On a warm September morning, Mike Goddard directed his range toward a swampy pond inside Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. What Goddard hoped to discover: the many migratory birds feeding on the shallow shores of the wetlands, which were abundant in this area outside of Fallon.
“Shorter, obese people with long, straight bills long bill,” he notes, staring at the compound spotting scope. “Large, white American Avocados. Then there are some little sandbirds there to the west… We’ll go up and count here pretty quickly.”
These species, known as shorebirds, connect the wetlands of western Nevada with the rest of the world. Beach birds log thousands of miles each year, migrating from the Arctic to tropical climates. Along their round-the-world journey, the Great Basin’s wetlands and salt lakes, from Fallon to Salt Lake City, are important habitats to support foraging, resting, and nesting.
However, these lands have faced many threats in recent decades, both in Nevada and across much of the Pacific Flyway, a major route for migratory birds. Drought and water diversion have reduced the amount of water that fills many of these arid wetlands. Rising temperatures only increased stresses on shorebirds, contributing to a A decrease in the population of the Great Basin.
Goddard, who served as a wildlife refuge manager for more than a decade before retiring in 2012, said it’s one reason the shorebird count is so important. Since his retirement, Goddard has trained volunteers, while advocating for wetland conservation as a board member of the Lahontan Audubon Society.
Over the past several years, state and federal wildlife agencies have worked to improve the habitats of shorebird species, and to obtain land and water rights. Last year, after nearly three decades of waiting, the federal government Move 23,000 acres From the land to the state. But biologists also face limited water supplies, infrastructure limitations and the needs of many different species.
Jenny Jeffers, a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, calls this a major “juggling act.”
Overall, Jeffers said, “the drought and availability of water across the Great Basin—and the flyway of the entire Pacific Ocean—is the biggest challenge we’ve seen” for shorebird populations. Across the Great Basin are other stopping points for these birds, including Appert Lake in Oregon, Greater Salt Lake in Utah, Mono Lake in California, and Lake Walker outside Hawthorne.
However, valley wetlands have long been recognized as an important part of the landscape. The valley wetlands are divided into three sections: Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Fallon Payot Shoshone Tribal Wetlands and Carson Lake and Grassland, an area recently transferred to the state. Wildlife officials are currently developing a management plan for Carson Lake.
In 1988, the valley was added to the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Sanctuary Network as a site of hemispherical significance. It is also the site of some of the region’s longest-lived shorebird surveys, with the Nevada Department of Archives Wildlife. Data going back nearly four decades.
But the shore birds do not arrive and leave in one fell swoop. Their timing is graded and distributed. As a result, Jeffers said, wildlife biologists working to restore wetlands, as part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, have increased the intensity of the survey. Now, wildlife managers and volunteers conduct three surveys each season across the valley.
“You have different demographics,” Jeffers said. “So you have to Deutscher It rolls on, and they’ll stay for a few weeks and then go. And then they’ll come back in the fall.”
The wetlands are located in the Lahontan Valley at the end of the Carson River. Before any dams, ditches and diversions were built in the valley, the river used to run a winding path, cutting wetlands throughout the area. Left to its natural flow, Goddard said, the Carson River can be described as a “fire hose on a concrete floor,” as it rambles and changes direction in a dramatic fashion.
But in the early 1900s, the US Bureau of Reclamation created the Newlands Project, one of the federal government’s first efforts to irrigate the Arid West with extensive infrastructure to build storage tanks, prevent floods and redirect rivers. The project combined two rivers: the Carson River and the Truckee River. Carson was impounded at the Lahontan Dam, and Truckee was redirected toward the cultivation of Fallon via a canal at Derby Dam.
The project, by combining the Carson streams and water from Truckee, has brought more water to Fallon and the Lahontan Valley—for some time. However, this additional water came at significant costs on the other end of the system. By diverting the Truckee River, the Newlands Project helped drain Lake Winnemucca, itself a wildlife refuge, and caused severe depressions in Pyramid Lake, the river station, critical fish habitat and the spiritual center of Pyramid Lake for the Paiute Tribe.
