Teddy Roosevelt’s first National Waterfowl Refuge, the Lower Klamath NWR on the California-Oregon Border, has gone dry. So has its neighboring National Wildlife Refuge, Tule Lake. The issue is multi-faceted, a perfect storm of politics, crippling drought, and an unwillingness to compromise.
For a background of the basin and its importance as waterfowl habitat, I called the Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist for the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex, John Vradenburg.
The biological significance of the Klamath Basin is undeniable. According to Vradenburg, before a Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) project turned most of the basin into agricultural land and irrigation ditches, there were upwards of 400,000 acres of wetland habitat. And those 400,000 acres benefited more than just ducks and geese.
“These wetlands historically sat at the top of the Klamath watershed, and not only provided essential habitat for waterbirds, but they provided essential to maintaining the function of the entire system,” Vradenburg said.
Wetlands at the top of a watershed act as a natural filter to clean water before it works its way down a system. After the development of the BOR project, the only wetlands left to clean that water were the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges.
“The Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges held roughly 4 to 5 million migratory birds at their peak during the 1950s,” Vradenburg said. “And roughly 200,000 birds would migrate to the refuge to molt during the summer. Even under highly modified conditions, these wetlands continued to provide important wildlife benefits for a long time.”
If those numbers don’t do the place justice, consider that it’s also the headwaters for the Klamath River Northern California Coho salmon run, home to two endangered fish, and vital habitat for hundreds of other animals like the Tule white-fronted goose and cinnamon teal.
Dr. Chris Nicolai, who was a biologist in Nevada for years, considers the refuge complex to be two of America’s most important. “To me, Lower Klamath and Tule combined are the second most important refuges in the whole refuge system, only behind the Yukon Delta,” Nicolai said. “When we lose Klamath, we’re losing one of the more important cinnamon teal breeding grounds, and where maybe 80 to 90% of the California Central Valley mallards use to molt. Where will they molt now?”
It’s obvious that the wetlands have made the Klamath function for millennia.
“Wetlands aren’t just the heart of the Klamath Basin, they’re the lungs of the Klamath, the kidneys of the Klamath; everything is tied back to the wetlands of this basin,” Vradenburg said. “You can’t help but look at what’s missing on the landscape and see that wetlands are core to solving the problems that all the stakeholders are facing here.”
One of the biggest detriments to this area, and the entire West, has been relentless drought.
“That part of California and all of the West is just hurting for water, the change in precipitation is very real,” Nicolai said. “I did a lot of my duck work in the driest state in the country, Nevada, and it’s all just disappearing. Lake Winnemucca Refuge, the playa just over the hill from Burning Man, has the distinction of being the first refuge ever sold because it dried up. There hasn’t been a duck landing on that in 80 years.”
It’s not just Lower Klamath and Tule that are struggling. Colusa, Delevan, and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges have all had to close their hunting seasons this year as well. The effects of sustained drought like this are coming home to roost, and they’re only getting worse.
“Wetlands are designed to temporarily go dry, it’s actually beneficial to them in many ways,” Vradenburg said. “But the problem we see with this sustained drought in the Klamath, is the more they dry out, you lose the carbon storage ability of the wetlands, then subsidence of the highly organic material, then you lose that vegetative structure that made it so important to water birds originally.”
Even though the drought has really accentuated it, the problem goes much deeper than that, according to Ron Cole.
Formerly the Biologist of the Klamath Basin NWR Complex, Cole quit to begin negotiating the refuge’s position in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Few people know the situation the Klamath faces better than Cole.
“I basically was brought in to negotiate the refuge’s position within the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. My focus was just to get some water for the refuge from the Bureau,” Cole said. “In 2006, we came up with an equitable way to allocate water with that agreement, but the bill was never signed into law by congress because it was politically hot.”
The reason it was politically hot? Because the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was being implemented in force and much of the water that used to go to the refuge was now being allocated to three species. The endangered shortnose sucker and Lost River sucker, and the threatened Southern Oregon Northern California Coho salmon.
“When the bill wasn’t signed, we had to go back to water rights. And the refuge’s position in water rights isn’t great,” Cole said. “At that time, we found information about how the watershed had been diminished over the last 40 years, due to logging practices that took away our ability to retain snow later into the spring, and less and less precipitation. We were concerned the refuge’s water allocation from the past would end.”
