Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge celebrates 100 years

Tony D'Souza
Liz Diver of Badger Run Wildlife Rehab poses with Whisper, a two year old Swanson’s Hawk hit by a car near the Lower Klamath Refuge. The Refuge attracts thousands of raptors like Whisper who come to feed on migratory waterfowl.

Two hundred birders, hunters, farmers, conservationists, and area residents gathered under a cloudless sky this past Friday to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the establishment of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a vast expanse of mixed wetlands on the Siskiyou County side of the Klamath Basin, and migratory home to over 350 species of birds.

Once Klamath and Modoc Indian country and currently a popular federally managed public use area for waterfowl hunters and bird watchers alike, the Lower Klamath Refuge is even more popular with birds. Part of the Pacific Flyway, Lower Klamath Refuge and its five sister refuges in the greater Klamath basin region serve as an important resting spot for millions of waterfowl in their great north and south migrations, as well as the raptors—including nearly 1,000 bald eagles—who follow and feed on them.

Friday, the focus was all on the Lower Klamath Refuge, the United States’ first waterfowl refuge, established on August 8, 1908, by order of President Theodore Roosevelt. Participants  took behind-the-scenes tours of the refuge led by US Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologists, visited a number of conservation-oriented booths at the refuge’s entrance, heard speeches by the heads of supporting organizations in a temporary pavilion, and enjoyed a free lunch served by the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge Association.

The organizations which came together to host the event included the Klamath Tribes, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Audubon Society, the California Waterfowl Association, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and Siskiyou and Klamath (Ore.) County officials.

Visitors came to celebrate the refuge for myriad reasons from as near as Dorris, and as far away as Washington DC. “I love the bald eagles,” said Darrel Samuels, president of Klamath Basin Audubon Society. “It’s a treat to come and see them every day.”

Steve Kandra, a Tule Lake cereal grains farmer and descendant of 1911 homesteaders, said, “[The refuge] is my neighbor. We’ve had this relationship for almost 100 years,” while members of the Shaw Historical Society, at work on a book entitled, “Wings That Fill the Sky: America’s First Waterfowl Refuge,” came because they had been hard at work researching the subject of Lower Klamath and its birds.

While the gathering was an unusual one for the refuge, which does not often see such crowds even on the first day of duck hunting season, the centennial served as a moment to appreciate the refuge’s history and the important role it plays in supporting a greater flyway habitat that stretches from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica.

As he led a caravan of 30 participants in three vehicles along a culvert between two wide tule marshes on one of the early morning tours, wildlife biologist Dave Mauser, with 15 years of Fish & Wildlife service at the Lower Klamath Basin, pointed out ibis, mallards, plover, and western sandpipers.

Later, as he stopped the convoy to survey a group of white pelicans busily herding fish into shallows in their trademark hunting technique, Mauser spoke of the extraordinary numbers of birds that call the Klamath refuges home at one point or another in their lives.

“Lower Klamath can see anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million waterfowl come through, the refuges together host anywhere from two to three million,” he said. “In late September to October, there can be 1,500 greater sandhill cranes. Upwards of 3,000 pairs of white pelicans nest here. Before it was a refuge, market hunters sent tons and tons of ducks from here to San Francisco. Birds were also taken for their plumes, egrets plumes were used for ladies hats.  William Finley was instrumental in writing about the wildlife here, chronicling it in photos. In part he wanted to stop the market hunting of birds.”

Photographer convinced

President to protect habitat

Indeed, the centennial celebration of the Lower Klamath Refuge was also a celebration of the life and work of William Finley, the photographer, birder, and naturalist to whom the refuge owes its existence.

After a visit to Lower Klamath and Tule Lake in 1905 in which he documented the massive display of avian life with his cumbersome camera, Finley convinced Teddy Roosevelt of the need to protect the unique marshland habitat, which the conservation-minded President did, setting aside 81,619 acres of lakes and marshes “for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding grounds for native birds.”

The need for federal conservation in the area came at a time when the Klamath Basin marshes had been drained and reduced to just one-fourth of their original size following the 1902 Reclamation Act and the work of the Klamath Reclamation Project, which turned the vast original wetlands into 240,000 acres of farmland in just a few years.

Populations of migratory waterfowl plummeted precipitously, some to the edge of extinction, and a habitat that had remained relatively stable since the last Ice Age seemed on the verge of collapse.

The establishment of the refuge allowed bird populations to rebound, only to collapse again in 1917 when the construction of a railroad cut Lower Klamath off from its water source, the Klamath River. 

“By 1921, Lower Klamath Lake… had been reduced to a huge, dry, alkaline dustbowl,” according to “Klamath Basin,” a publication of the Klamath Basin Wildlife Association. It wasn’t until farmland flooding problems in Tule Lake and the construction of a drainage tunnel through Sheepy Ridge that in 1942 water again flooded Lower Klamath.

Water is now the

number one question

As the wildlife biologists pointed out on the tours, the question of water – as with so many places in California – is number one on the refuge’s list of concerns.

No longer flooded according to the patterns of nature, Lower Klamath Refuge continues as a carefully managed system of dikes and permanent and seasonal marshes that competes for water with the needs of neighboring farms, tribes, and even endangered species like the Lost River suckerfish. According to Mauser, “We’re fourth on the [water] list.”

But the birds that depend on Lower Klamath for the food and shelter it supplies don’t know anything about modern water politics, and, as Mauser explained, they expect the refuge and its marshes to be there for them year after year on their long migrations.

The point was reiterated by Meryl Redisch, executive director of the Audubon Society of Portland. “Folks around the nation view Lower Klamath as a key birding attraction. It’s so critical to protect these places… People are part of the solution to making sure habitats are welcoming to birds, both in their own backyards and here.”

A dozen speakers

Klamath Tribes chairman Joe Kirk, the first of a dozen speakers to take the ceremonial podium, spoke of his family’s love for the area. “When we come down here, we enjoy the trip, the deer, the birds, the bugs. It’s special to our tribal people, to our family. It’s our personal playground. We’d like to thank President Roosevelt for preserving it just for us,” he said in a wry aside that brought laughter from the audience.

Jim Cook, Siskiyou County Supervisor, remarked how the vista that the assembly was looking at – a snow capped Mt. Shasta in the far distance – was the same one that Teddy Roosevelt had once seen; and Bob Fields, the former Fish & Wildlife manager of Lower Klamath, spoke of the legal struggles to stop homesteading on the wetlands, of how hunters were made to switch from lead to environmentally friendly steel shot, and other conservation issues the refuge has faced over the years.

Steve Thompson, former regional director of the Fish & Wildlife Service, spoke of the difficulty of managing Lower Klamath because of the water issues involved. “There isn’t anything that’s done in this basin without conflict,” he explained. “[We have] to always look for a balance, balance water for both farming and wildlife.”