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Klamath Refuge

The Klamath Basin’s productive wetlands and strategic location along a migration corridor have made it one of the continent’s most important parcels of waterfowl habitat. Despite decades of habitat loss and water shortages, the area continues to be of critical importance to birds.

Snow Geese in Klamath - Brett Cole, Oregon Wild
Migratory Snow Geese in Klamath - Brett Cole, Oregon Wild

The Klamath Basin’s productive wetlands and strategic location along a migration corridor have made it one of the continent’s most important parcels of waterfowl habitat. Despite decades of habitat loss and water shortages, the area continues to be of critical importance to birds.

Today, it is estimated that as much as 80 percent of Pacific Flyway waterfowl rest and refuel here during migration. In total, more than 70 bird species depend on the wetlands, including species of conservation concern like the Greater Sandhill Crane. The Klamath Basin also supports the largest concentration of wintering Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.

At the turn of the last century, it is estimated the basin harbored up to 10 million waterfowl annually, the largest such concentration in the world. The basin contained 350,000 acres of wetlands at the time, but beginning with the initiation of the Klamath Reclamation Project in 1905, 80 percent of these wetlands have been gradually drained and destroyed to make way for commercial agriculture. Agricultural use of leased refuge lands and related water shortages now pose an ongoing threat to Klamath’s remaining wetlands and the birds that depend on them.

Leasing the Klamath Refuges

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?

Klamath National Wildlife Refuges 2013 - Oregon Wild
The Klamath Refuges went dry in 2013 - Oregon Wild

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. 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, the Audubon Society of Portland questions whether the agreement would actually represent a real solution.

Audubon Society of Portland and the Klamath Refuges

Rebuilding the health of the Klamath Refuges is of paramount importance to birds along the Pacific Flyway, and our commitment to protecting this habitat has a long history: We were founded in 1902 in part to help establish the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges.

In 2014, the Audubon Society of Portland, 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 Audubon et al, requiring the Klamath Refuges to produce a final CCP by Aug. 1, 2016. The CCP will force the refuge to seriously evaluate whether using water for lease-land farming even as the refuge wetlands go dry is compatible with the primary purposes of the refuge.

Key legal documents:
April 24, 2014: Complaint
Dec. 5, 2014: Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgement
March 15, 2015: Magistrate's Findings and Recommendations
April 16, 2015: Press release announcing victory in litigation

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