can no longer stand idle for the sake of humankind, the environment and the earth," Salazar said. "We are at the point in time that we are at a call for action."

Salazar, speaking while in Austin, Texas, said in his travels he has seen the impacts of dwindling water resources on both man and fowl.

"In the Colorado River basin (which includes Utah), farmers and municipalities are facing the reality of a 20 percent decline in the amount of water in the Colorado River," he said. "It is also an impact in terms of the bird species dependent on that water in their habitat."

Key findings in the report stressed that oceanic birds are among the most vulnerable species, because they don't raise many young each year; they face challenges from a rapidly changing marine ecosystem; and they nest on islands that may be flooded as sea levels rise. All 67 oceanic bird species, such as petrels and albatrosses, are among the most vulnerable birds to climate change.

Although not as vulnerable as birds in other types of habitats, the report said grasslands birds are at risk because they are less likely to move in response to changing conditions. Those birds include the sharp-tailed grouse, a species that has been a conservation target of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as it seeks to transplant the birds to boost populations in various parts of the state.

The report also mentioned Wilson's Phalarope, a long-distance migrator that may not be able to adapt quickly enough to changing conditions. The Great Salt Lake is the world's largest staging area for that particular phalarope, where a one-day aerial survey in the mid-1980s estimated as many as 600,000 of the birds.

Aside from pointing to vulnerable populations, the report emphasized the need for land management approaches that should be "seamless" and strategies that preserve intact habitat and restore damaged ecosystems.

The full report can be read online at www.stateofthebirds.org.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com