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The Klamath Basin: Wildlife & Water In The Arid West

                                                              Part 1

            Birds Take Backseat To Fish, Farms In The Klamath Basin

Driving around Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is like being on bird safari. Guides today are refuge manager Greg Austin and biologist John Vradenburg.

“Starting to see the white-faced ibis,” says Austin, manager of the six preserves that make up the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Austin and Vradenburg look out of the dusty car window at ibis wading in the distance.

“Yeah, this is the first time I’ve seen it today,” Vradenburg confirms.

Lower Klamath is a place of paradox. The wide-open landscape is a disconcerting contrast of wildness and impeccable human control. Gravel roads run along a grid of dikes separating wetlands from fields of wheat and barley. Irrigation channels, dams and water pumps crisscross the landscape.

Austin stops at a massive expanse of marshy field.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Weather moves fast over one of the wilder sections of Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge.

“That’s the first time we’ve had water on that in years,” he says.

His voice is tinged with sadness.

“Ten years at least,” Vradenburg says, matching Austin’s rueful tone.

The refuge is functionally near the bottom of a long hierarchy of water users in the basin. And over the past few years, the refuge wetlands haven’t been wet at all.

The coots, plovers, willets, godwits, grebes, and gulls don’t know the history of this land. They only know there’s water right now.

But Vradenburg says by the end of July, the water in this field will likely be gone. So the refuge, which was set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt as a haven for waterfowl, is pumping the water away to force the birds to leave.

There's always a bird - or 20 - in sight at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. But really, there should be many, many more.

“We can’t afford to have a whole bunch of areas that are going to attract a large number of birds in to nest, and then pull the bottom out from under them because the water’s not there,” Vradenburg explains.

This is the deep irony of Lower Klamath’s place in the basin. The natural systems that once kept the land wet have long been altered and now the refuge depends largely on water deliveries from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls the massive Klamath Basin irrigation project.

And despite having enough snow and rain last winter to end the Western drought, the refuge was given no guarantee of getting any more water this year.

“To know that you had this kind of water year, and the watershed is as wet as it is, and we may be still dealing with the same drought-like conditions that we’ve dealt with for the recent past history,” Vradenburg says. “I don’t know how we manage for that.”

The Water

About 20 miles north of the refuge, Jim McCarthy of the environmental group WaterWatch walks along a trail by Upper Klamath Lake. The narrow inlet above the Link River Dam attracts several mid-morning fishermen.

“How’s fishing?” McCarthy asks as he passes.

“No bites yet. Still trying to catch one,” an angler responds. This is the main reservoir for the Klamath Basin.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Epic vista.

It’s a large shallow lake featuring high temperatures, massive algae blooms and the occasional trophy redband trout.

McCarthy says the refuge has an early water right that should give it the same access to this water as the oldest farms here. But he says the Bureau of Reclamation isn’t honoring those rights.  

“If you have an agency coming in and using their power to deny legal water claims, that’s a very bad precedent,” he says. “That should set off alarm bells all across the West.”

At the very least, McCarthy says the bureau should extend the same courtesy to the refuge that it extends to farmers on the project. Each spring, the Bureau of Reclamation gives water delivery estimates to farmers based on winter precipitation levels.

“The bureau makes a big deal—and I think it’s totally appropriate—how they want to provide water certainty to the irrigators so they can plan their crops and plan their year and do what they need to do and make a living,” he says.

The bureau hasn’t given any kind of certainty to the refuges since 2013.

“(That’s) what allows the refuge to exist and fulfill its purposes: if it knows what water it’s receiving and the plans that they can make to provide breeding habitat and other kinds of habitat for birds.”

The Faucet

Evidence of the simmering tension over water bubbles up frequently in the Klamath Basin. You can ask about anything, “as long as you don’t talk about water or fish or wildlife or wetlands. But everything else you can talk about,” joked one federal employee.

At the Bureau of Reclamation office near Klamath Falls, this sentiment is a bit more subtle—and comes in the form of locked entries, barricades and fences (some of these measures, no-doubt, were post 9-11 security upgrades).

The building is squat and not aging very gracefully. It’s surrounded by modular outbuildings that resemble trailers. Yet this is a seat of power.

“We’re the ones that open and close the faucet so we do get characterized as the agency or entity that rules the water in the Klamath,” says Jason Cameron, deputy area manager for the bureau’s Klamath Basin office.

