On January 17, Crag filed suit on behalf of three conservation groups, Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch of Oregon, in federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failure to follow federal law in the creation of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. In 2015, Crag represented the same groups and won a court order to compel the agency to finally produce the long-overdue plan, which is required by law.
“The Klamath Refuges are some of the most important bird habitat in the Western United States,” said Portland Audubon Conservation Director, Bob Sallinger. “Unfortunately the plan put forward by the Service fails to meet the requirements of the law to protect and restore these critically important wetlands. We must demand better for these invaluable public lands.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires that the U.S. 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. The Improvement Act set a deadline of October 9, 2012 for the completion of all CCPs. While the vast majority of refuges in the United States met this requirement, five Klamath Refuges lagged far behind. After a court order, the Service produced a final plan last month.
“We are simply asking that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obey the law,” said Sean Stevens, Executive Director of Oregon Wild. “The agency is legally required to prevent commercial activities, like leasing refuge lands to private agribusiness, from harming fish and wildlife. We simply want them to do their job.”
While there have been announcements in recent years of water-sharing and dam removal deals between some Klamath Basin stakeholders, these agreements do not address the failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obey the law in the development of this CCP, nor do they resolve the ongoing water crisis facing the refuges.
The Klamath Basin refuges’ wetlands represent some of the most important waterfowl habitat in the United States. An estimated 80% of Pacific Flyway waterfowl utilize the wetlands during their migratory journeys and more than 260 species of birds have been observed on the refuges.
The Klamath Wetland Complex once encompassed more than 350,000 acres but today it has been reduced to 80,000 acres to make way for commercial agriculture. In addition more than 22,000 refuge acres are leased for commercial agriculture, displacing essential wildlife habitat. In recent years, federal water management decisions and drought have resulted in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge frequently going dry during the critical spring and fall migratory periods. Since 2012, tens of thousands of birds on these refuges have died for lack of water resulting from allocation decisions made within the Department of the Interior. When few wetland acres are available on these refuges 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.
“Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s most important habitats for migratory waterfowl, but this management plan would allow parched wetlands and massive disease outbreaks to remain the norm here,” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Manager for WaterWatch of Oregon. “If the status quo continues, as largely proposed by this plan, we expect large bird kills will continue on this refuge and others. That is not acceptable.”
The complaint alleges that the plan fails to meet the purposes of the Klamath Basin Refuges to provide diverse habitats for migrating birds and wildlife. The plan ignores the implications of more frequent drought and climatic changes on refuge wetlands and the impacts that continued agricultural leasing has on wildlife, water quality, and diversion of limited water resources away from wetland habitats. The Service failed to consider management alternatives that would ensure reliable water supplies to the refuges or would reduce the incompatible agricultural leasing program on the refuges to ensure that wildlife conservation purposes are met.
The plaintiffs ask the court to declare that the plan violates federal law and to enjoin further agricultural leasing on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges. “It is especially important that the Klamath Refuges follow science and the law given their critical importance to wildlife and the complex challenges that these particular refuges face,” added WaterWatch’s Jim McCarthy.