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Klamath Refuge in Water, Bird Health Crisis

PHOTO: Less than 200 acres of wetlands remain in the Lower Klamath Lake area of the refuge complex in this aerial photo taken Aug. 8. The refuge is now being reported as dry, which is why waterfowl are crowding into the water left in Tule Lake. Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
PHOTO: Less than 200 acres of wetlands remain in the Lower Klamath Lake area of the refuge complex in this aerial photo taken Aug. 8. The refuge is now being reported as dry, which is why waterfowl are crowding into the water left in Tule Lake. Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
August 29, 2013

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - A combination of drought and water management practices has proved lethal for thousands of ducks in the Klamath Basin and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges on the Oregon-California border. The Lower Klamath Lake is almost dry, so the waterfowl are crowding into a smaller space than usual, which has made it easier for avian botulism to spread. Several hundred ailing ducks and carcasses are being picked up daily by refuge managers.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is not a human health concern, but spokesman Matt Baun said it is more evidence that the refuges need a water supply that wildlife can count on.

"The refuges are last on the list in terms of water deliveries. There's important contractual obligations to irrigators and there's endangered species obligations - so, when you have a dry year like this one, it makes it really difficult to balance that water," Baun said.

Bob Sallinger, Portland Audubon Society conservation director, points out that 22,000 acres of the refuge land are farmed, and irrigation gets priority over waterfowl. He said last year, it was an avian cholera outbreak that forced authorities to increase water flow to the marshes.

"We should not be in a situation year in and year out where water to the refuge is driven by massive die-offs," Sallinger said. "That is terrible public policy, to wait until you have a minor catastrophe to react - especially when it has become so predictable."

Baun said deer and amphibians also are being affected by the lack of water. And the fall bird migration, just getting under way, signals more concerns for this critical stop on the Pacific Coast Flyway.

"In terms of an ecosystem, it's very important," Baun said. "One of the things we're watching is, what does this mean for the flyway? As birds move south, do they take botulism with them? All that is going to be closely monitored."

Refuge managers estimate that about 7,500 birds have been affected so far. As long as the weather remains warm and the lakes remain critically low, the botulism outbreak is likely to continue.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR