Klamath National Wildlife Refuges

The Klamath Basin is home to six national wildlife refuges: Upper Klamath Lake, Lower Klamath Lake, Tule Lake Klamath Marsh, Bear Valley and Clear Lake, which together make up the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The wetlands contained within these refuges represent the largest wetland complex west of the Mississippi River and have been referred to as the “Everglades of the West.” Today it is estimated that as much as 80 percent of the of Pacific Flyway waterfowl rest and refuel here on their annual migrations. The Klamath Basin also supports that largest concentrations of wintering Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.

History and Threats to Klamath National Wildlife Refuges

However, today’s wetlands represent just a small fraction of the more than 350,000 acres of wetlands that once existed in the Klamath Basin. It is estimated that at the turn of the last century, the Klamath Basin supported up to 10 million waterfowl, the largest concentration of waterfowl in the world. Beginning in 1905 with the initiation of the Klamath Basin Reclamation Project, 80 percent of the historic wetlands were gradually drained and destroyed to make way for commercial agriculture.

To help mitigate for habitat lost under the Klamath Reclamation Project, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in 1908 as the first waterfowl refuge in the United States. In 1928, the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge was added. Out of a complex of six refuges currently located in the Klamath Basin, these two contain the core of remaining wetland habitat that is important for migratory waterfowl. Yet 22,000 acres on these refuges are leased for agriculture. The vast majority of lease land is industrially farmed and provides no benefit to migratory birds.

More importantly, precious water that could be used to replenish refuge wetlands is instead provided to agribusiness on leased refuge land, a byproduct of the Klamath Reclamation Project and its long history of “reclaiming” wetlands for conversion to agriculture – even in dedicated national wildlife refuges.

This practice is in direct opposition to the refuges’ mission, which places waterfowl conservation and management before other refuge uses. If the Department of Interior began a program to phase out leased lands, the water could be used to restore the refuge wetlands and take pressure off of other water users in the basin.

Who Gets Water?

With serious over-allocation issues and a growing demand for water, there is no simple answer to resolving water needs in the Klamath Basin. What is clear is the U.S. Department of Interior’s continued support of land-lease private agriculture on refuge lands is a problem.

Even in drought years, water flows unabated to commercial agriculture on leased lands while adjacent wetland habitat remains dry – and dry wetlands lead to disease outbreaks among the wildlife. As drought conditions continue to plague the western U.S., avian cholera and botulism outbreaks at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges have become the norm. In recent years more than 20,000 waterfowl have died because of these disease outbreaks, which were likely worsened by overcrowding, with birds packing into the few remaining patches of viable wetlands. A warming climate will only further intensify droughts.

The 2010 Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was heralded as the cure-all to the region’s water conflicts. Under this agreement, however, the Lower Klamath Refuge would still receive only a fraction of the water needed in drought years. The agreement also locks in existing levels of lease-land farming for another 50 years. The agreement’s high price tag – more than $500 million – has made it a non-starter in Congress; legislation to fund the agreement has not moved forward after three years. Even if it could get through a highly divisive Congress, Bird Alliance of Oregon questions whether the agreement would actually represent a real solution.

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Work to Restore the Klamath Refuges

The Klamath Basin has been a top priority for Bird Alliance of Oregon since our founding. Ourfounder, William Finley successfully advocated to President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside 81,000 acres of marsh at Lower Klamath as the United States’ first waterfowl refuge. Today, rebuilding the health of the Klamath Refuges is of paramount importance to birds along the Pacific Flyway,and out commitment remains unabated.

In 2014, Bird Alliance of Oregon, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch – represented by Crag Law Center – brought litigation against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failure to produce a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Klamath Refuges. Under the National Wildlife Refuge Act, all national wildlife refuges were required to produce a CCP by October 2012. The plans require that refuges ensure all activities on the refuge are compatible with the primary purposes of the refuge. The Klamath Refuges were one of only a few refuges that failed to meet that obligation. In April 2015, the Courts ruled in favor of Bird Alliance of Oregon and others, requiring the Klamath Refuges to produce a final CCP by Aug. 1, 2016.

Unfortunately, the CCP failed to adequately address chronic water shortages on the refuge and Bird Alliance of Oregon, WaterWatch and Oregon Wild initiated another lawsuit in 2017 over the refuge’s failure to meet their primary purpose. Bird Alliance of Oregon remains committed to ensure that there is adequate water for wildlife on the refuges both on an annual and a long-term basis.

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