U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service given August 2016 deadline to complete plan to ensure commercial agribusiness doesn’t harm refuge wildlife

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

 

Medford, OR – Yesterday, a U.S. District Judge issued a ruling ordering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to complete the long overdue “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” for Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. These plans, mandated by a 1997 law, require the USFWS to ensure commercial activities on refuge lands do not harm wildlife. The order by U.S. District Judge Owen Panner in Medford adopted a preliminary recommendation issued on March 5th by U. S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clark. The USFWS must now complete the plan by August 1st, 2016.  The ruling was triggered by a lawsuit that Crag filed on behalf of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch.

An administrative process will follow, allowing members of the public to comment on the proposed plan.

“Wildlife advocates intend to make a compelling case during this process against the refuges’ harmful commercial land leasing program. This program – which is unique in the nation and distinct from more well-known cooperative farming programs on many National Wildlife Refuges – annually displaces some 22,000 acres of refuge wetland habitat, allows the use of toxic pesticides, and oversees the wholesale mechanized destruction of baby and adult birds in their nests each spring.” said Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director of Audubon Society of Portland.

The ruling came on the same day that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls accepted new bids from agribusiness operations to lease some 4,822 acres of refuge lands for commercial crops under the program. The new bids also come as the Klamath River Basin is experiencing its third crippling drought in as many years. Last week, the Bureau declared that it would not provide any water to already parched Klamath refuge wetlands but would instead direct the refuge’s most senior water rights to supply the commercial crops grown on the refuges.

“The federal government’s decisions here are shameful and represent a virtual death sentence for refuge waterfowl,” said Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch Communication Director.

Since 2012, tens of thousands of birds on these refuges have died for lack of water as a result of decisions made by the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees both the Bureau and the USFWS. With few wetland acres available due to lack of water, large numbers of waterfowl pack together during migration periods, leading to lethal disease outbreaks. Refuge staff estimated that some 20,000 birds perished this way in 2014. Similar conditions on these refuges sparked massive waterfowl die-offs in 2012 and 2013.

The federal government could stop accepting new bids on leases and instead phase out the refuge lease program. This would free up some 85,000 acre-feet of water (27.7 billion gallons) under the refuges’ senior water rights, enough to provide adequate habitat for migratory and breeding birds and prevent die-offs during drought years.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires that the US Fish and Wildlife Service develop and implement a “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” (CCP) for each unit within the national wildlife refuge system. The CCP describes desired future conditions and provides long-range guidance and management direction to achieve the purposes of the refuge and ensure commercial activities on refuge lands do not undermine wildlife conservation. Under the Improvement Act, all plans were supposed to be completed by October 9, 2012. While the vast majority of refuges in the United States have met this requirement, five Klamath refuges still have not released a draft. These plans are now nearly three years overdue.

“We applaud the judge’s ruling, and look forward to making the case during the upcoming public process that wildlife like eagles and geese actually take priority over agribusiness on National Wildlife Refuge lands,” said Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Crag Attorneys Chris Winter and Maura Fahey and Quinn Read at Oregon Wild.