The unseasonably warm winter this past year has caused over 10,000 migrating birds to die from avian cholera in Northern California and Southern Oregon. The birds would typically rest and feed at wetland areas in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, but the water supply to the area was reduced by the US Bureau of Reclamation due to light snowfall and threats of a water shortage. As birds were forced to crowd into a diminished space due to the lack of water, the avian cholera spread through the population quickly, resulting in death. Snow geese, northern pintail ducks, American wigeon ducks and white-fronted geese were the hardest hit, and the refuge’s manager, Ron Cole, believes 20,000 birds could be dead by the end of the year.

Pintail Duck, Klamath Basin Refuge, Wetlands Loss, Warm Winter, California Duck, Fish and Wildlife Services
Photo of Northern Pintail Duck (cc) USFWS Headquarters on Flickr

As the birds migrated, residents in the area reported instances of birds falling from the sky, and volunteer crews have begun work to collect and incinerate the dead birds in Fish and Wildlife Services facilities in an effort to contain bacteria (which does not pose a significant threat to humans) and prevent the outbreak from spreading further. But as efforts to contain the spread continue, the American Bird Conservancy has expressed fears that the refuge could go dry within three months if more water is not provided.

The American Bird Conservancy’s President, Dr. George Fenwick stated: “The consequences to shutting off water to the Lower Klamath Refuge are enormous and unacceptable. We cannot continue to place wildlife at the bottom of the pecking order for so many things and not expect that at some point, we won’t face dire repercussions. Federal, state, and local officials need to come up with a plan that divides the water shortage compromises up more equitably.”

Water has long been a contentious issue in the area, with the Bureau of Reclamation responsible for providing parcels of water to the refuge, nearby habitats for endangered fish, Native American Tribes on the Klamath Reservation and local farming needs. As snow pack in nearby mountain areas reached low levels this winter, the Bureau found themselves with less water to parcel out. The Chicago Tribune reports that as the snow pack has since rebounded “growing from 63 percent of normal in late February to 115 percent of normal today,” an additional 4,000 acres of the refuge has now been flooded.

While this provides a reprieve for the area, Think Progress highlights that this recent water shortage may just be a sign of worse droughts to come, citing a recent report published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research which “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.”

Via MSNBC, Chicago Tribune, Think Progress

Lead photo (cc) USFWS Headquarters on Flickr