Rescue in the refuge

Rescue in the refuge
100 birds a day found ill or dead
Herald & News

September 2, 2014

Tracy Albro, a Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge biological technician, lifts dead ducks out of the water in Sump 1B, where the botulism outbreak first surfaced. (Photo by Lacy Jarrell)

Tracy Albro, a Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge biological technician, lifts dead ducks out of the water in Sump 1B, where the botulism outbreak first surfaced. (Photo by Lacey Jarrell)

TULE LAKE — Waterfowl at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge are suffering from another avian botulism outbreak amid the Basin’s second consecutive year of drought.

Since mid-July, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff and volunteers have plucked nearly 5,000 dead or sick ducks out of the refuge’s two sumps.

According to refuge wildlife biologist John Beckstrand, three-quarters of the fowl affected by the Type C avian botulism outbreak are mallards — mostly male drakes — but birds such as grebes and ibis, and mammals such as muskrats and raccoons, also are falling ill.

“We’re picking up about 100 birds a day, sick and dead,” said biological technician Tracy Albro.

The actual losses are likely much greater. Beckstrand estimates agency staff and volunteers are finding only about 40 to 50 percent of the birds.
“The actual death from botulism could be 2 to 2.5 times that 4,800 at this point,” he said.

On Wednesday, Beckstrand pointed out that 46 days had passed since the outbreak started and 38 days are left before the threat fades. He estimates the refuge could have as many as 22,000 dead or dying birds by early October.

Tightly packed together

Albro and volunteer Jim Rhodes focus most of their bird recovery efforts in the 3,500-acre Sump 1B where the outbreak first took hold. Beckstrand said the sump depth ranges from about 3 inches to 5 feet deep.

“We’re still picking up more birds in the shallow stuff. Usually there are three or four birds in close proximity,” Albro said.

According to Beckstrand, in addition to migrating birds, the Tule Lake sumps provide habitat for endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The protections guarantee a minimum amount of water for the fish. Other sump water is provided by agricultural return flows from land leased to farmers.

In wet years, migrating birds also fan out over the neighboring 53,000-acre Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Some used to move to Upper Klamath Lake, but many of the grain fields that attracted them have disappeared.

“We’d have them on Lower Klamath refuge as well, but it’s completely dry right now, for the second consecutive year since the 1940s. We’ve got more birds than normal at Tule Lake because it’s such a dry year.”

This year, the birds are forced to concentrate in Tule Lake’s two sumps, which only total about 13,000 acres. Beckstrand said botulism is a concern every year, but more birds clustered in the same area puts more at-risk.

According to documents from the Klamath Water Users Association, the refuges were allotted roughly 6,000 acre-feet for the 2013 water year. An avian botulism outbreak and massive bird die-off, similar to the one underway now, occurred last fall.

According to Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) Klamath Basin Area Office Manager Sheryl Franklin, about 9,800 acre-feet was diverted to agricultural lease-lands in the Lower Klamath refuge in October 2013. Another 6,200 acre-feet was split between two more diversions — one in fall of 2013 and one in June.

Since then, the refuges have not received any additional water.

Franklin explained that under current federal laws and agreements, before the BOR can divert water to Lower Klamath refuge, ESA requirements and water contract obligations held with Klamath Project irrigators must first be satisfied. She said because the BOR anticipates Project water users’ contract obligations will not be fully met during the 2014 water year, no water or delivery schedule is available at this time for Lower Klamath.

“Reclamation understands that both Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges are among the most important refuges for migratory waterfowl and is committed to continue ongoing coordination efforts with U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge staff, water users, and other stakeholders to thoroughly examine opportunities to maximize deliveries to the refuge,” Franklin said.
Bad timing
Each day, Albro and Rhodes spend hours in an airboat, skiffing across the marsh in search of dead or sick birds paralyzed by botulism.

According to Beckstrand, botulism usually strikes the legs and neck muscles first, causing birds to stumble on land or become immobile in the water.

“Sometimes you’ll come up on the sick ones and they’ll have their head dipped in the water — they can’t keep their head up and they end up drowning,” Beckstrand said.
Mallard ducks are flightless for three or four weeks each year while they molt and grow new flight feathers, according to Beckstrand. He said the process begins in late June when mallards — typically drakes — move north from the California’s Central Valley. Hens follow a few weeks later, after their brood is grown and flighted.

“The thing that’s bad is that by the time the hen mallards are molting, that’s when the botulism is usually the hottest,” Beckstrand said. “It hits the breeding population really hard.”

The avian botulism cycle starts when non-toxic spores, which are always present in marsh sediment, heat up, germinate and begin producing the neurotoxin botulinum. Outbreaks tend to peak in August and September because water and sediment temperatures heat up and can stay warmer more consistently, Beckstrand said.

Aquatic invertebrates are often the first protein host botulinum finds before being ingested up the food chain. Ducks then eat the bugs, get sick and die, setting in motion the maggot cycle and accelerating the spread of the fatal toxin.

The maggot cycle starts with a carcass floating on the water. After flies land on it and lay eggs, emerging maggots consume the decaying flesh; ducks often eat maggots that accidentally fall off the carcass. Albro and Rhodes are collecting deceased birds from the marsh to try to slow the cycle.

“One or two maggots will kill a duck because they’ve concentrated that toxin by consuming the dead bird,” Beckstrand said.

About five to 10 percent of the birds picked up each day are sick, he added. When sick birds that have a chance of recovering are captured, they are given a shot of fresh water, caged, and transported to a duck “hospital.”

“With shade and fresh water, about two out of three of them will recover,” Beckstrand said.

Two incinerators behind the hospital are the last stop for animals that have died from botulism or paralysis-related circumstances.

Beckstrand said it’s likely the sickness will persist through September.

“We’re a little over halfway through the season. It doesn’t really end until you get a good frost or hunting season starts and disperses the birds.”

Water certainty touted

According to BOR area manager Franklin, a component of the Klamath Basin Settlement Agreements, which are currently stalled in Congress, could change the water situation at the refuges. The 2010 Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), one portion of the three-part legislation, by most accounts, could create water certainty for refuges and farmers alike.

Franklin said unlike this year, in which no water was allocated for the refuges, if the bill passed, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath would be allocated 48,000 acre-feet.

According to Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, in the KBRA, a block of water is allocated for the Klamath Project and for the Klamath refuge complex. According to Addington, the KBRA allocates 48,000 acre-feet for the refuges in the driest years, and 60,000 acre-feet in the wettest years.

“It’s really focused on Lower Klamath because Tule Lake has both sumps,” Addington said. “The timing and amount is on a sliding scale. The refuge manager gets to decide when, how, and where that water goes.”

“All the problems we’re seeing in the community related to water can be resolved with the Klamath Settlement Agreements,” Addington said. “We need a resolution.”

According to WaterWatch of Oregon spokesman Jim McCarthy, figures for the KBRA’s guaranteed water deliveries numbers don’t add up. He believes the extra water will have to come from downstream flows into the Klamath River.

“The only way to deliver the water promised under the KBRA is to kill off the salmon in the Klamath River,” McCarthy said.

In 1908, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge became the first refuge in the United States established solely for the protection of waterfowl. Beckstrand said the irony of the lack of birds at the nation’s first waterfowl refuge and the struggle birds face at neighboring Tule Lake is not lost on him.