Wildlife Management Institute

WMI Outdoor News Bulletin Cholera Kills Thousands of Waterfowl in Klamath
Cholera Kills Thousands of Waterfowl in Klamath PDF Print E-mail

An outbreak of avian cholera has killed 10,000 to 15,000 ducks and geese in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge complex, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.  Most of the affected species are snow and Ross’ geese, pintail ducks, and coots.  While cholera outbreaks are not unusual and are not significant in populations exceeding 2 million birds, this is the worst die-off in the last 10 to 15 years, caused largely by not having enough water to provide adequate wetland habitat for the number of birds that move through the region.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in 1908, largely as a result of market hunting of birds in the region. The Clear Lake, Upper Klamath, Tule Lake, Bear Valley and Klamath Marsh Refuges were established over the next 70 years. The area is known as a critical point for migrating waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway - at least half of all waterfowl and 80 percent of the pintails that winter in California spend several weeks in the spring improving body condition for breeding and continued migration.

The Klamath Basin has been a hotbed in the debate over water use for many years.  Because the Refuges do not have a legislated purpose under the Klamath Restoration Project, the delivery of water through project infrastructure is a low priority.  As a result, Refuges receive only what water remains after it is allocated for agriculture and for maintaining adequate water levels for endangered fish.  With lower than normal rain and snowfall through this past winter, the Refuges had not had water released to them since December, flooding less than half of the Lower Klamath NWR’s 31,000 acres of marsh.

“We were about 50 percent of normal of what we would hope to have for wetlands flooded at this time of year,” commented Ron Cole, Refuge Manager for the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in an interview with National Public Radio. “That concentrated the birds. When they are concentrated they tend to spread the disease more quickly.” Significant rainfall in March eased the dry conditions and the Refuge received some of its water allocation, but only enough to flood about 4,000 more acres.

Historically, the Klamath Basin in Northern California and Southern Oregon had an estimated 350,000 acres of wetlands. In 1905, the Klamath Restoration Project was initiated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to convert the lakes and wetlands in the area for agricultural purposes. Today there is less than 25 percent of the historic wetland acreage in the region and the conflict over using water resources has escalated in recent years.

In 2010, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) were signed by over 30 partner agencies and organizations in an effort to develop solutions to the constant conflict over water allocations.  The goals of the KBRA are to restore and sustain natural fish production and provide for full participation in ocean and river harvest opportunities of fish species throughout the Klamath Basin; establish reliable water and power supplies which sustain agricultural uses, communities, and National Wildlife Refuges; and contribute to the public welfare and the sustainability of all Klamath Basin communities.  There are numerous recommendations within the agreement including the removal of four privately owned dams on the Klamath River.

Some components of the agreement can be initiated administratively including impact analyses by management agencies.  In mid-2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released their review “Effects of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement to Lower Klamath, Tule Lake and Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuges.” The assessment shows a general improvement in wetlands acreage and waterfowl use, particular for the Lower Klamath NWR, should the KBRA be implemented.  In addition, the U.S. Department of Interior released a Draft Klamath Overview Report and peer review of the overview in recent months. According to their analysis, the removal of the four dams on the Klamath River would create more than 4,600 jobs in the basin, including hundreds of jobs in fishing and agriculture, while restoring historical habitat for salmon, steelhead and other fish and wildlife.

However, Congress must act to fully authorize the agreements and so far they have not done so. In November 2011, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA-1) introduced the Klamath Basin Economic Recovery Act (H.R. 3398 and S. 1851) that would approve and implement both the KBRA and the KHSA.  The bill also authorizes the U.S. Department of Interior to take the necessary steps to move the agreement forward, changes or establishes federal policy to assist implementation of the agreements, and establishes a process to plan for and implement dam removal.

“The reports tell us that removal of the dams has the potential to support thousands of additional jobs in the Klamath Basin, including new fishing and recreational opportunities, while providing increased water delivery certainty to Basin farmers and wildlife refuges and would increase the harvest opportunity for salmon and steelhead in the river,” commented Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “We will continue our collaboration with states, tribes and local communities to finalize the scientific studies and environmental analysis, and we will continue to work with Congress on legislation that would authorize a decision to be made.”

Dependable water allocations are essential to maintaining the critical migratory bird resources in the Klamath Basin. But with ongoing battles over final implementation of potential solutions such as the KBRA and KHSA continuing the unpredictable water flows, it is likely that more situations like the current avian cholera outbreak will occur in low water years.

"Securing a guaranteed water delivery to refuge wetlands will require federal legislation, and must be done in a way that does not impact deliveries to agricultural lands or needed water for listed fish species. Not an easy task," noted Bill Gaines, president of the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance (COHA). "But the wetlands on the Klamath Refuge Complex provide some of the most important waterfowl habitat in North America.  We must do all possible to secure this habitat a reliable annual water supply." (jas)