The Great Salt Lake is a main stopping point for millions of ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds that feed, nest, and rest on their way to their final destination.
"The wetlands on the Great Salt Lake are basically an oasis in this desert," says Karin Kettenring, a researcher at Utah State University. "You have birds that are migrating north and south on the Pacific and Central flyways and as they're migrating the Great Salt Lake is where they go, and so each year we get millions and millions of birds moving through here."
Kettenring says this critical rest stop is threatened by an invader called Phragmites australis. The grass has a long stalk topped by a feathery frond of seeds, that some consider pretty. But not R. Jefre Hicks or Nicole Andersen.
They took me on an airboat ride at Willard Spur to get up close and personal with phragmites. As we crashed through a stand of 15 foot tall phragmites, we came out on the other side into a nice quiet pond. Too quiet, according to Hicks.
"When we pulled in here, we should have kicked out a thousand ducks," says Hicks. "There was zero. But you know it's been phraged in, so now it's a tiny pothole so they don't feel comfortable coming in."
Phragmites takes over prime habitat
Phragmites grows fast and forms large stands, sometimes covering hundreds or thousands of acres. It crowds out other plant species making previously enticing wetlands uninhabitable to waterfowl and shorebirds. Phragmites is a big problem in three of Utah's largest lakes: Utah Lake, Bear Lake, and the Great Salt Lake. Hicks, an avid duck hunter, says it has severely impacted the majority of marsh lands along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake.
"I started seeing it about 15 years ago, small little round patches," says Hicks. "And we didn't realize what it was and we thought, 'Oh, this is good stuff to hide in.' And then it just started taking over and taking over, and pretty soon it clogged up waterways and we couldn't take our boats out." He adds, "The places that duck hunters normally have hunted historically along the Wasatch front, they can't get to, because you can't walk through it. And every year we have guys that get lost out there and they have to get rescued by helicopters."
More than 20,000 acres of marshes around the Great Salt Lake have been overtaken by phragmites, and the invasion is no small economic matter. A 2011 report from the University of Montana found that waterfowl hunters account for an estimated $97 million dollars in economic output for the Salt Lake City area every year. That figure doesn't include other lake users, like boaters and bird watchers
"The Great Salt Lake is a huge resource, not only ecologically, but economically. And if these habitats keep on degrading, then those are going to have huge detrimental effects," says Chad Cranney. He is Assistant Manager at the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area.
Managers have a big job on their hands
The potential economic impact of phragmites puts pressure on agencies responsible for taking care of Utah lands to deal with the problem.
Ben Bloodworth, area manager for the Wasatch Front for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, says one of the biggest roadblocks to combating phragmites in the Great Salt Lake is coordinating all of the groups responsible for managing the lands.
"On the Great Salt Lake we have duck clubs, different state management agencies, the fish and wildlife service, state parks, and then private and non-profits," says Bloodworth. "Kennecott has a very large area up there that they treat, the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society. So it's a really, really big problem, honestly, to get everybody coordinated."
Bloodworth says they are working on a coordination plan to implement the most effective methods for killing phragmites. So far there are two methods that seem to work best.
The first one is a combinatory approach: killing the plants with herbicides and burning the dead plant material. But burning can exacerbate air quality issues in the valley, making it difficult or impossible to get permits.
The second method was introduced over the last couple of years and has people excited. "A new thing that's starting to be used in more places, and Farmington Bay wildlife management area is one of them, is actually grazing with cattle," says Bloodworth. "They love it. It is actually higher in protein when it's dry than fresh green alfalfa. You just have to train the cows to eat it, but once they eat it, they prefer it, and they will go out and eat it over anything that is out there." Unfortunately, there will never be enough cattle to tackle such a big problem.
Since neither method is optimal, Kettenring's research group is hoping to develop better ones. They are testing a number of variables, such as applying herbicides at different times of year.
Bloodworth says the primary method they now use to kill phargmites, and maintain those gains, is costly. "The spray treatment, again it depends on the size of your area, but usually breaks down to with the herbicide and the helicopter, you're looking at anywhere from probably $20-40 an acre. But then again, you're treating a thousand acres."
An uncertain future
The Utah legislature has not appropriated money to specifically control phragmites, but that might change. Senator David Hinkins, co-chair of the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcomittee, says he believes the committee will find funding for phragmites mitigation this year.
"We're appropriating money for all three locations because we have phragmites problems at Utah Lake, Great Salt Lake, as well as Bear Lake. So we have a war on phragmites right now. We'll do what we can," says Hinkins.
Whether that will be enough to benefit seemingly overwhelmed wetlands, remains to be seen. Hicks is optimistic that with enough motivation and adequate resources, they'll be able to beat the problem.
"It's like mowing a football field," says Hicks. "If you look at it you would never do it and you just go, I'll take this ten yard section at a time and little by little we'll have that football field mowed. And that's kind of how this is, you know."
Phragmites has taken over wetlands across Utah. Now the question is, how much of it is here to stay?
Phragmites fronds and seeds
R. Jefre Hicks' airboat