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Judge: Speed up Klamath refuge plan

MEDFORD — A federal magistrate has found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to speed up work on overdue plans for managing wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin.

Conservation groups that filed the lawsuit said Friday they hope the magistrate's recommendation, which still needs to be affirmed by a judge, leads to more of the basin's scarce water going to wildlife, instead of potato and onion farms on the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges straddling the Oregon-California border.

Bob Salinger of Portland Audubon Society, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in the course of developing the comprehensive plans, the service will have to show that the farming is compatible with wildlife. When thousands of birds have been dying from disease linked to the lack of water for marshes where they nest and rest during migration along the Pacific Flyway, it is legitimate to ask whether irrigating the farms instead helps wildlife, he added.

The Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers on the refuge, maintain their water right predates the refuges' by 20 years, and a federal law known as the Kuechel Act allows farms on the two refuges.

Greg Addington, executive director of the association, said he was confident farms would remain on the refuge even after the plan is finished.

The comprehensive plan was due in 2012. The service says it can finish by October 2017, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Clarke in Medford wants it by August 2016, saying the service has not given a good reason for the delay.

Fish and wildlife spokesman Matt Baun said the agency was reviewing its options, and committed to producing a plan as soon as possible.

The Klamath Basin is going into a third straight year of drought, making it likely tough decisions will have to be made about sharing scarce water between protected fish, farms and the refuges.