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Klamath Water:  Fish vs. Frogs

By Erika Bentsen
May 15, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT

            A large push is underway to reduce the amount of irrigation for agricultural use in the upper Klamath Basin following the controversial signing of the Upper Klamath Basin Settlement Agreement.  All focus is toward improving habitat for the endangered sucker fish and for introducing salmon into the Klamath Basin.  (Archeological data shows that salmon was not a regular part of the Native American diet in the Klamath Basin, indicating that the fish was not historically found in this area).  Vast acreages of water right retirements are going to be forced on the upper basin irrigators as a result of the Agreement.  This will dry out thousands of acres of ag-enhanced wetlands which have been established for the past 150 years with the hopes of increasing surface water flows into the Klamath river system, and eventually flushed out to sea.

            These radical changes in the local ecosystem are being driven by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to supposedly protect the habitat of endangered fish (sucker fish and salmon).  Unfortunately, these regulations will be enforced to the hilt regardless of their detrimental impact to other land-based species, man and beast alike.  One affected species that will be adversely affected is the Oregon spotted frog, proposed threatened, expected to be listed as endangered.

            The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) cites the Oregon spotted frog's domain ranging from southwest British Columbia through the east side of the Puget and Willamette Valley Troughs, and the Columbia River Gorge in south-central Washington to the Cascade Range and the Klamath Valley in Oregon.  It is believed to have been "extirpated" from California.  Extirpation is a localized extinction of a species although it still exists elsewhere (for example, the wolf population on Long Island).  More commonly, the term is defined as a determined, systematic removal of an object from a specific place, like a surgery, as if these frogs in particular were singled out and eliminated in California.

Grazing Benefits Frog Habitat

            Oregon spotted frogs are generally associated with wetland complexes about 9 acres in size with extensive emergent marsh coverage that warms substantially during seasons when frogs are active at the surface.  Needing "diverse hydrological regimes," some data suggests that adult frogs prefer microhabitats of moderate vegetation density that are near aquatic refuges (waterways, rivers, canals, etc.).  While overgrazed areas are not preferred, equally detrimental is the encroachment of non-native reed canary grass, yellow flag, and woody vegetation in fire-suppressed areas.  When plants grow in dense thickets it becomes unsuitable habitat for frog egg-laying and impedes frog movements.  Frogs need warm, wet areas on land with easy access to deeper water, and they need to be able to travel through the vegetation.  In other words, dried out, overgrown, non-grazed areas are not preferred by the Oregon spotted frog.  Some biologists are even claiming that without grazing and irrigation, these frogs would have already vanished from the land.  Other factors that are stressing spotted frog populations are predation from bull frogs, marsh-feeding birds like herons, avocets, pelicans, cormorants, and the heightened populations of tadpole eating fish (fish!), although USFWS describes the problem of predation comes from non-native fish.

Unintended Consequences of Dam Removal

            Experts at the USFWS reports the worst degradation of Oregon spotted frog habitat occurred in the early 20th century when California's Tule Lake and lower Klamath Lakes were drained for farmland.  What these experts failed to mention was by damming up the Klamath river into a series of lakes and the increase in irrigated land along the area waterways, these became prime alternative habitats for the frog. 

            Now that the various Klamath water agreements are beginning to be implemented, these remaining frog habitats are being threatened.  In addition to "draining" the irrigated ag land, the impending removal of four dams on the Klamath river is looking more probable as each farming and ranching community falls under individual attack and must defend a portion of its water by retiring personal rights and signing away the life of the dams with or without their honest support of dam removal. 

            Aquatic species have made the dammed areas their homes, adapting to the environment whether it be created by a natural landslide or a manmade structure.  A far greater diversity of birds and wildlife--- more than just fish--- have long established populations here.  As usual, nearsighted government environmental programs seem inept at addressing more than one type of species at a time.  As they wield their empirical pressure to "benefit" their chosen species of fishes, these officials are refusing to listen to contrary warnings of unintended consequences above the waterline, regardless of the viability of these serious claims.  Time and again the imbalance of nature after government regulatory meddling takes years to heal and yet, ignoring repeated proof of their obvious mistakes, the government never seems to learn.

            By increasing fish populations, it will--- naturally--- increase the demand on vulnerable Oregon spotted frog tadpoles as a food source.  By limiting upper basin irrigation, thousands of acres of irrigator enhanced wetlands will go dry and managed habitat grazers (cattle) will be downscaled or eliminated causing an increase of thickening mats of woody vegetation, further devastating frog habitat.  Removing the dams on the Klamath river and the subsequent draining of the wetlands surrounding the lakes behind these dams will only compound the loss of habitat for the spotted frog.

            The mission statement of the USFWS is "working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people."  How does USFWS define "benefit?"  By destroying one species' habitat to buoy up another, and in the process devastate the American public's food providers with fines and bankruptcy when either species is endangered by the government's own thoughtless regulations?  Is USFWS determined to "extirpate" the Oregon spotted frog from Klamath county?  Is that their goal for agriculture as well?



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