More than 10,000 migrating birds have died this year in Oregon and California from an avian cholera outbreak caused by water shortages in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the death toll could end up being as high as 20,000 birds in the coming months.
The Klamath Refuge is made up of 30,000 acres of shallow freshwater marshes, open water, and land for birds to feed and nest. However, the refuge — which has already lost 80% of its marshes because of development activity — only has enough water to cover about half its area, according to the American Bird Conservancy:
That has forced the 2 million birds that migrate through the area, which is a key part of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds, to congregate in much smaller spaces, thereby creating a climate much more favorable to spreading, quickly fatal, avian cholera. In order to reduce the further spread of the disease, volunteers have been dispatched to pick up carcasses of the dead birds and incinerate them in FWS furnaces.
The problem is that it has been a dry year and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) hasn’t allowed water into the refuge since December. BOR parcels out water for users, and their first priority for water that might go to the refuge is for endangered fish, followed by various tribal responsibilities, and then farming needs. Some experts say that the refuge could go dry in three months if water is not provided.
These bird deaths are an extraordinarily small fraction of the millions of birds that die in the country every day. But the ongoing battle for water in the Klamath Refuge is a sign of things to come for wildlife management.
Currently, water availability is listed has an “issue of concern” on the Fish and Wildlife Service website. But a recent report on droughts published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that under a “moderate” emissions scenario, much of the U.S. will experience extreme drought conditions — potentially drying up valuable habitats like the Klamath Refuge.
A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a 3.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures could cause “significant extinctions (40–70% of species assessed) around the globe.”
Our current emissions path puts us on target to raise global temperatures by more than 5 degrees Celsius (9 Fahrenheit). That global scenario would make drought-related bird deaths like we see in the Klamath an afterthought.