4 Lawsuits Fight Over Farming, Ranching at Wildlife Refuges

Purple finches, indicators of healthy coniferous habitat, are declining in the Northwest, according to data from the Klamath Bird Observatory. (Photo by J. Livaudais)

MEDFORD, Ore. (CN) – The U.S. government defended its management of the six national wildlife refuges that straddle the Oregon/California border Tuesday, as a federal judge heard arguments over four lawsuits from environmentalists challenging ranchers and farmers who grow crops on refuge land.

Much of what was once a vast swath of natural wetlands in the 200,000 acres that make up the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex was drained and diverted for agricultural use in the early 1900s. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated five wildlife refuges in the basin, to preserve bird populations decimated by suddenly shrinking habitat, hunting and the country’s enormous appetite for feathers to decorate hats.

Since then, the Clean Water Act, the Refuge Act and the Kuchel Act have provided direction on how to manage wildlife, farming and ranching on the refuges, but environmental groups all said Tuesday that the government was missing the mark.

The Audubon Society argued that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service illegally diverts water from lakes where millions of migratory birds rest and reproduce. Audubon claimed farming on the refuges was reducing already scarce water needed by birds. During some years, Audubon said, water was so low at the Lower Klamath Refuge that birds from multiple lakes all squeezed onto the Tulelake Refuge, where crowded conditions cause bird deaths to spike.

Audubon attorney Maura Fahey said Tuesday that the service’s plan failed to prioritize natural foods for waterfowl and instead relied on waste from crops grown by farms to feed migrating birds.

“The plan by the Fish & Wildlife Service fails to satisfy the clear congressional mandate to put wildlife and waterfowl first,” Fahey said. “The service has essentially thrown up hands and said it’s either too complicated or out of its control.”

The Center for Biological Diversity disputed the service’s widespread use of pesticides, fungicides and insecticides on the refuges.

Stephanie Parent argued on the center’s behalf Tuesday, claiming the service let farmers grow onions on Tulelake Refuge, which require the prophylactic use of fungicides and the sowing of seed potatoes coated in a type of neonicotinoid pesticide. Just one of those seed potatoes could kill a medium-size bird, Parent said, referencing information from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Lower Klamath and Tulelake are public lands dedicated to waterfowl management,” Parent said. “Pesticides are poisons – they’re designed to kill pests, but they can also harm wildlife, beneficial insects and other plants that are not the targets. They can drift, runoff, persist in soil and water and can accumulate in the environment. Yet the service refused to consider any alternatives that deviated from the status quo.”

Western Watersheds Project challenged continued cattle grazing on the refuges. The group’s lawyer Paul Ruprecht pointed to a dramatic decline in sage grouse at the Clear Lake Wildlife Refuge, from 14,000 in the 1970s now down to 150 birds.

Ruprecht said the service hadn’t properly analyzed whether to allow grazing using guidelines under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The service predetermined that it would continue to allow grazing and then developed alternatives to justify that decision,” Ruprecht said. “The service abused the NEPA process and made a back room decision with no public disclosure and discussion. That’s not how NEPA works.”

And the farmers, led by Tulelake Irrigation District and Klamath Water Users Association, claim the service’s 2017 plan will reduce the area within the refuges they are allowed to lease as farmland – a change they say goes against the mandate of the 1965 Kuchel Act, which they claim directs the government to prioritize agriculture equally alongside wildlife protection there.

Paul Simmons argued on behalf of Tulelake Irrigation District that farming helps create food for migrating birds, and said the practice was too entrenched to end now.

“I do not believe Fish & Wildlife can kick the farmers off the lease lands,” Simmons said. “If they leave, there will just be dust or the crops will just grow up into knee high weeds, so what do you do then? Spray it? Agriculture is the purpose of this lease land. It has been for 114 years, it’s never been used for anything else.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Held seemed to agree with part of that assessment.

Held said the service had evaluated the possibility of reducing farming even more than it already had on the refuges, but had concluded that crops benefit waterfowl “more than just having weeded land.”

And she said water rights are governed by a highly complicated set of rules that the service doesn’t control.

“Even if the service disallowed farming during times of drought, that wouldn’t make water available for wildlife,” Held said “That water would just go to other users that have higher priority than the refuge.”

Neverthless, Held asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke to dismiss the farmer’s claims, along with all the others argued at Tuesday’s hearing.

“We really do have four, significant environmental cases here,” Judge Clarke said at the outset of the four-hour hearing. At its conclusion, Clark said he may require additional briefing or even another hearing before issuing a ruling.

“It’s good to see the government out here during the shutdown,” he added. “Did they send you on a real airplane?”

“Yes,” Held said, “but we’ll see if we’re allowed back.”

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