But Cameron says the bureau is only following the law.

Lower Klamath does have an early water right that gives them the same legal entitlement to water as the oldest farms on the Klamath Irrigation Project. The problem is physical access.

“If you do not have direct access to the source of water, then the water right holder together with the (land)owners (in) between … need to work closely together. Because the water right does not give the right to trespass over somebody else’s property,” says Tom Paul, special assistant to the director of the Oregon Water Resources Department, the state agency that manages water rights.

Irrigators on the Klamath Project have contracts that give them a priority for water delivery—this aligns closely with when the farmer and the land they use became part of the project.

“In those contract and then the prioritization system, it’s pretty clear that we need to meet our contractual obligations prior to making water available to the wildlife refuge,” says Reclamation’s Cameron.

At this point, the refuge doesn’t have a formal agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to use project infrastructure to receive water. And without a contract-like arrangement, the refuges are out of luck.

Fish Over Birds

Perhaps a more immediate legal hurdle for the refuges getting water, somewhat ironically, is the Endangered Species Act. Three fish in the Klamath Basin—two species of sucker fish and the Klamath River coho salmon—are protected species under the law.

“In years past, prior to Endangered Species Act requirements on the project, there was ample water available for the refuge,” says Reclamation Deputy Director Cameron.

The latest round of requirements came in the form of a 2013 report by two federal agencies assessing the Klamath project’s impact on imperiled fish and their habitat. This biological opinion by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service serves as an instruction manual of sorts for protecting these fish.

Cameron says because of that document, the bureau doesn’t have any discretion on how much water the refuges can receive.

“In a nutshell, the 2013 biological opinion accounts for all of the water in the system. And clearly articulate how much water can go when and where,” he says.

The opinion cuts off the water completely to the refuges from March through the end of May. And then it says the refuges will only get water in the summer if the fish have enough and the project’s farmers get everything they need. And in fact, this latest version of has been even more onerous in terms of water for the refuges.

“The biological opinions previously didn’t specify what you could or couldn’t deliver to the refuges, where in the current biological opinion it does,” Cameron says.

Reclamation won’t know with certainty if there’s going to be water left until later in the season, although Lower Klamath started receiving some water in July.

So who gets the water in the Klamath Basin? First fish, then farms and then, if they’re lucky… the birds.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
White Pelicans patrol Tule Lake.

Ron Cole retired as Klamath Refuge Manager in 2014, a year after Reclamation stopped budgeting water for Lower Klamath.

“As a manager, I had no problem with the refuge giving up water to help endangered fish. But that’s been going on for a long time now, and we haven’t seen any real change in the fish population,” he says.

What has changed are the refuges. Nesting waterfowl, nesting shorebirds, migratory shorebirds, the number of birds, the number of waterfowl that migrate through the basin, have declined. Cole says there are species that once used the refuges that are now gone.

“They’re not endangered so no one’s worried about that,” he says.

Cole says a complex history and politics brought us to this moment.

“You want to keep the Endangered Species Act working and helping fish. You want to keep the economy of the basin functioning as best you can. If someone was going to have to give something up, there’s just not enough support to keep water on the refuge.”

Making It Flow

As intractable as the refuges’ water situation is, there are ideas for getting the water to flow once again for the birds.

Some involved look to the past, and the possibility of an agreement like the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. This was a long-negotiated water agreement, full of compromise and promise. It effectively died when Congress failed to pass legislation to fund the deal.

“You look back on the old KBRA and it was groups getting together and compromising… knowing you’re not going to get everything you want but working together. I think as a community we’d be a lot better off with that,” says Austin, the current refuge manager.

The KBRA would have given the refuges some water certainty each year, as well as funneling more revenue made off farming on the refuges to pay for wildlife management.

“We believe we need a balanced approach because, without that, we have to legally write the biological opinions,” Austin says

Last year’s new agreement to remove four Klamath River dams called for a restart of KBRA-like negotiations. But as of yet no meetings between the interests in the basin are underway.

Another possible way forward has also recently emerged.

Before the change of administrations in January, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor signed a memo saying Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge met the requirement to get the highest priority water delivery priority from the Bureau of Reclamation.

