A US District Court Judge today issued a preliminary finding ordering the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to complete the long overdue “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” for five of the Klamath Wildlife Refuges including Upper Klamath, Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Bear Valley and Clear 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 preliminary finding, issued by United States Magistrate Judge Mark Clark in Medford, requires the USFWS to complete the plan by Aug. 1, 2016.

Waterfowl depend on Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges. Photo courtesy of Brett Cole.

The ruling was triggered by a lawsuit that Crag filed on behalf of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch.

“This is good news for anyone who cares about wildlife like bald eagles, sandhill cranes, and white pelicans,” observed Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director for the Audubon Society of Portland. “Time and time again, we have seen wetlands and wildlife areas on these refuges starved for water, while land leased to commercial agribusiness is fully irrigated. This has to stop.”

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 Oct. 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.

Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are unique in the nation in that they lease more than 22,000 acres of refuge lands to private agribusiness interests. Lands set aside by law as wetlands for eagles and geese are instead managed for commercial agriculture. Worse, in the drought-plagued Klamath Basin it has become common practice for refuge wetlands to be cut off from water even as private agribusiness on refuge lands is fully irrigated. Water for wetlands has cut off repeatedly in recent years, sparking outbreaks of avian botulism and other diseases that have killed tens of thousands of migratory birds.

“The judge’s ruling simply requires the US Fish and Wildlife Service to obey a law they have known about since 1997,” said Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild. “With the Klamath Basin in a perpetual state of drought, the law requires the agency to ensure wildlife like eagles and geese take priority over agribusiness on National Wildlife Refuge lands.”

The judge’s ruling comes as the Klamath Basin prepares for yet another drought year. According to the US Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2015 is shaping up to be another severe drought year, with snowpack in the Klamath Basin just 10 percent of normal. A completed Comprehensive Conservation Plan would give the USFWS an important tool to ensure that in drought years commercial activities on the refuges do not harm fish and wildlife conservation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has both a legal and moral responsibility to ensure the needs of wildlife take priority on America’s National Wildlife Refuges,” concluded John DeVoe, Executive Director of WaterWatch of Oregon. “This ruling should be a wake-up call to the agency to stop dragging its feet and do its job.”

A copy of the ruling can be found here.

Learn more about the Audubon Society of Portland’s work to protect the Klamath refuges.