How the Western Drought is Affecting Waterfowl Habitat Conservation

When the first waves of ducks arrived at Lower Klamath Basin NWR in September, they were met by an unfamiliar sight: a refuge without water.

For just the second time in 80 years, the marshes were completely dry. January and February were the driest on record in California and the entire state remained in severe drought into September.

California isn't alone. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, virtually all of the western U.S. remained locked in a moderate to extreme drought deep into September with little hope of relief.

Conditions haven't improved much in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas since 2011, and numerous western regions remain in what USDM categorizes as "exceptional" drought. That could spell trouble for migrating waterfowl. DU director of conservation planning Mark Petrie says places like the Great Salt Lake are already experiencing the effects of the prolonged dry spell.


"The lack of fresh water means the salinity levels are increasing and that is changing the availability of foods," he says.


Severe drought is also having a dramatic impact on winter habitat in coastal Texas, which has been in an epic drought for five years. Mandatory water restrictions prevented farmers from planting 50,000 acres of rice this year, more than a third of the region's total rice acreage.

According to a DU report, 10,000 acres of rice supports an estimated 120,000 ducks and geese. Coastal Texas is home to 2 million wintering waterfowl.

"If the birds don't have adequate food throughout the winter, they go into the spring migration in poor condition," Petrie said. "We know how important waste rice is to wintering waterfowl, so a significant decline in rice production is going to impact ducks and geese fairly significantly. Some may not make it to their nesting grounds and some others might not be in good enough shape to nest successfully."

Fish First


The same thing is likely to happen in the Pacific Flyway. Petrie says birds will likely bypass Klamath and head straight to the rice-rich Central Valley.

"More pressure on available food means they will deplete their food earlier in the winter," he notes.

The lack of water at Lower Klamath, which supports upwards of 2 million birds during the fall migration, isn't just a result of the region's drought — available water is doled out based on politics. And here, two fish get first dibs.


Lost River and short-nose suckers are endangered species, and as a result, their needs come first. The USFWS is required to maintain water levels in Klamath Lake that are beneficial to the suckers, even at the expense of farmers and wildlife refuges.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service is also required to send a certain amount of water downriver for salmon," says Mark Hennelly, California Waterfowl Association vice president of public affairs and policy. "The needs of those fish come first."

Agriculture interests are second, but it's been a struggle to properly irrigate crops and provide adequate water to cattle in recent months. Ducks and other wildlife that rely on Klamath are last in line.

Killer Outbreaks

The birds that arrive at the bone-dry ponds at Klamath won't stay long, figures Petrie. They'll likely continue on to nearby Tule Lake NWR, which is at full pool because it's at the bottom end of the region's irrigation system. Water that makes it through the maze of canals that feed Klamath Basin's agriculture ends up at Tule.

That's not necessarily a good thing. The refuge was the sight of an avian botulism outbreak in early September that killed an estimated 10,000 ducks and other water birds, a direct result of overcrowding. The disease spread at a rapid pace.

It's not the first time a lack of water has resulted in a major disease outbreak at Klamath. Upwards of 20,000 waterfowl, mostly snow geese, perished from avian cholera in March 2012. Just half the refuge had water, again the result of lower allocations due to drought. The lack of water concentrated birds into small areas, which helped spread the disease.

"I don't see any reason this can't happen again if we continue to deal with low water or no water," says deputy refuge manager Greg Austin.

There is a long-term solution to the Klamath Basin's water issues. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, signed in 2010 by energy company PacifiCorp, along with federal and state officials from Oregon and California, three Native American tribes and a handful of environmental groups, includes the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. It would resolve many of the issues, including refuge water shortages.

Hennelly, however, says the chance of the KBRA passing in its current form is slim.

"It's a tough sell. The cost of implementing the proposals alone is creating a lot of political opposition," says Hennelly. "There is also some strong local opposition, particularly in the farming community."

In the meantime, the next wave of ducks returning to the Lower Klamath NWR will find some water. Refuge officials were allowed to pump water from Tule Lake NWR back to Lower Klamath in mid-September.

However, Austin says the refuge complex will only have enough water to fill about 3,000 acres, just 10 percent of the total wetlands in a normal year.

"Unless we get some more water, which is unlikely, we are planning on closing the hunting over all water this season. We will still allow field hunts, but there won't be enough water to provide habitat for the birds and for hunting," he says.

Austin says if the KBRA had been approved and fully implemented, the refuge would have gotten enough water to flood about 17,000 acres of marsh, about half the refuge's wetlands.

It's better than nothing, but unless weather patterns shift or the various entities in the region can come to terms, a half-flooded refuge may be the new normal.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

This video is a classic! Take a front row seat with Carson as he hunted back in college. The clips are all either filmed with a GoPro or cell phone!

Picking a Puppy

Picking a Puppy

Wildfowl contributor Mark Romanack shares advice about choosing your next retriever.

Browning A5 Shotgun -

Browning A5 Shotgun - 'Gun Stories'

Gun Stories host Joe Mantegna talks about the origin and history of the Browning A5 shotgun.

Swedish Duck Hunt

Swedish Duck Hunt

Kevin Steele takes part in a family driven duck hunt in Sweden.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call. Calls

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during...

While there's no guarantee they'll make you a better shot, these 8 newly-designed shotgun choke Accessories

8 Best Choke Tubes for 2017

Wildfowl Online Staff - October 25, 2017

While there's no guarantee they'll make you a better shot, these 8 newly-designed shotgun choke

SITKA Gear waterfowl product manager Jim Saubier shows off the Bozeman, Montana company's full line-up of women's waterfowl hunting gear for 2019. From warm and moisture wicking base layers to water and windproof outer layers, this is a complete system for women who love to chase fall and wintertime ducks and geese across the four flyways! Clothing & Waders

New SITKA Women's Waterfowl Lineup for 2019

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

SITKA Gear waterfowl product manager Jim Saubier shows off the Bozeman, Montana company's full...

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season. Shotguns

Best Waterfowl Shotguns of 2018

John Taylor - September 25, 2018

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season.

See More Trending Articles

More Conservation

Is it really Conservation

Is Wind Energy Killing Our Ducks?

Joe Genzel

Is it really "great for the environment " if it's bad news for fowl?

When Captain Jeff Coates started hunting sea ducks on the big water of Chesapeake Bay back in 1991, Conservation

Declining Sea Duck Populations Prompts Awareness

David Hart - March 09, 2016

When Captain Jeff Coates started hunting sea ducks on the big water of Chesapeake Bay back in...

Mallards are masters of avoiding hunting pressure. Conservation

Are Mallard Ducks Becoming Nocturnal?

David Hart

Mallards are masters of avoiding hunting pressure.

Keep riding the wave, folks. Nothing good lasts forever. Biologists fear there's a crash in duck Conservation

2015 Wildfowl Forecast

P.J. Reilly - October 14, 2015

Keep riding the wave, folks. Nothing good lasts forever. Biologists fear there's a crash in...

See More Conservation

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Wildfowl subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now