In June, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers from California and Oregon (including Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Republican Rep. Greg Walden) drafted a letter to current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asking for a more reliable supply of water to the Klamath Refuges.

The letter specifically asks for the bureau to negotiate high-priority water delivery contract (it would technically be a memorandum of agreement) for the refuges.

Refuge and Reclamation staff say they had a preliminary meeting in June to discuss a way forward.

The letter also requests that the up-coming revision of the biological opinion should include changes to water delivery restriction on the refuges because “the criteria under the current biological opinion are almost impossible to meet.”

And this has never been more evident than this year: The entire Klamath Basin is lousy with water and Lower Klamath Refuge and the hundreds of species of birds that use it have been left with the liquid equivalent of scraps.


What Happens To Birds When Wildlife Refuges Dry Up?

Aline of binoculars point upwards at a ridge on the edge of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. There’s an owl’s nest in a small cave about 150 feet up, and Charlotte Kisling has her scope trained.

“That’s a male barn owl in the scope,” she says to the group standing on the edge of the two-lane road.

“How do you know?”

“Females are tawny,” Kisling replies.

She knows a lot about birds and isn’t shy about sharing.

“Oh, I thought it was winking.”

It takes a pregnant moment for this comedic bit to land, but Kevin Spencer gets some appreciative chuckles from his fellow birders.

Spencer is leading this Klamath Audubon Society birding field trip through two of the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges straddling the Oregon-California border. 

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Kevin Spencer birding the Lower Klamath.

He doesn’t get a chance at an encore joke because another raptor comes on stage.

“There’s a prairie falcon flying!” Kisling yells in excitement.

The group tracks the brown mottled bird and its mate swoop and dip along the ridge. The high-pitched cries bounce off a rock wall and out over the miles of open valley floor behind the group.

“Look at this show. Just enjoy it,” she says, obviously doing so herself.

People travel here from all over the world to visit the Klamath Refuges. It’s one of the best spots for birding in the United States. There are birding trails, birding festivals—an entire birding economy in the Klamath Basin.

Today it’s a Southern Oregon crowd on the Audubon field trip, which is focusing not on raptors, but on shorebirds.

Kait White recently moved to Grants Pass from Georgia, and says she immediately heard recommendations to visit the refuges.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Kait White of Grants Pass saw 43 different species of birds in one day at the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“My species list—I write everything down—is so long compared to other places you go to see one specific species or one or two things. But not like this,” she says. “We must have seen like 45 species today, so pretty awesome.”

And across the six preserves in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, there’s a place for every bird.

Sage grouse strut at Clear Lake.

Bald eagles roost at Bear Valley.

White pelicans patrol Klamath Marsh.

Terns summer at Tule Lake.

Red-winged blackbirds hide at Upper Klamath.

And their yellow-headed counterparts sing across the border in Lower.

But all this abundance could be deceptive.

Closing The Windows

Stories go around the Klamath Basin about the birds and how many there used to be.

“I talked to people that grew up here in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Ron Cole, former manager of the refuge complex.

Cole started at the refuges as a technician in the 1980s, left for a while, and then came back as manager in the early 2000s.

“The classrooms in Tulelake during the fall migration, the white-fronted geese were so numerous that the teachers would have to close the windows so she could talk to the class,” he says. “Because it was so loud.”

Now Cole says if you see a flock of white-fronted geese flying over the town of Tulelake in the fall, it’s a big deal.

That decline in birds is the story of the Klamath Refuges.

“Historically, it was thought that these refuges here had the highest concentrations of waterfowl found anywhere in the world,” says Bob Hunter, with the environmental group WaterWatch.

The Klamath refuges are located in the heart of the Pacific Flyway—one of the major migratory bird routes in the world, stretching from the southern tip of South America to Alaska. And a majority of the waterfowl on the flyway come through the Klamath Basin.

“This is the bottleneck right here. This is one of the few places where they can come where there are still wetlands available—a mix of wetland habitats that can provide a place for rest and re-nourishment on their migration both north and south in the spring and the fall,” Hunter said.

But populations here have plummeted over the past century, in part because of what humans have done to the landscape in the Klamath Basin. The estimated number of birds using the refuges have dropped from more than 7 million birds a year in the 1950s to closer to 1 million currently.

