The shrinking of the Great Salt Lake isn't only a Utah problem in Adam Putnam's eyes. It's an issue that may have serious implications across the U.S. and Western Hemisphere.
While state leaders work to find solutions to growing concerns regarding toxic dust and other issues with the lake, he is worried about what it means for the key habitat the lake provides for some 10 million birds that use it to help refuel during their lengthy migratory journey. So as the lake receded to another record low level again this year, threatening the survival of all North America's birds, Putnam, CEO at the Tennessee-based conservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited, said it is time to pitch in.
This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.
The organization announced a new Great Salt Lake Initiative during a gala Tuesday. Ducks Unlimited aims to raise $5 million in private donations over the next five years toward Great Salt Lake conservation, along with matching grants from state and federal entities that will help fund $15 million worth of projects that can improve water levels at the Great Salt Lake and preserve the lake's wetlands.
This money would be on top of the nearly $10 million the group has already raised to conserve 48,000 acres of land with its completed projects or projects currently in progress, Putnam noted.
"The loss of the Great Salt Lake is much bigger than Utah," he said, minutes after announcing the initiative. "This is the story of the West, this a story about a collapse of a (migration) flyway, this is a story of profound impact on humans, and so this is tremendously important to us — not just for what it means for people."
The organization is also dedicating more staff to work in Utah, including a biologist and an engineer, to come up with solutions that benefit not just waterfowl but the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, in general.
Part of the plan is to also raise more awareness, which is why Utah and Ducks Unlimited will work together on a new documentary similar to "Wings Over Water," a nature documentary released earlier this year that attendees viewed at Tuesday's event. The film primarily focuses on the role of the Great Plains prairie wetlands in the U.S. and Canada, which serve as a vital habitat for many bird species, and benefits other species, including humans.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who attended the event along with Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Joel Ferry, said the goal of the Great Salt Lake-themed movie will be to raise awareness of the lake's importance and drum up more support for conservation. It's a documentary that will be eventually played at the Antelope Island State Park visitors center, which is set to receive a major upgrade in the coming years.
"We want people to fall in love with the lake again, the way people have fallen in love with Zion National Park and Arches National Park," the governor said. "This partnership that we have with (Ducks Unlimited) is going to be incredible to have to preserve more wetlands."
A renewed focus on the lake
Ducks are on the decline in North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted in August there are an estimated 34.2 million ducks on the continent this year, which is a 12% drop from the last survey it conducted in 2019. Drought and worsening habitat conditions are largely to blame for the decline, the agency noted.
That said, waterfowl are in a much better position because of conservation efforts over the past few decades.
The North American Bird Conservation Initiative released a report last month that found nearly all bird populations have declined since the 1970s — many to the tune of 26% to 67% below 1970 levels. However, they also found geese and swan populations have skyrocketed by 1,076%, while dabbling/diving duck species have increased by 34% and waterbirds are up 18% in that same time frame.
The report credits "the power of funding and policy investments" for the success, proving that waterfowl conservation efforts have been quite successful.
Ferry said that it's critical for other groups to step in and help during Utah's extreme ongoing drought situation, though he believes state leaders are paying more attention to it than ever before. Ducks Unlimited already had an eye on the Great Salt Lake, but the drying conditions of the past two decades are behind the newest push because of how many birds use the lake every year.
The lake's ongoing decline may have a disastrous effect on all the birds that use it. But Putnam argues any conservation work to help the lake's waterfowl will ultimately trickle down to help entire ecosystems, as well.
"The benefits of our work accrue to migratory birds, other wildlife and human beings. And the Great Salt Lake, as an example of its importance well beyond the borders of Utah, it stages 4 million waterfowl a year and 5 million shorebirds a year," he said. "(There's) a diversity of life that's well beyond ducks. ... And with (projects focused on) water quantity and water quality, it's benefiting human beings."
Getting to work
Prior to Tuesday's announcement, Ducks Unlimited received $1 million in grant spending from the U.S. Department of the Interior to match a little more than $2 million already raised for a "suite of projects" around the Ogden and Bear River bays at the Great Salt Lake's northeast edge, the group said in April.
The list of projects included dike repairs, as well as replacing a farmer's ditch with a more efficient pipeline system, so more water could flow into the lake. Future projects will look very similar, as all of the projects will have an emphasis on ways to get more water to the lake and improve the quality of the water, as well as find ways to combat invasive species in and around the lake, according to Putnam.
This will require coordination with farmers, ranchers, other conservation groups, state and federal agencies and more, which is already happening.
For example, state leaders picked the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy to oversee a $40 million initiative to "protect and restore wetlands habitat to benefit the hydrology of Great Salt Lake," Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands officials said in June.
Putnam said there is "total collaboration," not just between Ducks Unlimited and Utah's leaders and agencies, but between the different organizations also trying to fix the drying Great Salt Lake. That's expected to continue as it launches this new fundraising initiative.
"The challenges we face require a coalition of interested parties," Putnam said. "Duck hunters, alone, are not going to fix the Great Salt Lake (and) Ducks Unlimited, alone, is not going to fix the Great Salt Lake. But we know the things that we are the best at and are focused on those projects, and we're building a coalition of partners who bring their own skill sets to the table to tackle a challenge as ambitious as this one is."