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Environment, Energy and Transportation
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A Predictable Tragedy: Avian Botulism In Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

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Bird Ally X
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Mallards and Northern Pintails undergoing rehabilitation at the “Duck Hospital” run by Bird Ally X.

The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges are echoing with sound now: the honks of geese, the quacks of mallards, the whistling of wigeon, the bugling of cranes. March is peak migration time, and the abundance of waterfowl is a heart-lifting spectacle.

Sadly, it is not always so. Last summer, a strange silence gripped the Basin. A dead silence. The 90,000 acres of marshes and open water that make up the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are a small remnant of vast wetlands that once filled this region on the Oregon-California border. With over 75% of the original wetlands now converted to agriculture, these refuges are a precious oasis for nesting waterfowl and other marsh birds like White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. For this oasis to burst with life, it simply needs water. Sadly, nothing is simple about water in the Klamath Basin. And this summer, that led to tragedy.

All the water in the Klamath Basin is promised to somebody - and almost every year, far more water is promised than is available. The biggest promises are made to agricultural irrigators and to the preservation of three species of endangered fish - two Klamath Lake suckers upstream of the refuges, and coho salmon downstream in the Klamath River. Even though the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge was America’s first waterfowl refuge—established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt—it comes last on the water distribution list. So, every year, much of the “protected” wetlands turn to mud.

Death by avian botulism is gruesome. Poisoned birds lose their ability to walk, then to control their wings. Unable to hold up their heads, poisoned ducks often drown in the water that should have given them life.

In 2020, the situation was so dire that Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the water, released three emergency allocations to the refuges, totaling 14,000 acre-feet. It was not enough - and compared to the 147,000 acre-feet received by irrigators, barely a drop in the bucket.

The resulting shallow, stagnant pools provided the perfect breeding ground for a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. This bacteria produces a botulism toxin deadly to birds (but harmless to humans). The toxin is taken up by aquatic invertebrates as they filter-feed on the bacteria, and then reaches fatal concentrations in waterfowl and other birds that eat the invertebrates. The dead birds pile up and attract swarms of flies, whose maggots ingest the toxin and become yet another vector for the disease as they are eaten in turn.

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Bird Ally X
Northern Pintail poisoned with botulism as brought in for treatment.

Death by avian botulism is gruesome. Poisoned birds lose their ability to walk, then to control their wings. Unable to hold up their heads, poisoned ducks often drown in the water that should have given them life.

Outbreaks of avian botulism are all too frequent in the Klamath Basin’s refuges in late summer, when the water is lowest and the temperatures hottest. That is also the time when ducks molt their flight feathers, temporarily losing their ability to escape an outbreak by flying away. In a “normal” year, a few hundred birds may be brought in for treatment. This summer, the outbreak was a conflagration.

It began a full month earlier than usual, and continued far longer, into mid-October. The first afflicted bird was brought in for rehabilitation on July 17, but wildfires in the region restricted the initial response, giving time for the disease to spread unchecked. Search and collection wasn’t in full force until early August, when the number of birds coming in to the “Duck Hospital” skyrocketed to an average of 75 birds a day, with a one-day record of 167 birds. The rehabilitation organizations Bird Ally X and Focus Wildlife were soon caring for hundreds of ducks and shorebirds, with birds released on a daily basis to make room for the new ones arriving each afternoon.

In total, more than 3,000 afflicted birds were brought for rehabilitation. The birds that made it to treatment were the lucky ones. Among birds that survived the first 24 hours, over 80% recovered and could be released. The tireless work of volunteers, the support of community and conservation organizations, and the expertise of rehabilitation staff were awe-inspiring, especially against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the horrific wildfire season in the region.

But sadly, only a small fraction of the poisoned birds made it to treatment. Field surveyors at the refuge gathered the bodies of about 20,000 dead birds, a number equivalent to the population of Klamath Falls, the region’s largest city. The California Waterfowl Association, whose staff assisted with collection of poisoned birds and carcasses, estimates that at least 60,000 birds died.

So—at least 60,000 dead birds. Dead Mallards, with their emerald-green heads. Dead Northern Pintails, long-necked, long-tailed, and elegant. Dead Northern Shovelers, with their comically enormous bills. Delicate little Green-winged Teal and brawny Canada Geese—dead. And waterfowl were not the only victims. Bird Ally X treated over 35 bird species poisoned by botulism, including Northern Harriers, Virginia Rails, Forster’s Terns, and American Avocets.

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California Waterfowl Association
Caroline Brady, California Waterfowl Association Supervisory Biol-ogist, with duck carcasses collected at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, August 1, 2020.

The struggles for water in the Klamath Basin date back decades, and are as intractable as any in the West, even leading to armed confrontation between irrigators and federal employees in 2001. The most determined recent effort at a compromise solution, called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, expired in 2015 because Congress failed to ratify it.

A host of seemingly legitimate claims on the Klamath Basin’s water exist: farmers whose roots in the region go back generations; Upper Klamath tribes whose ties to the lake suckers stretch back to time immemorial, and Klamath River tribes whose bonds to the salmon are equally ancient.

But older than any human claim, any human “right,” are the rights of the wild. The rights of lake suckers, who evolved right here in the Klamath Basin, and are found nowhere else on earth. The rights of salmon, whose life journey from freshwater to ocean and back to spawn and die in the stream of their birth is an epic beyond our imagination. And the rights of marsh birds to have a place, a place of abundance and safety in this dry and dusty world, to live their lives.

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Bird Ally X
A Northern Pintail is released following successful treatment at the “Duck Hospital” run by Bird Ally X.

How easily we forget that water is wild. We claim it, we fight over it, but we did not make it. The water of the Klamath Basin created a world of overflowing abundance, of lakes filled with suckers, a great river bursting with salmon, and also of marshlands filled with ducks and grebes and ibis and egrets. Our use, our heedless overuse, has almost destroyed that world.

There are glimmers of hope. The dams that choke the Klamath River may be finally nearing removal, to the great benefit of salmon. Over $6 million was recently made available to the wildlife refuges to lease additional water. But the comprehensive plan needed to assure a supply of water sufficient to prevent a recurrence of 2020’s botulism tragedy remains elusive.

In my mind’s eye, I see the 60,000 dead birds gathered in a great poisoned pile, a pyramid of lost lives. The bodies are perfect and unmarked. The feathers are still beautiful. If the masters of the Klamath Basin’s water, all the contending parties, could be brought to stand before that awful sight, would they, I wonder, fall silent for a moment? Would their dusty hearts soften? Can we, at least, agree that this must never happen again?