Because the birds migrate, problems in the basin likely aren’t the only reason. But the ecosystems here have been highly altered. Marsh connectivity has been lost and as much as 80 percent of the original wetlands in the basin have been drained; much of that area now used for agriculture. 

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Yellow headed blackbirds.

The rate of habitat loss from development has slowed considerably. Recently though, the major issue in the basin has been lack of water. The water supply has been stretched thin—so thin that in an average water year, often there’s someone who won’t get the water they want. Even in good water years the refuges have no certainty they’ll get water.

Without this certainty, the ability of wildlife managers to plan for the season has been diminished, invasive plants are running rampant and disease has killed thousands of birds.

Conditions are changing on the refuges.

“We’re turning into more of a spring and fall migration stopover,” says current refuge manager Greg Austin.

Austin says the refuges haven’t been able to provide nesting habitat because they haven’t been able to keep water on the land.

“Historically, you’d have water here in the summer—permanent wetland units—that you would get a lot of breeding birds. And we don’t have that anymore,” he says.

Protecting Postage Stamps

John Alexander of the Klamath Bird Observatory has seen this loss in his work.

Paddling on the Upper Klamath Refuge canoe trail, he’s yelled at by birds perched on the reedy marsh and green linoleum swaths of lilypad called wocus.

“We’ll just tuck up into this little channel and sit tight a little bit. And hope that some of our black terns show up,” Alexander says as the canoe pushes through the lilypads.

The first of this year’s terns should be arriving any day. They’ll spend a couple weeks on the marsh pairing off and then they’ll build nests in the great sea of tules Upper Klamath is known for.

“(Upper Klamath is) a postage stamp of what wetland habitats probably were in the West originally,” Alexander says.

For a decade, the observatory tracked migratory black terns that nest in and around Upper Klamath. What they found was alarming.

While the terns’ numbers have remained relatively stable elsewhere, they declined here by 8 percent each year.

Alexander says rising and falling bird populations could be used to help determine the health of these wetlands.

“The consequences for society might not be as apparent as they could be,” he says, dipping his paddle into the calm, dark water.

John Alexander with the Klamath Bird Observatory looked at black tern populations in the Klamath Basin.
Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Edit | Remove

“All of this represents clean water downstream. And all of this represents healthier watersheds that hold more water in the long run in a climate change scenario.”

For Alexander, the immediate question is not whether there’s enough protected wetland habitat in the Klamath Basin, but…

“Are we taking care of the postage stamp?”

And The Answer Is...

It would be pretty difficult to find a person who knows the situation at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex and would still answer that question “yes.”

Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, definitely would not. Instead, he’d take things a step further and place at least some of the blame on the refuges themselves—specifically the people that manage them.

Audubon is one of several groups suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan for managing the refuges. The plan was released early this year. The suit argues the refuges aren’t doing what they should be doing to protect the birds.

“I would have hoped they would have seen this as a proactive opportunity to take a hard look at the (refuges) and figure out if what they’re doing makes sense. How it can be adjusted. And instead they double down on doing things exactly the way they previously did it,” Sallinger says.

Sallinger says the refuges’ primary mission is to manage for waterfowl—all waterfowl. But the new conservation plan only takes into account a select few species.

Just Add Memories

Retired refuge manager Cole is no fan of environmental groups’ legal challenges against the way the Klamath refuges are being operated. But he agrees with them on one thing. “This is something, that honestly, you just add water. It’s that simple. You just add water,” he says.

“This is something, that honestly, you just add water. It’s that simple. You just add water,” he says.

Cole has another old story about the refuges. It goes like this:

It’s 12 o’clock in the afternoon.

The birds get up into the air.

And you can’t see the sun because there are so many layers of birds in the sky.

It’s a powerful memory. But it’s not a memory of the young. Or the middle-aged. It’s a memory of only the oldest of the oldest remaining in the basin.

And without that memory …

“I worry that when people are looking out there now, [they think] this is good,” Cole says.

Because when the birds are migrating through the national wildlife refuges it is impressive.

“But if they knew there was an opportunity to see many more birds, would it matter to them? Don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe seeing just a few is enough.”


How Farming Inside Wildlife Refuges Is Transforming Klamath Basin Agriculture

Ryan Hartman is driving from field to field in the Klamath Basin, giving what amounts to a masterclass on how to run logistics for 3,000 acres of farmland.

