Klamath Refuges, America’s First Waterfowl Refuge,

Ongoing droughts, reduced water supplies and other factors have caused the Klamath Basin to dry up and close the refuge to waterfowl hunters during the 2022-2023 waterfowl hunting season. (Photo: mike-erskine/Unsplash.com)

First in history, America’s first National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a wasteland established by Theodore Roosevelt for the purpose of protecting waterfowl. Millions of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and other important wildlife species would have nowhere to rest, refuel and prepare for migration there or in neighboring Tule Lake NWR. This could have permanent, lasting impacts on migratory birds and native wildlife along the Pacific Flyway. Healthy wetlands in the Klamath Basin not only provide refuge for migratory and native species; they also help filter groundwater and recharge aquifers. Dry wetlands can result in people losing access to drinking water and an important source of water necessary to sustain the local economy.


Waterfowl numbers on Klamath refuges in both 2020 and 2021 were among the lowest on record due to reduced water supplies. In 2020, 60,000 waterfowl and other waterfowl also died from an outbreak of avian botulism exacerbated by low water conditions. Other species, such as bald eagles, many of which winter in the Klamath Basin, also suffered from a lack of suitable habitat. Ongoing drought, runoff for endangered fish, rising pumping costs, and the lack of high-level water rights have reduced water supplies to wetlands to historically low levels. Wildlife-friendly crops such as wheat, barley, and other cereal grains also declined amid reduced water supplies, leaving significantly less food for waterfowl and causing significant financial damage to Klamath Basin farmers.

“These unprecedented dry conditions at the refuges will have a negative impact on the hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl that will be heading south from their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada in the next month,” said John Carlson Jr., president of the California Waterfowl Association. a nonprofit organization that restores and improves wetlands and other waterfowl habitat. “Birds traditionally stop at this historically significant habitat to refuel and rest before completing the thousands of miles to their wintering grounds.”

The refuges will be closed to all waterfowl hunting for the first time for the 2022-23 season due to a lack of flooded habitat or irrigated grain crops. Not only will this negatively impact outdoor recreation opportunities for many California and Oregon families, but it will also harm the local economy of the Klamath Basin, which depends in part on hunting revenues.

A water-sharing compact, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, would have provided more equitable water supplies to refugees and was supported by a large group of stakeholders, but Congress failed to pass legislation to implement it by a 2016 deadline. Subsequent efforts to create a similar agreement with Klamath Basin water users — which many critics say is necessary — have largely stalled.


Acquiring permanent water rights from willing sellers is one of the few remaining options to help address and mitigate this crisis in the long term. Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Waterfowl Association facilitated the transfer of up to 3,750 acre-feet of water this summer, delivering almost 400 acre-feet of water to the Lower Klamath NWR. It was the only wetland for the refuge at the time and was accomplished with water quality benefits to endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake and no harm to agricultural water users.

Funding for the transfer was initially provided through private donations from CWA members in 2021, while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife provided state drought money for this year’s water delivery. The move is supported by many other conservation groups, sportsmen’s organizations, and some agricultural and tribal interests, and represents one of several joint efforts among numerous private groups and government agencies to obtain water for the refugees.

With additional funding in the next few years, the transfer will be permanent and is expected to provide water to the Lower Klamath NWR for most, if not all, future water years. According to an Environmental Assessment completed in 2021 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, up to 30,000 acre-feet of water is available for permanent transfer to the Lower Klamath NWR from willing landowners in Oregon. This would be enough to flood 10,000 hectares of wetlands. “CWA is working towards this lofty but achievable goal!” Carlson said.

For more information, visit our plan to save the Klamath at calwaterfowl.org/lower-klamath.

California waterfowl is a 501c3 non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance California’s waterfowl populations, wetlands and hunter-conservation communities. Our vision is a California with thriving waterfowl populations, vibrant wetland ecosystems and respected hunting communities.


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