Thousands of Birds Drop Dead in Klamath Refuge

Snow geese tend to be hit the hardest by avian cholera because they flock together more than other species that use the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on their migration. Drought conditions in the upper Klamath basin are blamed for the severity of this year’s avian cholera outbreak on Tule and Lower Klamath lakes. Shown here is a flock of snow geese over Lower Klamath Lake /Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Drought, Cholera Outbreak to Blame

By Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune

About 10,000 birds died last month up river in national wildlife refuges at Lower Klamath and Tule lakes, wetlands acting as the liver and lungs of the Klamath Watershed.

Drought conditions prevented the refuges from receiving adequate water deliveries this year. In fact, all flows were stopped on Dec. 2, 2011 and resumed on March 17, 2012, leaving the refuges with little to no inflow for three-and-a-half months. Birds started dying in late February, and the kill peaked in March with the migration.

The birds—coots, snow geese, pintails mallards and more—are believed to be victims of avian cholera, a common disease that refuge manager and biologist, Ron Cole said takes the lives of between 100 to 300 birds each year. The disease, caused by a bacteria, spreads quickly when large numbers of waterfowl are crowded in small areas.

“It becomes very serious when you start picking up thousands of birds,” Cole said. “Once in a while we’ll get a year like this.”

Cole said he hasn’t seen such a severe outbreak of avian cholera since 2008, a similar, yet smaller, bird kill.

Supporters and critics of the controversial Klamath Settlements—deals that set a plan for potential removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River and lock in water deliveries for upper basin irrigators for 50 years—are using the Bird Kill to support their positions.

One of the more vocal architects of the Klamath deals, Craig Tucker, the Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the Bird Kill gives congress 10,000 more reasons to pass the Klamath Basin Economic Restoration Act, the bill that would make the Klamath deals law.

“Currently, the refuges get inadequate deliveries in eight out of 10 years,” Tucker said. “Under the agreements they would get adequate water in nine out of 10 years.”

But, waterfowl advocate and critic of the Klamath deals, Oregon Wild, holds that the bill in front of congress will do more harm to the refuges than good by locking in commercial agricultural operations on refuge land—land set aside for pelicans, eagles and geese—for 50 years.

“The Klamath deals attempt to wrap the refuges into the reclamation project,” Sean Stevens, spokesman of Oregon Wild said. “There’s still going to be irrigation and lease land farming as part of the Project. The Project for 100 years has been all about maximizing water delivery to irrigators, so we’re not too excited about that.”

Stevens says the Bird Kill is symptomatic of refuges that are sick.

“The refuges haven’t had consistent water supplies in over a decade. The last few years have been especially hard with refuges going dry without any real source of water in sight,” he said. “As long as you have over allocated water going to you’re never going to get enough water to fulfill the requirements for wildlife and fish on the refuges. The refuges need consistent water and require some balance that likely requires phasing out lease land farming.”
Stevens argues that the fine print of the Klamath Deals will result in the continued demise of the refuges. Tucker says the opposite is true.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife SErvie (USFWS) estimates that approximately 95,000 acre-feet of water is needed to sustain and pass through refuge wetlands.

According to a November 2011 USFWS report, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge has not received sufficient water. During the 2005-2006 season, 108,000 acre-feet of water was pumped into Lower Klamath Lake from Tule Lake. This declined to 12,100 acre-feet in the 2009-2010 season.

Cole said since March 17, Lower Klamath Lake has received about 250 cubic-feet per second inflow.

“Prior to that, we hadn’t received any water since December 2. This recent storm event and recent water deliveries have really helped extend the life of our permanent marshes that are needed throughout the summer for nesting,” he said. “We do the best we can with what we have.”

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April 4th, 2012

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