If drought wasn’t already a pressing enough issue, the allocation of resources through the ESA added another level of stress to the situation.
“But all that aside, what really has killed the refuge in my opinion was the Fish and Wildlife Service’s inability to show flexibility with the Endangered Species Act. Without passing the Restoration Agreement, we could see the writing on the wall that the refuges would go dry probably 8 out of 10 years. The ESA is going to grab up anything that appears to be excess water.”
It’s important to talk specifics here, about the allocation of water and how the ESA impacts that.
When things were fully functioning, and the drought wasn’t so pervasive, the refuge could count on having 90,000 to 110,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Bureau of Reclamation. In fact, in the 1980s, the problem was figuring out how to get water off the refuge and the surrounding farmland.
Now, the refuge is allocated 40,000 acre-feet on a great year. How the ESA specifically is impacting that, has to do with their management plan for the suckers and the salmon. Around 70,000 acre-feet of water is being allocated for them in the effort to recover the species.
If the allocation to the endangered species was working, it would be great news. It would be a short-term problem for the refuge, hopefully, able to be reversed once the species hit recovery objectives. North America’s ducks are still doing well and could give up one migrator stop in the name of recovery. But here’s where the ethical dilemma of picking winners and losers hits a fork in the road: it’s not helping.
“The ESA in the basin and the way it’s been implemented by the people in charge, has been a failure,” Cole said. “You have fewer fish at all levels. Less suckers, less recruitment of those fish. So why drag down hundreds of species and the ability to filter water for the Klamath River’s salmon if implementation isn’t working?”
I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong, or to even begin pretending to know the biology of the system and the species that inhabit it. But, at some point, we must ask the question; at what point is sacrificing an entire system worth the price, especially if your strategy isn’t working?
The last element that can’t be understated is the importance of maintaining the Pacific Flyway’s few major wetlands. The Pacific Flyway, as it faces more and more development and a change in climate and precipitation, has quickly descended into a major wetland crisis. It’s losing all its habitat.
“The Pacific Flyway is a three-legged stool, that’s disappearing right in front of us. The legs of the stool are the Central Valley, the Bear River Watershed which is the Great Salt Lake, and the Lower Klamath,” Cole said. “95% of the Central Valley wetlands are gone and barely functioning, the Lower Klamath is no longer functioning, and the Bear River Watershed is severely compromised and failing.”
John Vradenburg sees the same issues with how wetland loss impacts the Pacific Flyway’s long-term health.
“At both a local and regional landscape scale, the Western United States has always had dry spells, but there was a redundancy of wetlands, so there was always wetlands for birds somewhere,” Vradenburg said. “We do have concerns about what this loss of wetlands could mean about the disruption of the traditional use for these birds, and what this disruption does over the long term for the population and how they respond to the change of landscape.”
It really seems that the Pacific Flyway, which has the longest seasons and biggest limits, is at risk of becoming one of the most conservative flyways. It faces the natural hydrology of the West being neglected, the importance of wetlands in the system ignored, human development and record drought persisting, and lastly a government system that’s not acknowledging the importance of public lands, hunting, and wetlands against the rest of the issues.
Despite the dismal current state, Vradenburg is still optimistic.
“It’s easy right now to get pessimistic,” Vradenburg said. “But a lot of people are starting to rally around a vision of a restored wetland landscape in the basin, and that’s great news. There’s significant funding coming into the basin to address the issues, and I think everyone’s starting to coalesce around wetlands having been too neglected.”
Some of the best biologists, like Dr. Chris Nicolai, believe that Vradenburg’s the man to turn the Klamath Refuge around.
“Vradenburg is a rockstar wetlands manager, and he’s one of the best wetland managers in the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Nicolai said. “He was down in New Mexico and fixed a lot of problems, he worked magic there.”
Hopefully, the stakeholders in the basin can return to the table and revisit the Restoration Agreement to give the refuge a fighting chance.
“Something that brings me hope is that Lower Klamath was Roosevelt’s first refuge designated for waterbirds, and that took tremendous foresight to keep this habitat protected,” Vradenburg said. “And now, our generation has the opportunity to make this one of our great conservation successes in the United States. That’s a motivation we can all get behind here in the Klamath.”
Feature image via USFWS.