Pink Floyd and the Great Salt Lake

 

The first time I stood on the shores of Great Salt Lake, I spotted something pink in the midst of what seemed like a bazillion different species of bobbing waterfowl.

"Are there supposed to be pink flamingos in Utah?" I asked my biologist wife while looking through a pair of binoculars.

"It's plastic," she said, handing the binoculars back to me.

"No, I don't think so," I said, watching the thing move. Eventually, she conceded that it was a real, live flamingo, even though every molecule of her education told her it shouldn't be. Secretly, I hoped we'd stumbled across some sort of rare sighting. I wondered if we should alert the Audubon Society.

 

The real story of Pink Floyd, as the bird is nicknamed, is not nearly so exciting. He is a Chilean flamingo that flew the coop from an aviary in Salt Lake City in the late 1980s, and he's made the Great Salt Lake his winter home ever since. In the process, he has become a Utah celebrity.

But for the last year he's been a hot topic of controversy and a perfect example of our inability as humans to leave well enough alone. A small group calling itself Friends for Floyd wants to bring more Chilean flamingos to Great Salt Lake.

The group has petitioned the governor, taken out newspaper ads in Utah's two largest daily newspapers, written op-ed pieces and even offered to pony up the thousands of dollars needed to get Pink Floyd a few friends from South America, and, perhaps even more importantly, a hot date. After nearly two decades alone and on the lam, there's no doubt the poor guy probably needs one.

The leader of the campaign, Salt Lake City businessman Jim Platt, argues that flamingos are genetically tough birds adapted to living in high elevations, cold winters, hot summers and saline lakes. And because flamingo fossils have been found in North America, he argues it is probable that they once lived on the inland sea of which Great Salt Lake is a remnant.

"In essence, we are advocating the reintroduction of flamingos," he wrote in an April 2003 editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune. At the time, Friends of Floyd was advocating asking every state to contribute one flamingo to get the flamingo sanctuary off the ground. The idea was met with a giant shrug from just about everybody and quietly, and thankfully, went nowhere.

Unfortunately, the idea didn't die. This March, Friends for Floyd offered to pay nearly $50,000 to bring 25 flamingos from South America, and called on Utah's governor for support. "Some people believe we are doing this for Floyd," Platt told the Salt Lake Tribune, "but we are doing it for the human beings."

Great Salt Lake is a weird and hauntingly beautiful place. Millions of migratory birds rely on the lake as a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet for their biannual hemisphere-long flights. But there are a multitude of threats facing the lake. A railroad causeway slices it nearly in half and throws off the lake's delicate salt levels. Brine shrimp are the only living creatures in the lake and a major source of food for migratory birds, but they can only survive in a narrow saline range. Millions of pounds of treated sewage effluent and toxic chemicals pour into the lake every year from the Wasatch Front's burgeoning cities. The demand for water, especially in the sixth year of a drought, means less water reaches the lake every year.

The second time around state officials, citing concerns about the possible effects of introducing non-native species to the lake's fragile ecosystem, came out more forcibly against Friends of Floyd.

The head of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said he saw no value in bringing flamingos. Nonetheless, Platt and his group say they will continue to promote the idea. In April, the group planted 10 life-sized flamingo replicas along the lake's shore in an effort to rev up support.

History provides an embarrassingly long list of examples where humans tried to somehow improve a place by introducing an exotic species. In North America alone we can thank some perhaps well-intentioned but naïve folks for bringing us pigeons, sparrows and starlings. Apparently, we still don't get it.

Great Salt Lake is worthy of respect and protection. It's simply not worth endangering one of the West's splendors by intentionally introducing exotic species. Until we learn to accept and love places like Great Salt Lake on their own terms, we are going to keep creating more problems for ourselves and future generations.

Tim Westby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Salt Lake City, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org