Thousands of birds are dead and dying in wildlife refuges south of from avian botulism.
The botulism has spread mostly to mallards, which are being fished out daily by refuge staff and volunteers riding in fan boats.
© Steven Silton

Drought conditions have relegated flightless waterfowl to limited habitat in Tule Lake in lieu of the larger, but currently dry, Lower Klamath Lake.

"When ducks molt, they lose all their flight feathers and are completely flightless for about a month," said refuge biologist Dave Mauser. "It doesn't help that for a month they're stuck in a marsh with disease."

One longtime volunteer said more than 5,000 bird carcasses have been picked up and the deaths are already the worst he's seen in seven or eight years. Mauser estimated 7,000.

Because the Lower Klamath refuge is dry, "birds are concentrating at Tule Lake, causing disease to spread rapidly," refuge complex manager Ron Cole wrote in an email.

With Mount Shasta in the background and open water punctuated by reeds, an otherwise beautiful scene was dominated by bobbing carcasses and sick birds. Fan boats cruised through Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to save the ones they could and prevent further spread of disease.

"What we're doing is circling around tule clumps and stopping to pick up a dead duck like that one over there," said Jim Rhodes, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer and former duck hunter.

Sick ones get catheters filled with fresh water down their throats. Dead ones are put into an incinerator.

Avian botulism spreads largely through protein sources, creating a vicious cycle related to how mallards feed. The dead birds are removed to prevent the spread and to wait out cooler temperatures and the end of molting season.

Mauser said the always-present disease is more likely to spread amid hot, crowded conditions. Dead fish, insects and snails contract the disease and then are eaten by the birds. When the birds die, maggots start to eat them, and other birds eat the maggots, proliferating botulism. And so, sick and dead birds are picked up to break the cycle.

"We've already picked up 26 birds this morning - just unreal," said Bill Ruther, a retired sheriff's deputy steering one of the fan boats.

Mauser said the task can be tough since birds favor secluded places to die, shielded by reeds.

Tracy Albro, a USFWS biotechnician, plucked a band from a dead mallard that has information on it such as the bird's age. "It's like a piece of jewelry to a duck hunter."

Rhodes said the majority of volunteers are duck hunters who want to give something back to the refuges.

Mauser puts this year in the top 20 percent of drought years, and said it's the driest recorded year for Lower Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge - created in 1908 as the nation's first waterfowl refuge.

In a 2012 briefing paper written for the Bureau of Reclamation, Cole described the Lower Klamath refuge as "one of the largest staging areas for fall and spring migrating waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway, winters the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and harbors more than 80 species that are listed as sensitive, threatened or endangered."

Meanwhile, connecting issues of fish and wildlife suffering to critiques of water management in the Klamath Basin is nothing new for conservation groups, and this incident is no exception.

"In the last few years we've seen the refuges just hammered by bad water management," said Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild.

"The Bureau of Reclamation has gradually been strangling water flows to these refuges. It's reaching a point where refuges are last on the list. Reclamation has been withholding water since the late 1990s, when everyone realized there wasn't enough water to go around."

Jason Phillips, the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Basin Area Office manager, said the BOR intends to continue collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Klamath Project water users and other stakeholders to thoroughly examine all opportunities to provide water to the wildlife refuge.

"However, specific amounts of water, along with a delivery schedule, cannot be provided at this time," Phillips said in a statement.

Matt Baun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman, stressed the importance of volunteers and staff members removing dead birds and monitoring avian botulism conditions every day in the refuges.

Baun also acknowledged the larger issues contributing to the situation. "The larger point is the refuges need certainty of water," Baun said.

He pointed out the Klamath Basin task force, convened by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., seeks to address water management issues.

Under regional water settlement agreements, Baun said Lower Klamath would receive 51,000 acre-feet of water - a good deal more than essentially none this year. He also said the agreements would allow flexibility for refuge managers to decide when water is delivered.

And though everyone is hoping for the bird deaths to end soon, Albro said he and his crew are picking up about "1,000 birds every three days," and the numbers continue to rise.