The Great Salt Lake ecosystem, located in northern Utah within the Great Basin, has been designated as a site of Hemispheric Importance for migratory and breeding waterbirds as part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Millions of waterbirds use the Great Salt Lake annually for breeding, migratory, and wintering habitats. The saline waters and freshwater wetlands of the Great Salt Lake comprise one of the most important breeding and staging areas for colonial waterbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds in western North America. Importantly, the Great Salt Lake hosts approximately 40,000 breeding White-faced Ibis which is the world’s largest breeding population.
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Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is the largest freshwater component of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and provides >28,700 ha of wetland habitats and alkali mudflats. Over 220 bird species use the Refuge and at least 67 bird species breed there. Breeding waterbirds utilize a diverse array of habitats for foraging that are common to the Refuge and adjacent Great Salt Lake, including freshwater wetlands, brackish wetlands, and mudflats.
Although the Great Salt Lake’s wetland and saline habitats, and particularly Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, host large proportions of continental populations of migratory and breeding birds, little is known about the extent to which contaminants affect these species. However, elevated mercury and selenium concentrations have recently been documented in waterbirds in Utah and the Great Salt Lake watershed, causing concern that avian reproduction may be affected. We conducted a comprehensive survey of mercury and selenium contamination in waterbirds breeding at the Bear River National Wildlife Refuge and other wetland sites in the Great Salt Lake. Future efforts will focus on effects of these contaminants on avian reproduction within the Great Salt Lake.