Waterfowl Face Dry Refuge
Klamath water woes could harm eagles
By Yvonne Condes
Every winter, visitors flock to the country's first waterfowl refuge near the California-Oregon border to catch a glimpse of the national symbol.
This year, there may be fewer bald eagles to see at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
Eagles, and nearly 2 million other birds that pass through during their winter migration, will land at a refuge that is 90 percent dry. Because there won't be much for the birds to feed on, it's unlikely they will stay, and some could die.
The Bureau of Reclamation shut off the refuge's water in January and, like the fields of nearly 1,000 Klamath Basin farmers who also lost their water, the refuge is drying up.
The worst drought in decades combined with a federal mandate to protect the endangered suckerfish and threatened coho salmon forced the bureau to cut its water allocations.
For the refuge, it means dry wetlands, and for farmers, no crops.
December through February, the refuge shelters 500 to 1,000 bald eagles, the largest concentration in the lower 48 states. It also welcomes the largest population of waterfowl in the Pacific flyway, including Canada geese, tundra swans, green-winged teals and mallards.
The birds fly hundreds of miles to the Lower Klamath to stop and refuel, said Dan Yparraguirre, migratory bird biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
"One of the most important gas stations from here to grandma's house is empty," he said.
Waterfowl survival this year will depend on how healthy and well-fed they were when they started south.
"If they're not in good condition when they get to the Klamath basin, they're going to die."
The eagles' predicament isn't as dire at this point, said Ron Jurek, a Fish and Game biologist. If they are unable to find food, they will keep heading south.
The eagle population in the Lower Klamath refuge could drop to 100 this year, said deputy refuge manager Fran Maiss.
It will take years to see what effects this year's situation will have on the eagle populations, Jurek said.
"It's not like having a disease and finding hundreds of bodies out there," said refuge manager Phil Norton. "It's chronic."
Some eagles and many birds, he predicts, won't make it through the winter.
The Oregon Natural Resource Council wants to make sure that they do. The council, along with the Golden Gate Audubon Society, has filed an intent to sue the federal government for violating the Endangered Species Act by not delivering water to the refuges for the eagles.
"They have a basic responsibility to provide that water," said Wendell Wood of the resource council. "If recovering our nation's symbol doesn't matter, what does?"
The eagles are as important economically and biologically as the suckerfish, Wood said.
There just isn't enough water this year, and the suckers and salmon are in jeopardy, said Pat Foulk, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife's California and Nevada operations.
The bald eagle was upgraded from endangered to threatened in 1994. Last year, Fish and Wildlife was poised to proclaim an Endangered Species Act victory, declaring the bald eagle recovered. That designation didn't fly, and the matter is still being worked out.
"It's as if the two fish are on a life-support system," Foulk said, "and we have the bald eagle that is filling out the discharge paper to get out of the hospital. The suckerfish are in more dire need."
In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt established the Lower Klamath as the nation's first waterfowl refuge. It has relied on the Klamath Water Project as its sole water source. Fish and Wildlife saw the crisis coming years ago when it saw how overburdened the Klamath Project was.
"We had a feeling that the worse scenario was going to happen," Norton said.
The refuge is buying well water from a neighboring rancher and this week started drilling for water, but it won't help this year.
There is more water in the Lower Klamath Lake than was expected, said Jim Bryant, chief of operations for the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Basin office. It's too soon to tell if that water will be allocated to farmers or to the refuge, he said.
"If the crisis is only one year, there will be some loss, like the farmers," Norton said. "If we're able to resolve the problem, the wildlife will rebound along with the farming community. If we can't resolve it, the farming and wildlife will be hurt tremendously."