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Management shift dooms local wildlife refuges
February 9, 2003
By Henry Christensen
Herald and News
Klamath Falls, OR
Page D-8 Viewpoints
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This years' waterfowl hunting season, which turned out to be a total disaster, prompted me to do some research.
What I found was, after the war, a handful of ex-G.I.s built a terrific refuge complex. It was the showplace of the United States and probably, the world.
Waterfowl numbers peaked at as high as seven million. There were thousands of shorebirds, there were more than twenty thousand pheasants on the refuges, chukars were introduced and flourished, quail were everywhere and there were thousands of sage grouse on the Clear Lake refuges.
The question is, what happened?
Unfortunately, as the dedicated U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service workers left, they were replaced primarily with office personnel. As a result, for more than twenty years, from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, there was virtually no botulism and cholera control, resulting in losses of as high as 100,000 waterfowl per year.
When you add in lost production, you are talking about millions of birds. The duck hospital was allowed to deteriorate, and the holding pen was torn down.
The predator control program was stopped, resulting in heavy nest losses to predators.
Sage grouse on Clear Lake were virtually wiped out. Chukars were completely killed off, pheasants reduced from more than 20,000 to only a few hundred.
This years' waterfowl numbers peaked out at 661,000, down more than ninety percent from what was on the refuge when the area was the showplace of the world. That's approximately 6.5 million birds.
The raising of Hennichin barley by the Fish & Wildlife Service (preferred by waterfowl) was phased out, leaving upland game birds and both resident and migrating waterfowl totally dependent for food on what's produced by local farmers and ranchers, both on and off the refuges.
Over a period of time, the Fish & Wildlife Service allowed the thousands - and probably hundreds of thousands - of fish that were in Lower Klamath Lake, Tulelake and in the Lost River adjacent to the Tulelake Refuge to be destroyed without lifting a single finger to stop it.
Consequently, the thousands of fish-eating birds and many of the ducks that depend on aquatic insect life and aquatic plant life for food are gone, and if something isn't done to stop the killing, they will never return.
After the hard winter of 1993, I asked one of the Fish & Wildlife Service biologists why they didn't feed the pheasants, chukars and quail, and was told [that] they are exotic birds and we don't care if they die.
About the same time, I asked another biologist why they didn't pick up the waterfowl that were dying from cholera. I was told [that] most were snow geese and [that] they stop in Summer Lake and Warner Valley in Oregon and there are plenty in this valley, so we don't care if they die.
With this kind of people in charge, it's hard to envision the refuges ever being rebuilt.
This year the Fish & Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the California Waterfowl Association (CWA), opened Frys Island and the Lower Sump, on Tule Lake, for hunting. They were two of the few places the waterfowl, that still use the Tule Lake Refuge, could rest in peace. The Fish & Wildlife Service also spent thousands of dollars building elaborate hunting blinds on them, enabling the hunters to kill the few birds that still use these areas.
Tule Lake and Lower Klamath are waterfowl refuges, not hunting preserves.
Thousands of bird watchers and hunters flocked to the area, giving local businesses a much-needed shot in the arm each year. Unfortunately, they have been reduced to a mere trickle, resulting in the town of Tulelake slowly, but surely, dying. Another hunting season like this one will see more businesses folding up.
An article on the front page of the Herald and News quoted the refuge manager as saying [that] they had quit operating the refuges for migratory waterfowl and shifted efforts to eagles, and it shows. Let's face the facts - the refuges are finished.
Author Henry Christensen of Tulelake, California, is a retired employee of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who worked on the Tule Lake and the Lower Klamath wildlife refuges.