Massive Bird Die Out calls into Question Water Management Balance in California

Updated: Nov 12



Nestled in Northern reaches of California, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is not always on the forefront of water conservationists’ minds 

On the Oregon border lies Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. For over a century, visitors have flocked to Klamath’s wild tule marshes and open waters to canoe, fish, bird watch and hunt. Visiting the park might feel like taking a trip back in time to when settlers first came to California and saw extensive wetlands as far as the eye could see. But this year, something sinister lies beneath the Klamath Basin’s immense beauty.

Roughly 65,000 birds died of avian botulism at the refuge in late summer and early fall, and the shortage of water has led to an 86% reduction in waterfowl counts this fall - birds that normally stop there to rest and refuel have bypassed the region.  To put that into perspective, if 65,000 people in Davis suddenly dropped dead, that would be more than two-thirds of the total population. So why is this happening? The short answer is that it’s a combination of many factors. The biggest contributing factor is the water crisis in California. As less water is available for the wildlife refuge, birds are forced to be more concentrated in the areas of the refuge that do not have water. This high concentration of wildlife in a small area allows a disease to spread quickly through the population. In addition, climate change has made the water warmer and kept it warm for longer periods of time. These conditions have created a perfect storm for certain waterborne diseases, like Avian Botulism.

According to the USGS, Avian Botulism is one of the most potent toxins. Its symptoms include the inability of birds to keep their head up, slowness and restricted movement. This disease is particularly deadly to waterfowl, as they spend most of their lives in water which means when infected, they often drown. Two million birds come annually through the refuge, which is considered a critical piece of the Pacific Flyway and was the first national waterfowl refuge. 

Adding insult to injury, some waterfowl molt in the refuge for roughly a month between July and October––the exact period of the outbreak. This meant that many species of waterfowl weren’t able to fly away to escape this gruesome fate. Although naturally occurring in the Klamath Basin, this outbreak speaks to a larger problem within our state: water rights. The allocation of water to wildlife refuges historically has taken a backseat to virtually everything else, from agriculture to water in the Delta. This is to no fault of the park, which is often overlooked despite its historical status.

In fact, wildlife biologists in the park have spent the past few months doing the excruciating work of removing the dead birds to prevent further infection. This isn’t the first time this has happened. In the winter of 2012, roughly 20,000 birds died from avian cholera in the Klamath Basin. It is likely that the disease transmission worsened after only half of the basin flooded that year, creating similar conditions to this year’s die off. Water is the single most important resource to California’s development––how much are we willing to give up to expansion?

This might sound like a familiar story, as you likely have heard about the thousands of migratory birds that died off across the Southwest earlier this fall. The combination of intensely dry conditions due to a drought in the Southwest and the wildfires causing birds to change their behavior and fly further east are likely causes of this event. At this point, it has become virtually impossible to ignore the blatant impacts of climate change to our homes and on our daily lives, but also in the last few wild places in California. Today, 80% of Klamath Basin’s wetlands have been lost due to irrigation to address the West Coast’s endless development. Even after the immense loss of wetlands in the basin, they are also the last in a long line of water recipients in the region. 

Water is such a precious resource to all aspects of our society, but it has to be distributed equitably. Balancing obligations to agriculture, the environment and local Indigenous people like the Yurok tribe is complicated and messy, but necessary to the survival of the region.

You shouldn’t have to be Yosemite Valley to get proper funding and resources. Every last bit of wilderness in the West matters, and as Californians, we must hold our government accountable to continue to protect our natural resources before it is too late.

The United Nations estimates that roughly 150 species go extinct every day. We are in the midst of a global mass extinction event caused by our actions. Fighting every environmental battle at a local level is necessary to protect these rapidly disappearing pieces of wilderness. 

To learn more about how you can help Lower Klamath specifically, join the California Waterfowl’s newsletter or donate. But the Lower Klamath is just one of many stops along the Pacific Flyway which desperately need funds and help. Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is another great resource which works to protect wildlife refuges along the coast.

Written by — Joe Sweeney


This article originally appeared in The Aggie Newspaper.

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