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,