Report: Changing climate poses severe risks to birds, Utah waterfowl

Published: Tuesday, June 18 2013 3:08 p.m. MDT

A Great Blue Heron stands in the Great Salt Lake.

Gary Crandall, Nature Conservancy

SALT LAKE CITY — Extreme flooding that wipes out wetlands, catastrophic fires that decimate ecosystems and bark beetle infestations in the forests of the West are among the impacts imperiling hundreds of species of birds due to climate change, according to a new report.

The real-life consequences of a changing climate mean birds are facing their most serious threat this century, the report states, threats that could play out at the Great Salt Lake ecosystem — a natural haven for a wide variety of birds making a stop on their migratory journey.

"Not that long ago climate change was something distant and not really relevant to our daily lives," said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. "I think we know better now. The impact of climate change on birds is being felt across the nation."

Inkley is the lead author of "Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World," released by the organization Tuesday, which called for public policy changes that will reduce the levels of carbon pollution regulated under the Clean Air Act and fuel greater investment in clean energy.

Inkley said those threats should be taken seriously, particularly in Utah, where birds are an integral part of the Great Salt Lake ecoystem.

"Utah is a really important place for birds," he said.

Utah birds

According to the U.S. Geological Survey's Utah Water Science Center, the Great Salt Lake supports between 2 million and 5 million shorebirds, as many as 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migration. In 1992, the lake was designated as part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

The report stressed that action is important given that wildlife watching contributed $54 billion to the U.S. economy in 2011, with consumers spending $4 billion on wild bird seed alone and bird hunters dropping another $1.8 billion.

The report states that of 377 species of birds tracked during a winter survey, 150 of those species in North America had moved their "center of abundance" by 35 miles to the north.

"They're not going as far south as they used to," because of warmer climates, Inkley said.

Climate mismatches

Inkley added that warming temperatures are causing "climate-driven mismatches," in which migratory birds show up too late to feed on insects or sources of necessary "fattening" nutrition for their long journeys ahead.

“A key example of a bird vulnerable to climate change is the red knot, a common shorebird on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts,” Inkley said. Some migrate as far as 9,300 miles from their Arctic breeding grounds to the southernmost tip of South America where they overwinter."

Inkley said that in Delaware Bay, where nearly all the entire Atlantic population stops to fatten up on horseshoe crab eggs, climate change is throwing off the timing.

"That's what we are worried about here."

Last summer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was the hottest on record for the United States, a summer felt keenly in the wild turkey population, which was hit hard by the drought.

The report noted that extreme weather is not easily overcome..

"We're having prolonged droughts and increased frequency in forest fires," said Lynn Scarlett, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.

"This affects people, their communities, their health and their livelihood," she said. "And it is happening now."

In Utah and the West, where states are trying to keep the greater sage grouse off an Endangered Species listing, those fires sparked by drought and invasive grasses can have devastating effects to sagebrush habitat. Any significant destruction of the bird's habitat would propel that bird closer to federal protections, putting private land owners' interests in potential jeopardy.

"From backyard wildlife watchers to hunters in their duck blinds, unless we take action now, Americans across the country are going to be asking, 'What happened to all the birds?,’” said Alan Wentz, retired chief conservation officer of Ducks Unlimited and a board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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