SALT LAKE CITY — A little bird could create a big problem for Utah's political leaders when it comes to the Great Salt Lake.

A coalition of environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Grow the Flow, Great Basin Water Network, Youth Coalition for Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Club will petition the federal government to declare the Wilson's Phalarope an endangered species. That would trigger new regulations and intervention on the Great Salt Lake.

The Wilson's Phalarope is a small bird that migrates from North to South America and back, stopping at the Great Salt Lake to nest and refuel on its journey. There are about a million in the world, said Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The fate of these birds is connected to our fate. If we’re at a point where our lake is so vulnerable to collapse that we’re going to lose bird species, it’s also a huge warning bell for us that our existence here as humans is also imperiled with a collapsing Great Salt Lake," Seed said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13 News.

The effort is in part because of frustration surrounding the state's response to saving the Great Salt Lake. Environmental groups have complained that state leaders have not done enough — or acted quickly enough — to respond to the emergency of the Great Salt Lake's decline. The lake dropped to its lowest level in 2022 and presents an ecological threat to Utah with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health, wildlife and the economy.

If the federal government grants it, an endangered species listing attaches habitat protections for the Great Salt Lake, which could supersede many state policies and laws.

"The federal government would have the capacity to say to the state, 'You need to do things differently and if you don’t there will be consequences.' So it confers important regulatory and legal power," Seed said.

That could significantly impact the state's own rescue plans for the Great Salt Lake.

"What the Endangered Species Act has always done is have a federal solution and oftentimes re-prioritizes what has been technically a state issue, which is water rights," said Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed, who is tasked by state leaders with enacting plans to reverse the lake's declines.

Steed told FOX 13 News it would infuse "controversy and tension" in Great Salt Lake rescue plans.

"I can tell you straight, that it would be complicating to have the federal government all of a sudden in the middle of it. I think there’s going to be a lot of politics that play out as a result of that. We would prefer if the bird is healthy that we don’t go down that pathway," he said.

On Utah's Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers signaled opposition to an endangered species listing for the Wilson's Phalarope. Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who runs a lot of water legislation in the legislature, warned it would lead to draconian measures for water use, including taking drinking and agriculture use and put it under federal purview.

"We have made great strides," he told FOX 13 News. "I know there are some out there that think we haven’t made them fast enough, but that’s the tug and pull in the legislative process. We have made incredible strides in getting water to the lake and we will continue to do it. We’re not going to allow the Great Salt Lake to dry up and go away."

The coalition of environmental groups will hold an event at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday to announce their filing of the endangered species protection for the Wilson's Phalarope.

"We’re very glad that we’ve caught the attention of lawmakers," she said. "Because they are the people that have the capacity to solve this problem."

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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