Supporters of a petition to declare the Wilson's phalarope an endangered species celebrate at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Photo by: Sterling Andrews, FOX 13 News.
Supporters of a petition to declare the Wilson's phalarope an endangered species celebrate at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Photo by: Sterling Andrews, FOX 13 News.

SALT LAKE CITY — An endangered species listing for the Wilson's phalarope may be just the beginning in an effort by environmental groups to get federal intervention to reverse the Great Salt Lake's declines.

On Thursday, a coalition of environmental groups formally petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare the Wilson's phalarope an endangered species, which would trigger federal regulatory oversight over the bird's nesting areas which include the Great Salt Lake.

"I don’t see this as a battle between federal and state sovereignty. This is an opportunity to increase collaboration," said Dr. Ben Abbott, an ecology professor at Brigham Young University and one of the petitioners. "It can bring people to the table to make sure water gets to the Great Salt Lake and make sure we get the resources we need."

FOX 13 News first reported on the efforts on Wednesday. The tiny Wilson's phalarope stops at the Great Salt Lake on its journey from North to South America and back again. There are estimated to be about a million left.

Dozens of people gathered at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday to mark the petition's filing. Some danced and sang songs in celebration of the lake, while others called for more action to save it and expressed frustration with state leaders for not doing enough.

"The restoration of Great Salt Lake is no longer a local issue, a state issue. It’s a national issue with global considerations," said author and naturalist Terry Tempest-Williams.

Some Utah political leaders oppose the petition and what federal intervention would bring should it be granted.

"We're doing everything we can to save and preserve the Great Salt Lake. We feel very good. We're in better shape now than we've been in the last five years," Governor Spencer Cox told reporters on Thursday. "So we don't think there's any need for a listing there and we'll definitely push back on any potential listing."

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who runs water bills for the Republican supermajority in the Utah State Legislature, told FOX 13 News in a recent interview that if an endangered species listing for the Wilson's phalarope is granted, it may trigger a test of a new Utah law that allows the state to ignore certain federal directives. The feds would need to then sue the state to force compliance.

The effort to get the Wilson's phalarope designated an endangered species may be just the beginning. Petitioners told FOX 13 News they are looking at other bird species that rely on the Great Salt Lake and even focusing on the dust that blows off an exposed lake bed.

"There are issues with air quality both from airborne dust and the fact that the drying lake bed creates conditions where ozone forms more easily," said Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We’re looking at the Clean Air Act and if there are levers there that can be used to compel action to save the lake."

Air quality and the Great Salt Lake is of particular concern because there are naturally occurring toxins like arsenic in the lake bed. In high wind events, particles from the exposed lake bed are picked up and blown into populated areas.

Great Salt Lake dust is being studied extensively by researchers across the state. On Thursday, some of them met to discuss the issue at an air quality conference at Weber State University in Ogden. Dr. Randy Martin, who studies air pollution at Utah State University, said the good news is lately there has been less exposed lake bed thanks to good winters. However, his research has found that particulates from the lake spike significantly in dust events that can last several hours.

"You're being exposed to extremely high levels of just particulate matter and that by itself is harmful in the short term," he told FOX 13 News.

Dr. Martin said he recommends those who are concerned stay indoors during strong windstorms or wear a mask if they must go outside to protect against PM10 and PM2.5.

The solution to the problem, researchers have said, is getting more water into the Great Salt Lake.

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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