He troubleshoots equipment at one spot, sets planting depth drills on another a mile away, and farther on, shows a few of his 12 employees where to install an irrigation pipe.

“It’s a pretty good job to have. You get to drive around in this every day … it’s pretty nice scenery,” he says of the big blue sky, the low brown mountains, the marshes and wide open fields outside his truck window.

Hartman has been farming for about eight years on land he leases inside the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. He grows grain, alfalfa and potatoes.

Hartman pulls off onto a chocolate dirt road into a giant field. A low dike keeps water from a nearby lake off this farmland.

“These are yellows,” he says, pointing to one part of the potato field. “And from that way up are chippers—a variety for Frito Lay.”

A century ago, this land was under a massive lake that supported migratory birds. Now it supports potatoes and the people who grow them.

Hartman is one of them. But he’s also part of a new generation of farmers who are making agriculture more compatible with wildlife. 

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

They’re adopting irrigation methods that provide habitat for waterfowl, help keep chemicals out of the wildlife refuges, and give growers a premium price for their crops. And they’re helping push the entire Klamath Basin toward a more sustainable agricultural system.

Refuges Are For Farmers

If you drink organic Northwest beer, there’s a decent chance you’ve tasted barley from the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.

Grain production on refuges is relatively common across the country, but the Klamath refuges are the only ones that also allow for row crops like potatoes, onions and horseradish.

These row crops are grown on Tule Lake refuge and no other because it is enshrined in federal law—1964 legislation called the Kuchel Act (pronounced Key-cull). The Kuchel Act was a compromise bill that stopped refuge land from being stripped away for homesteading, something that had slowly been happening since the land was set aside at the beginning of the 20th century. In return, the farming of grain and row crops was allowed to continue, as long as it supported “proper waterfowl management.”

The interpretation of this provision of the law has since been the subject of debate and litigation in the basin.

Currently about 40 percent, or 37,000 acres, of land on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges are farmed. Around 10 percent of that land is in row crops.

The land is broken down into two separate programs; one involves farming on what are called co-op lands and the other affects growers on so-called lease lands.

The co-op farming is directly designed to provide food for waterfowl. No money exchanges hands. These growers can farm the land for free as long as they agree to leave at least a quarter of that grain standing at the end of the season.

“The co-op fields we have full control over,” says Greg Austin, manager of the Klamath Refuges. The refuges award co-op contracts based on which farmer offers the best deal.

“Annually what that best plan looks like changes based on what conditions are like,” says refuge biologist John Vradenburg. “What’s the refuge going to be most lacking in that year?”

Sometimes the refuge wants offers that will leave more grain standing. Sometimes it’s waterfowl habitat that gets prioritized. Sometimes other factors play into the decision.

Lease-land farming, by contrast, is more of an economic venture. It’s managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. Farmers bid on specific fields for five-year leases. Potatoes and onions grow here, but most of the land is in grain production. Farmers don’t have to leave any behind for birds.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Seed potatoes.


All this has turned the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges into giant laboratories. They test ideas—both for the birds and for the farmers.

One of the most consequential experiments has involved crop irrigation on refuge land—a method that farmers call “flood fallow” and that the refuges have officially labeled as “walking wetlands.” It’s the program that Hartman is taking part in.

The aim is to improve the way agriculture supports habitat for waterfowl. The wildlife refuges have high-priority water rights. But their ability to channel water into wetlands is limited.

The refuges don’t have a formal agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to deliver that water. And Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled fish in the Klamath Basin have kept water in streams that might otherwise reach the refuges.

Even if those things changed, the highest-priority water rights owned by the refuges are earmarked for crop irrigation, not wildlife.

So wildlife managers figured out that if they could convince farmers to use their agricultural water to periodically flood their fields for extended periods of time, they could provide more habitat for waterfowl.

“We have all these agricultural parcels spread throughout the refuge and they’re helping us bring the wetland conditions that have been lost,” Vradenburg says.

The Benefit For Farmers?

Fourth-generation Klamath Basin farmer Mark Staunton is among those who now flood their fields. When those fields are drained and put back into production, a year’s worth of bird poop and decomposing wetland plants cause crop fertility to skyrocket.

“We’re all the sudden back to production that maybe my great-grandpa would have seen when he first started farming on the lake,” Staunton says.

