Whither Phalaropes
Photo: Jason Crotty/Flickr

Whither Phalaropes? Convening a working group to propel shorebird conservation research in Great Basin saline lakes

Posted by Erin Lloyd on Friday, August 10 2018

We are seeking advice, input, and potential collaborators from the Switzer Network on a proposal to convene a working group focused on the conservation of Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes at inland saline lakes.

In the early 1990’s Switzer funding to one of us (Rubega) contributed to the historic settlement of a legal battle over water rights at Mono Lake. The battle set a precedent in western water law for the “public trust” doctrine, limiting legally-held water rights in favor of public trust values, such as public health and wildlife populations. The settlement called for diversions of Sierra water sources to be restricted, in part to restore habitat for waterbirds using the lake. Phalaropes, for instance, depend on the use of hyper-saline lakes in the interior west of the U.S. during their annual migration. Up to 14% of the world population of Wilson’s phalaropes was estimated at that time to stop and molt during migration at Mono Lake, and 50% at Great Salt Lake. 

In the 24 years since the settlement, diversions of Sierra stream flow away from Mono Lake have been reduced, but climate change has simultaneously reduced water inputs by increasing the length and severity of droughts, and amplifying evaporation at all Great Basin saline lakes. Meanwhile, we simply don’t know whether the Mono Lake water settlement, in the end, benefited phalarope populations. Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes have not been systematically censused since 1991. This is troubling, given that Mono Lake was designated a site of International Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (1990), and a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society (2001), in part because of its importance to Wilson’s Phalaropes. Because there have been no standardized surveys, either at Mono Lake or other Great Basin Lakes, that would accurately estimate the presence and numbers of phalaropes, there are enormous gaps in our basic information on phalarope populations in the Great Basin.  We don’t know how many birds presently use the lakes annually for migration stopovers, we don’t know whether (or when) they have the capacity move around among lakes in response to erratic water regimes, and we don’t know how they are distributed on the lakes they stage at.  Accordingly, we have no way to estimate overall population trends.

Neither Wilson’s nor Red-necked phalaropes are listed, but they are both species of serious conservation concern. Climate change models forecast loss of 100% of Wilson’s phalarope breeding range by 2080, and their entire world population depends on a handful of climate-threatened saline lakes. Their wintering habitat in saline lakes of South America is likewise threatened by climate change and water diversion. Red-necked phalaropes are also vulnerable to climate change and there have been precipitous declines recorded in migratory populations in the Eastern U.S.; few data exist for the western saline lakes, but park managers at Mono Lake have qualitatively noticed far fewer birds in recent years than in the past. Population estimates for both species, rough when they were made, are now decades old, as is previous data on the number and timing of birds visiting Mono Lake. In short, no one knows if the Mono Lake settlement did the work it was intended to do for these species, or if they are threatened. 

We would like to work together to initiate a program of regular censuses of phalaropes at Mono Lake during their summer/fall migratory period, to begin to be able to assess true current populations status and trends. The impact on phalaropes was a factor in the original court decision to save Mono Lake in 1994 and their status will be relevant to a planned re-visitation of that state water board hearing, scheduled for 2020.

We also would like to find partners with whom to coordinate concurrent censuses at important sites throughout the interior West, such as Great Salt Lake, Owens Lake, and other sites. Coordinated censuses have been identified as a top priority research question for the conservation of phalaropes, as simultaneous censuses are the only way to get an accurate overall population estimate for these highly mobile birds.  Another benefit of coordinated censuses and stronger networks among sites is that phalaropes can be a banner for conservation of saline lakes that are less protected than Mono Lake.

Proposed meeting
To achieve these goals, we are proposing to convene a meeting of key groups to develop a plan and identify priorities for phalarope research at Mono Lake as well as the formation of a working group to coordinate simultaneous surveys at key migratory sites. Groups to be invited would include the Mono Lake Committee, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Audubon, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, CA state parks, and others. All parties have so far been supportive; the main goals are gathering previous knowledge and history, crafting a plan, coordination over a broad regional area, and finding, pooling, and maintaining resources and funding.  

Input from the Switzer Network
We seek to learn from your experience, advice, or collaboration on the following:

• Efficiently and effectively using a single initial meeting to bring together multiple groups for a common cause; what sort of pre-meeting preparation is important?

• Strategies for maintaining momentum of such a gathering after the first meeting and the realities of keeping a working group going with limited funding—would it be better to frame it as an informal network rather than a formal working group?

• Coordinating conservation with multiple groups across a broad regional area.

• Are you an expert in migratory shorebirds or saline lakes that would like to collaborate on this project or attend this meeting?

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