Federal passage of the Saline Lakes Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act
Recently, Congress and the House of Representatives passed Senate Bill S. 1466, legislation backed by the National Audubon Society and other organizations which directs the U.S. Geological Survey to establish a scientific monitoring and assessment program to protect saline lakes in the Great Basin ecoregion. Sponsored in the Senate by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) and in a companion bill in the House by Representatives Blake Moore (R-UT) and Jared Huffman (D-CA), the bill passed with a lot of bipartisan support and co-sponsors and was sent to President Biden's desk last Friday for his signature.
"Because this is a piece of legislation benefiting a number of lakes in multiple western states, a number of local, regional and national conservation organizations worked with the bill sponsors to develop and support the legislation," said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. "The National Audubon Society's Saline Lakes Program played the primary leading role because they work across the entire region while ONDA worked directly with Sen. Merkley here in Oregon to provide local support and assistance."
Saline lakes and associated wetlands represent unique habitats within the closed water basins of the Intermountain West. In Oregon, Lake Abert is a great example of a "terminal lake" which loses water through evaporation and diversions and exhibits high concentrations of salts, but which supports life history stages for millions of migrating and breeding shorebirds, waterfowl and waterbirds.
Local communities may also rely on these waterways for other benefits such as recreational activities, irrigation needs, brine shrimp harvesting, mineral production and public health.
"We have known for decades how important these lakes are for migratory birds and, in some parts of the West where dried-up lakes have led to toxic dust creating serious air quality problems, local communities have seen firsthand how the health of their own communities is tied to the health of the nearby lake," said Houston. "Toxic dust blowing off of the dried-up Owens Lake in California, for example, has proven to be a cautionary tale for other communities who might be facing the same type of problems if their local lake is deprived of the water it needs to be a healthy, functioning ecosystem."
The bill authorizes "...the Director of the United States Geological Survey to establish a regional program to assess, monitor, and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife dependent on those habitats, and for other purposes." Funding was also appropriated. "The legislation establishes the new program (the "Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Assessment and Monitoring Program") and authorizes the appropriation of $5M per year through federal fiscal year 2027 to fund the program," added Houston. The Act also calls on the USGS to develop and implement a monitoring plan in cooperation with local and state stakeholders.
Marcelle Shoop, National Audubon Society's saline lakes program director, wrote, "This is the first time the federal government has funded and created a program to focus investments at this group of lakes functioning as an interconnected network of water and wildlife habitats."
Completion of the Gilchrist Wildlife Underpass
Oregon Department of Transportation contractors are in the final stages of installing funnel fencing and jump outs for the wildlife underpass constructed along Highway 97 near Gilchrist. The fencing complements a double bridge underpass that will allow wildlife, especially mule deer and elk, to safely pass across the highway corridor while the fencing channels the animals to the crossing.
This is the second wildlife passage project to be completed along Highway 97. ODOT estimates there are at least 6,000 vehicle-wildlife collisions every year across the state, although not all collisions are reported, and that amount may be three to five times higher. In Central Oregon, an estimated 20% of mule deer mortality is a result of vehicle collisions.
The first crossing built near Sunriver (the Lava Butte Project) along Highway 97 has resulted in roughly 85% fewer animal-vehicle collisions. And it's not just big game that use these crossings. "Over 40 species of animals have been documented using that underpass," said Suzanne Linford, director of Protect Animal Migration.
Though numerous local, state, and federal agencies, as well as many NGOs have partnered to raise funds and awareness about wildlife passage across busy highways, Oregon is still behind many other western states in terms of constructing safe passageways for animal movement.
"Oregon has only five crossings in the state, while other western states have dozens," said Linford. Although there is a need for additional crossings and collaboration between numerous groups and agencies is in place, there seems to be a lack of planning and focus at the state and county levels to get these projects in the pipeline.
Though these two crossings provide or will provide wildlife a safe way to cross Highway 97, this passage is only part of a larger conversation regarding habitat connectivity. Migrating species such as mule deer encounter numerous obstacles such as roads, housing developments, fences, and other barriers as they attempt to reach their critical winter range. Each new project that lacks consideration for wildlife passage creates another stress on these animals that are just trying to survive in their ever-changing world.