Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships

Species at Risk

C’waam and Q’apdo and Sacred Ceremonies
by Ron Larson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Snow blanketed the mountains and thick ice covered Upper Klamath Lake, situated high on the eastern flank of the Cascades of southern Oregon. In the cold waters of the lake, c’waam and q’apdo, ladened with gametes, were ready for their annual spawning migration. Along the shore, the fragrant smell of juniper smoke issued from pithouses where Klamath Tribe families lived. From March through June, the Lost River and shortnose suckers swam up tributary streams to spawn, and there, tribal families harvested the fish.

This prehistoric scene had existed for millennia because the productivity of the lake sustained both man and fish. That coexistence nearly ended in the 20th century. One hundred years of abusive land use, single-focused lake management, and unregulated sport fishing had altered the lake’s ecosystem and had brought the once plentiful fish perilously close to extinction. Now, each March, when Orion’s belt appears on the southwestern horizon, the tribe that once harvested tens of thousands of suckers is now restricted to four fish, two for ceremonial sacrifice and two for release back into the river, because the fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In 2001, the relationship between fish and man came to crisis. That year, a severe drought left too little water in the lake to support both endangered fish and irrigated agriculture, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) had to reduce water deliveries to the 1,400 family farms in the Klamath Project. It was a textbook situation of demand exceeding supply, and in this case, water was the commodity. The crisis was met with rallies, protest marches, and a tense stand-off between farmers and federal marshals at the irrigation headworks.

Last year, Klamath Basin fields were green but anti-ESA signs still lined the rural highway between Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Tule Lake, California. Nevertheless, the seeds of change were planted and some basin residents were taking positive steps to adjust. Water conservation was the topic of conversation in feed and seed stores and coffee shops, and farmers began switching to crops requiring less water exchange. The Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) developed a far-reaching plan to protect the suckers’ habitats and provide water to farms: lake levels could vary around a long-term average considered sufficient to protect the fish. The Bureau would ensure an adequate water supply by buying water from willing sellers.

Although these short-term efforts have helped, improved water and fish-habitat quality are needed in the long term to sustain the economy and the ecosystem. “Everyone wins when water quality is improved and meadows are lush with grass,” said Curt Mullis of the Service’s Ecosystem Restoration Office in Klamath Falls. Focused on restoring wetland and riparian functions in the lake’s watershed, his staff has been working with landowners on projects such as reconnecting tributaries with their floodplains.

Perhaps, this spring, when the Klamath tribal elders perform the sacred c’waam ceremony celebrating the return of the fish, they will have reason to believe the fish will once again be plentiful.

For more information, contact Ron Larson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6610 Washburn Way, Klamath Falls, Oregon 97603, (541) 885-8481, ron_larson@fws.gov.