Judge Affirms Ruling Favoring Wildlife on Klamath Refuges

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service given August 2016 deadline to complete plan to ensure commercial agribusiness doesn’t harm refuge wildlife


MEDFORD, OREGON —  Yesterday, a U.S. District Judge issued a ruling ordering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to complete the long overdue “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” for Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. These plans, mandated by a 1997 law, require the USFWS to ensure commercial activities on refuge lands do not harm wildlife. The order by U.S. District Judge Owen Panner in Medford adopted a preliminary recommendation issued on March 5 by U. S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clark. The USFWS must now complete the plan by August 1, 2016.

Photo by Scott Carpenter

An administrative process will follow, allowing members of the public to comment on the proposed plan.

“Wildlife advocates intend to make a compelling case during this process against the refuges’ harmful commercial land leasing program. This program – which is unique in the nation and distinct from more well-known cooperative farming programs on many National Wildlife Refuges – annually displaces some 22,000 acres of refuge wetland habitat, allows the use of toxic pesticides, and oversees the wholesale mechanized destruction of baby and adult birds in their nests each spring,” said Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director of Bird Alliance of Oregon.

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation declared that it would not provide any water to already parched Klamath refuge wetlands but would instead direct the refuge’s most senior water rights to supply the commercial crops grown on the refuges.

The ruling came on the same day that the Bureau in Klamath Falls accepted new bids from agribusiness operations to lease some 4,822 acres of refuge lands for commercial crops under the program. The new bids also come as the Klamath River Basin is experiencing its third crippling drought in as many years.

“The Bureau’s decisions here are  shameful and represent a virtual death sentence for refuge waterfowl,” said Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch Communication Director.

Since 2012, tens of thousands of birds on these refuges have died for lack of water as a result of decisions made by the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees both the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With few wetland acres available due to lack of water, large numbers of waterfowl pack together during migration periods, leading to lethal disease outbreaks. Refuge staff estimated that some 20,000 birds perished this way in 2014. Similar conditions on these refuges sparked massive waterfowl die-offs in 2012 and 2013.

The Bureau could stop accepting new bids on leases and instead phaseout the refuge lease program. This would  free up some 85,000 acre-feet of water (27.7 billion gallons) under the refuges’ senior water right. This would be enough water to provide adequate habitat for migratory and breeding birds and prevent die-offs during drought years.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires that the US Fish and Wildlife Service develop and implement a “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” (CCP) for each unit within the national wildlife refuge system. The CCP describes desired future conditions and provides long-range guidance and management direction to achieve the purposes of the refuge and ensure commercial activities on refuge lands do not undermine wildlife conservation. Under the Improvement Act, all plans were supposed to be completed by October 9, 2012. While the vast majority of refuges in the United States have met this requirement, none of the five Klamath Refuges have complied with the law and released a  plan. These plans are now nearly three years overdue.

“We applaud the judge’s ruling, and look forward to making the case during the upcoming public process that wildlife like eagles and geese actually take priority over agribusiness on National Wildlife Refuge lands,” said Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Attorney Chris Winter at the Crag Law Center and Quinn Read at Oregon Wild. A copy of the ruling can be found here: http://waterwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/35-Order-Adopting-FR.pdf


  • Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, 541-708-0731
  • Bob Sallinger, Bird Alliance of Oregon, 503-380-9728
  • Steve Pedery, Oregon Wild, 503-283-6343
  • Chris Winter, Crag Law Center, 503-701-6002

Founded in 1902, Bird Alliance of Oregon is one of the oldest conservation organizations in the nation. It promotes the understanding, enjoyment and protection of native birds, other wildlife and their habitats through its conservation and environmental education programs, its 150-acre Nature Sanctuary and Nature Store in northwest Portland, and its Wildlife Care Center.

For more information, call 503-292-6855 or visit birdallianceoregon.org.