The United States Geological Survey issued the Integrated Science Strategy for Assessing and Monitoring Water Availability and Migratory Birds for Terminal Lakes Across the Great Basin, United States (Science Strategy). This saline lake ecosystem Science Strategy follows the passage of landmark bipartisan legislation directing the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to assess and monitor saline lake ecosystems and the birds that rely on them to “inform and support coordinated management and conservation actions to benefit those ecosystems, migratory birds, and other wildlife.”

In the arid West, saline lakes and their wetlands provide irreplaceable habitats that support millions of migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds. Saline lakes, or “terminal” lakes, often sit at the lowest elevation in the region in closed basins, meaning that surface water that flows in does not flow out. These habitats have been experiencing declining water levels and water quality as a result of drought, climate change and diversions.

The Science Strategy includes three major objectives:  (1) to identify how changing water availability affects the quality, diversity, and abundance of habitats supporting continental waterbird populations; (2) to highlight the scientific monitoring and assessment needs of Great Basin terminal lakes; and (3) to support coordinated management and conservation actions to benefit those ecosystems, migratory birds, and other wildlife.” 

While some of the saline lake ecosystems in the region have varied levels of ongoing hydrological monitoring and modeling efforts, such as Great Salt Lake in Utah, much of that information is hydrologically upstream and far away from lake inflows. Moreover, many terminal lakes, such as Lake Abert in Oregon, do not have long-term hydrological monitoring in the surrounding watersheds. Only recently, a continuous water elevation monitoring station has been installed at Lake Abert near Valley Falls, Oregon.

Additionally, the Science Strategy acknowledges that the current state of knowledge and data collection for birds and the assorted types of habitats at saline lakes and their surrounding wetlands needs to be improved to better understand bird abundance and how the habitats are used as an interconnected system. Approaches to tracking bird use and trends vary in intensity, frequency, and location across the Great Basin region. The Science Strategy notes that “In addition to baseline hydrological and ecological monitoring across the Great Basin, non-static, targeted data collection and assessment activities should be conducted to inform process [sic] understanding of terminal lake ecosystems.” For example, “Specific research investigations conducted at selected sites will enable greater understanding of fundamental hydrological and ecological processes that can be translated to other sites or scaled up across the region.” 

The Science Strategy, with its findings and identification of data gaps is an important step in addressing the goals of the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which authorized funding of $5 million for five years. The work required to achieve the purpose of the Act to “inform and support coordinated management and conservation actions to benefit those ecosystems, migratory birds, and other wildlife” is no small undertaking and will require focused resourcing.

The importance of this work to protect irreplaceable habitats that people and birds depend on is evident in the Science Strategy, and ongoing funding at the authorized levels will be critical to advancing science and collaborative solutions across the Great Basin and these at-risk saline lake habitats to protect people and birds.  

National Audubon Society is grateful to the USGS and other organizations for the extensive effort undertaken to date and the progress being made in developing the Science Strategy and identifying gaps. We look forward to the release of the “work and implementation plan” identified in the Act. 


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