Lawsuit Challenges Farming in Wildlife Refuges

Wildlife should get priority over farming on refuges


Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice, 206-343-7340 x33


Jim Waltman, TWS, 202-429-2674


Wendell Wood, ONRC, 541-891-4006


Bob Hunter, WaterWatch, 541-772-6116


Tim McKay, Northcoast Environmental Ctr, 707-822-6918

Ten conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s mismanagement of several wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin. The suit goes to the core of how the refuges are being managed and may result in a major shift in future management of farming on the wildlife refuges.

Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, located on the Oregon/California border, permit the commercial farming of over 20,000 acres within their boundaries. This requires the diversion of up to 60,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Klamath River and natural wetlands to grow crops that include potatoes, onion, and alfalfa at the expense of key habitat in the heart of the largest waterfowl migration corridor in the western states. Over the last several years the commercial farms on the refuges have received water while adjacent refuge wetlands have gone dry. The groups have asked a federal district court in Sacramento to order the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to review their current policy of giving commercial farming interests in the refuge water priority over wildlife in low water years.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to manage the basin’s wildlife refuges for potatoes, onions and alfalfa, disregarding the geese, herons, and eagles that are in its care,” said Jim Waltman, Director of Refuges and Wildlife at The Wilderness Society. “The Bush administration apparently sees our nation’s wildlife refuges as a haven for potatoes rather than the wildlife they were created to protect.”

Only wildlife refuges where broad-scale commercial farming is allowed.
“Though Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges are two of the most important refuges in the entire national wildlife refuge system, they are the only two refuges where broad-scale commercial farming is allowed,” said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch. “What we’re looking for is balance and common sense – farming on our nations’ refuges that threatens refuge wildlife and takes scarce water resources away from refuge wetlands as well as salmon and other species in the Klamath Basin should not continue.”

In an abrupt about-face this summer, the Bush administration FWS rescinded a 1999 decision that found that diverting scarce water from wetlands harmed the refuges. The FWS instead announced that it would give priority to commercial agriculture within the refuges, even if the refuges’ marshes run dry.

The agency’s about-face ignored the Service’s own environmental conclusions that commercial agriculture was responsible for consuming scarce water, undermining the biological integrity of the refuges. Conservationists have also raised concerns that farming on the refuges pollutes the river and groundwater with dozens of toxic pesticides.

“Year after year, advocates for birds and other wildlife must beg for water while farmers grow onions and potatoes on what was once prime refuge wetlands,” stated Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

The Everglades of the West.
The Klamath Basin has been called the “Everglades of the West” because of the region’s great diversity and abundance of fish and wildlife. Five national wildlife refuges in the Basin sustain some of the area’s most productive remaining wetlands, and these refuges are among the most important in the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. More than 80 percent of western migratory birds use the refuges’ wetlands. In the winter months, the refuges provide essential habitat for the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower-48 states.

“National Wildlife Refuges are special places, and our laws treat them as special,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice. “We don’t grow onions in Yosemite Valley, and we shouldn’t allow commercial farming in National Wildlife Refuges.”

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of The Wilderness Society, Oregon Natural Resources Council, WaterWatch of Oregon, Headwaters, American Rivers, Northcoast Environmental Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath Forest Alliance, National Wildlife Federation, and Klamath Basin Audubon Society.

For more information, please visit and

For photos of the Klamath basin, visit the Oregon Natural Resources Council website.

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