Oregon conservation groups are going to court to pressure a federal wildlife agency into completing its overdue plan for managing six wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border.
The three groups say they’re hoping that a consequence of their lawsuit will be that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes action to get more water to the refuges, which migrating waterfowl and other birds depend on.
The Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon Wild and Waterwatch of Oregon filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Medford, Ore. The groups are asking for a comprehensive conservation plan that was supposed to be completed 18 months ago.
Bob Sallinger is conservation director with the Audubon Society of Portland.
He says the Klamath Basin’s six national wildlife refuges in Southern Oregon and Northern California are some of the most important in the nation.
“They are absolutely critically important to migratory birds, migratory waterfowl, on the Pacific Flyway,” Sallinger said.
The Pacific Flyway is a main migratory path between Central America and Canada. The Klamath Refuges are often described as a constriction in the hourglass where the birds congregate for rest, sustenance and breeding.
“And for the last three years, Lower Klamath Lake has literally gone dry,” Sallinger said, noting that drought conditions have exacerbated water resources challenges in the Klamath Basin.
The lawsuit would compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to put out a draft of the conservation plan, take public comments and finalize the plan. The specific timeline would be set by the court.
Matt Baun with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said completion of the comprehensive plan has been slowed by inadequate funding and staffing constraints.
Baun said the conservation plan for the Klamath refuges is “the largest and most complex refuge planning effort ever undertaken in the region, which includes California, Klamath Basin and Nevada. Despite staffing shortages, budget cuts, completion of the Refuge CCP is a top priority for the Service and it is working to complete the CCP as soon as possible.”
He added that an administrative draft is undergoing internal review; upon its completion a public review draft will be made available for public input.
The conservation plan was due October 9, 2012. That was according to a timeline set by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.
Of the six refuges, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge has an especially limited water supply. A railroad grade cut it off from a hydrologic connection to the Klamath River decades ago. It now relies mainly on precipitation and infrequent water allocations from a nearby federal reclamation project.
Crowded refuge conditions in the Klamath Basin have contributed to disease outbreaks of avian cholera and botulism, killing thousands of waterfowl in recent years.
Quinn Read of Oregon Wild is one of two attorneys working the case. She argues that federal officials shouldn’t back down from difficult issues of natural resource management on the Klamath refuges.
Read says a difficult, albeit different, set of issues was successfully tackled on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge through the completion of a comprehensive conservation plan.
The conservation groups describe the plan as a roadmap for refuge management –- a set of guiding principles for the best uses and best practices. And they say the’d like to see that roadmap lead to a new direction when it comes to allowing water flowing into the refuges to be used for irrigating crops.
Every year, farmers grow commercial crops on 22,000 acres in the refuges that are leased for agriculture, Sallinger said.
In terms of water distribution, these farmers often receive irrigation water while the historic Lower Klamath Lake remains dry. Sallinger said that particular water prioritization inside the refuges is partly to blame.
“It’s very hard to argue that agriculture is being done in a way that’s consistent with providing habitat for waterfowl when in fact the lake is completely dry and waterfowl are dying from disease,” he said.
When Congress established the Klamath wildlife refuges it included provisions for agriculture as long as it remains consistent with waterfowl production.