Utah Ecological Services
Mountain-Prairie Region
Environmental Contaminants


Environmental pollutants (“contaminants”) can impact wildlife as well as people.  Wildlife can be exposed to contaminants through their habitats (for example, fish living in polluted rivers), or through their food (for example, birds eating fish that have taken up contaminants from a river).  In addition to being a “canary in the coal mine” for human exposure, wildlife populations can be negatively impacted by environmental contaminants through loss of food or habitat, or through direct impacts to their health or reproduction. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the main federal agency dedicated to protecting wildlife and their habitat from pollution's harmful effects, helping to create a healthy world for all living things.  Environmental Contaminants (EC) specialists within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are responsible for evaluating impacts of environmental pollutants on wildlife in a variety of situations such as at hazardous waste or spill sites, or as a consequence of activities such as pesticide application or discharge of treated wastewaters. 

Contaminant Investigations

Environmental Contaminants Specialists often work collaboratively with other federal and state environmental and wildlife agencies and with scientists from universities and other institutions to understand how and where wildlife are exposed to contaminants, and what the impacts of this exposure may be on wildlife health and productivity.  These efforts are often multi-disciplinary, involving wildlife toxicologists, environmental chemists, hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, risk assessors, and many other fields.

Some current and recent Contaminant Investigations in Utah include:

  • Investigation of selenium in endangered Colorado Pikeminnow in the Green and Colorado rivers
  • Survey for contaminants in the open waters of the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands (click here for the report)
  • Investigation of mercury exposure in birds on the Great Salt Lake

Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR)

“Natural resources” include air, water, soil, wildlife, and other components of the environment that support human and wildlife populations.  “Trustees” of publically-held natural resources are charged with protecting these resources, including identifying factors that may threaten or injure them, and, if they are injured, working to get them restored back to where they were before they were injured.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal trustee for threatened and endangered species and for migratory birds. 

Regulations that provide for the assessment of damages for, and restoration of, natural resources (the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration, or NRDAR regulations) arose out of the 1980 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill where courts determined that the company's responsiblities included the cleanup and restoration of the wildlife and habitats that were injured by the oil spill.   

In Utah, NRDAR assessments and restoration actions occur where industrial activities have injured migratory birds and their habitats.  One of these cases, Richarson Flats Tailings (RFT) is currently in the “assessment” phase, where the Service and the responsible party are working cooperatively to characterize and quantify natural resource injuries at a mine tailings site in Summit County, Utah.  Two other cases are now in the “restoration” phase, with one project involving the restoration of riparian habitats on the Jordan River, and the other working to restore wetland habitat on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Utah NRDAR Cases:

Reports and Posters

Between 1996 and 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Field Office undertook a comprehensive assessment of contaminants at over 30 wetland sites around the Great Salt Lake. Trace metals and organic constituents were measured in over 600 samples of sediments, invertebrates, fish and avian eggs. Biomarkers of exposure and/or effect (acetylcholinesterase and ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase enzymes, endocrine hormones 17B-estradiol and 11-ketotestosterone, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon metabolites) were measured in fish as well. In the open waters of the lake, investigation focused on sediments, brine shrimp, as well as liver tissue from eared grebes, which forage on the lake in the fall and winter as part of a protracted migratory stop-over. Findings from this study have been used to inform additional efforts to manage and improve avian and other wildlife habitat on the GSL, including: the establishment of a site-specific water quality standard for selenium in the open waters of the GSL, and further investigation of the origin, bioavailability and effects of mercury exposure to birds in the GSL ecosystem.

Assessment of Contaminants in the Wetlands and Open Waters of the Great Salt Lake, Utah 1996-2000 (PDF 9 megabytes)


Last updated: June 18, 2013