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 this refuge complex 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 Pacific Flyway waterfowl rest and refuel here on their annual migrations. The Klamath Basin also supports the largest concentrations of wintering Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.

History and Threats to Klamath National Wildlife Refuges

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 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 the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation worked together to create a plan to support water for wetlands, restored hydrologic function, and sustainable agriculture designed to benefit wildlife and the local economy, the water could be used to restore refuge wetlands and benefit 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. 

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.

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. Our founder, 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 our commitment remains unabated.

In 2014 Bird Alliance of Oregon, WaterWatch, Oregon Wild, represented by Crag Law Center, successfully litigated USFWS for the Klamath Refuges to move forward with a much delayed Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). However the courts ultimately sided with the agency’s interpretation of the Kuchel Act, meaning that they are required to continue providing agriculture opportunities on the refuges.

We are committed to working on building relationships in the Klamath Basin with the plan to hire someone to work full-time in this region by 2025. This plan will be grounded in on-going work, building on the restoration efforts occurring throughout the Klamath Basin, including the removal of dams on the Klamath River. Bird Alliance of Oregon will give birds and other wildlife a voice at meetings, support reconnecting hydrology in the Klamath Basin, support sovereignty of the Klamath River Tribes, and allow us to more effectively advocate for the refuges locally and at the state and federal level.

How You Can Help