Staunton’s great-grandfather was one of the first homesteaders in the area. His uncle was the first to work with the wildlife refuges on field flooding about 15 years back.

Not only are farmers finding that the standing water makes the land more fertile, they’re also discovering that it kills off weeds.

Since this practice of flooding fields was first put to use, the program has taken off, triggering a transformation of farming on the refuge.


There’s another trend that’s changing agricultural practices in the Klamath Basin’s wildlife refuges: rising consumer demand for organic produce and grains.

The market has seen double-digit growth since the early 2000s and is currently valued at nearly $40 billion in the United States alone.

In the Klamath Basin, flood-fallow irrigation on the refuges has paved the way. On fields that are flooded for three growing seasons, farmers can immediately have their crops certified as organic—netting them higher prices than they’d get for conventionally grown crops.

In addition, when the Bureau of Reclamation drains fields that had been flooded, it can then offer them to farmers for organic production.

“We believe we’re getting higher and increase bids on the lots that are available for organic,” says Mike Green, manager of the lease land program for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Rob Wilson at the University of California extension office in Tulelake says as growers are seeing success using this system, other farmers off-refuge are jumping on board.

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in organic production. And we’re talking thousands of acres of wheat and small grains, barley, potatoes and many of the forages that are being grown,” Wilson says. “It’s becoming a substantial part of farming in the Klamath Basin.”

Staunton is part of that trend.

“About five years ago our farm was less than 15 percent organic to conventional, and now we’re about 50-50 if not a little bit more,” he says.

About half of the farmland on the Klamath refuges is now either organic or flooded as a wetland. And overall fewer chemicals are being put on ground, which is better for the birds.

Best Of An Awful Situation

Bob Hunter of the environmental group WaterWatch is not convinced.

“Walking wetland system certainly has provided the refuge manager with a tool to make an awful situation a little better than it is,” Hunter says.

It will take far more than a change in the way crops are irrigated to satisfy Hunter and other critics of farming on wildlife refuges.

Credit Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Bob Hunter - lower Klamath Refuge

“Tule Lake Refuge is really two polluted farm ponds and commercial farming,” Hunter says.

WaterWatch is suing the refuge for not phasing out farming in its latest conservation plan. The suit says in examining the potential continued compatibility of agriculture on the refuges, managers only considered its effect on a small subset of waterfowl—the same waterfowl that are known to use agriculture for forage and habitat.

Hunter recommends a springtime drive through the refuge to dispel any notion that it’s a park for wildlife.

“They have silhouettes of painted bald eagles out there to act as scarecrows to keep migrating geese off the fields,” he says. “So here you have a national wildlife refuge that is excluding birds so you won’t adversely impact farming.”

The refuge is attempting to rein in this practice in its new conservation plan. That’s drawn the ire of farmers. Some of them are suing over the conservation plan, saying there are changes to agriculture on the refuges that violate federal laws.

Again and again the situation at the Klamath refuges comes back to water.

Ron Larson is a retired biologist who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Klamath Basin for 20 years.

“Personally, I think it’s unfortunate that there’s farming on the refuge. But on the other hand, the fact that there is farming on the refuge does provide a guaranteed water supply, at least for Tule Lake” refuge, Larson says. “So it’s kind of a Catch-22 situation, but it is unfortunate.”

Environmental groups say the refuges’ managers could do far more than encourage growers to irrigate crops in ways that benefit wildlife. Instead, they should take steps to ensure the refuges’ water rights are enforced to put more water directly into natural waterfowl habitat.

This is possible under Oregon water law. But the Oregon Water Resources Department says no changes can happen until after all water rights in the Klamath Basin have been certified. This adjudication process likely won’t be finalized for at least 10 years.

Hunter sees promise in changing the purpose of the refuges’ water rights to benefit wildlife. If the refuges truly care about the birds they’re supposed to be protecting, he says, the next great experiment will be phasing out farming altogether.



Jes Burns is the Southern Oregon reporter for EarthFix, an environmental journalism collaboration led by Oregon Public Broadcasting in partnership with six other public media stations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

She previously worked for the NPR affiliate KLCC in Eugene as a reporter and the local All Things Considered host. Jes has also worked as an editor and producer for Free Speech Radio News and has produced reports as a freelance producer for NPR, Sirius Radio's OutQ News and The Takeaway.

Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.