In the 1970s, damage to Pyramid Lake devastated Lahontan trout and the koi-oi salad, which is where the name of the members of the Lake Pyramid Troupe originated in North Paiute (“koyoi tekuta” or koi yo eaters). The government intervened to return the water to Lake Pyramid. In 1990, Congress passed Settlement and framework for moving forward on the rivers.
With more water being redirected back to Pyramid Lake, there was less water coming into the Lahontan Valley wetlands and the greater Falun area. The wetlands, Goddard said, “have dried up significantly.”
He noted, however, that the 1990 Settlement Act was not oblivious to this outcome, or unprepared. The act established a framework for a program to purchase water rights from the willing sellers of the Newlands Project—with the goal of conserving 25,000 acres of wetlands in the Lahontan Valley.
Since then, the state of Nevada, the Nevada Waterfowl Society, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have acquired 49,040 acres of water (an acre foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre to one acre depth of one foot). The majority of that water — 38,340 acres — is managed by the Wildlife Service at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.
However, drought remains a major challenge to delivering water to wetlands. In drought years, a portion of these water rights can be curtailed as the water supply is cut off by the irrigation area.
“When we are pulled down like this, there is less habitat we are willing to provide,” said Karl Launderstadt, who serves as director of the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. “But it makes the location even more important because there are droughts all over the West.”
This part of western Nevada is still shaped and formed by water—and at one point in geologic time, there was a lot of it. Standing on an unpaved road at the shelter and looking for shorebirds with Lahontan Audubon Society volunteers Rose Strickland and Dennis Guigleri, we can see the shores of ancient Lake Lahontan imprinted on the mountainside.
“It’s basically the largest and only wetland remaining in western Nevada,” Guigleri said.
The wetlands serve not only as a critical habitat for shorebirds, but also as a site for craving birders. Strickland’s interest in birds came from taking an ornithology course at the UN – as she describes it, “the best undergraduate course I’ve ever taken.” Not only did she learn about birds, but she remembers going on field trips and learning about their habitat and ecology in the Great Basin.
“Wetlands are always an excellent place to look for birds,” she said.
For bird identification, this can be a more difficult task. Strickland, who also serves on the board of directors of the Lahontan Audubon Society, said she went out twice in the spring for courses.
“That was the hard part,” Strickland said. “If the sky is so full of birds, how do you choose the beach birds you are interested in? But we have received excellent training and felt comfortable doing so.”
Goddard added that creating and expanding a new wetland habitat is not an easy or quick process, but it is a task that may be necessary to restore declining shorebird species in the Great Basin. It took more than three decades for the federal government to transfer the Carson Lake & Basher estate to the state, something that was spelled out in the 1990 Settlement Act. But having two parts of the valley wetlands working together may be beneficial. The two regions have different habitats. Carson Lake has more flooded pastures than stillwater mud ponds.
He referred to it as a kind of complementary systems.
State officials begin the process of drafting a management plan aimed at improving bird habitats in Carson Lake and pastures. Delivering nearly 7,000 acres of water to the area can be balancing with timing during the watering season and staying carefully in tune with wetland depth and temperature — extremely hot, and birds are at risk of disease, Jeffers says.
The management plan will take into account a number of other factors, including where to improve the water delivery infrastructure and where permitted livestock grazing is permitted in the area.
Jeffers said this work is part of a global effort to conserve shorebirds, the species that connect us across the land. These birds migrate to amazing lengths, from the North Pole and back again. On the way, long-distance carriers rely on wetlands and water sources in the Great Basin and elsewhere.
“They make these huge moves, and they rely on a variety of wetland habitats along the way, from Alaska to Panama,” she said. “The Lahontan Valley wetlands are already providing an important replenishment of fat reserves for these long-range migrants. Without this, the population could be greatly reduced. It is our responsibility to provide this for them during their migration.”