Think Out Loud

Klamath Tribes sue federal government over endangered fish

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 3, 2022 5:49 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 3

Koptu, or shortnose sucker, populations have declined sharply due to habitat loss.

Koptu, or shortnose sucker, populations have declined sharply due to habitat loss.

Courtesy of Klamath Tribes


The Klamath Basin is facing another year of drought. The Klamath Tribes remain concerned about the survival of the C’waam and Koptu, also known as the Lost River and shortnose suckers. These fish are classified as endangered. The tribes are suing the federal government because they say agencies are not doing enough to legally protect the fish. Clayton Dumont is the chairman for the Klamath Tribes. He joins us with details.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We’re spending the whole hour today talking about year three of a severe drought in the Klamath Basin. We turn now to Clayton Dumont. He is the chair of the Klamath Tribes. We talked earlier this week. I noted that the last time we talked was while walking along the Williamson River in July of 2021. The Bootleg Fire was burning in the distance. I asked Clayton how much had changed in the last 11 months.

Clayton Dumont: Well, not a lot in terms of things being headed in the wrong direction. We’ve had another year without our fish having any recruitment, meaning that we don’t have any younger fish joining the older fish that are at an age where they can reproduce. We’ve got another year where our fish have not been able to spawn because lake levels are lower than is required by the biological opinion of the Endangered Species Act. We did avoid a catastrophic algae bloom last year, which is good. The last few months I guess there’s been more precipitation and the climate has been milder, so that’s a good start.

Miller: This has been a wet winter and spring on the west side of the Cascades. What has precipitation looked like for you in the Klamath Basin over the last six months?

Dumont: Actually, the last two months have been nice. Up to that point, it was looking like it was going to be worse than the previous year. Certainly we’re a long way from getting out of the catastrophic drought that we’ve been in, but the last couple of months have helped.

Miller: Nevertheless, you are under an official drought declaration. Even if you had two slightly wetter months, it’s not nearly enough to get out.

Dumont: That’s correct, yes.

Miller: So let’s turn to the lawsuit that you announced in April and was officially filed in May, suing the Biden Administration for releasing 50,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake to send to farmers and ranchers – to send to irrigators. Can you explain what prompted this?

Dumont: First, I’d say that it’s up to 62,000 feet, and they’re now talking about actually adding to that. What they want to do now is any water that is in excess of what they have most recently predicted they want to split between the fish and the irrigators. So we’re waiting to hear about that. The lawsuit is simply an Endangered Species Act lawsuit. If you look at Section 7, it says that they may not jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species. It also says that their behavior should not result in any destruction or adverse modification of their habitat. Both the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have done both of those things. So, that’s why we filed this most recent lawsuit.

Miller: In other words, your argument is that there’s not enough water in the river right now to send any of it away. There’s not even enough if you don’t send any of it away for these endangered fish.

Dumont: That’s correct. The bureau uses a period of record that goes back 41 years. What they do is they then try to figure out, based on that, a median or what they can expect the inflows into the lake to be. Then they use what they call a 50% exceedance, which means just that there’s a 50% chance that they’ll get more or less than that median. We keep telling them that 41 years and just trying to pick a median out of there makes no sense given global warming, that it’s real easy to look and see that decade after decade is warmer and that, within each decade, almost every year is warmer than the previous one. So that in itself makes no sense. But then even within those parameters, they have set up a formula where they, based on those inflows or that predicted inflow, come up with allocations for the project. The last two years, that number has been zero. But this year they made a purely political decision – abandoned their own longstanding formula – and allocated water to the farmers… to the project.

Miller: When you say a purely political decision, what is your read about what the politics are? What are you saying is behind this decision?

Dumont: I’ll be honest with you. We’re confused. In many ways, this is worse than what we got from the Trump Administration, so it’s really difficult to comprehend. On the one hand, we know that there are concerns about the salmon downstream, and we share those concerns. That’s a reasoning that we could understand. But this is for neither species. This is just water going to agriculture. So I don’t have an answer for you.


Miller: In a statement about the loss, you said that the decision to release any water this year is, quote, ‘perhaps the saddest chapter yet in a long history of treaty violations.’ It’s a profound statement given that history of broken promises. What makes this latest decision the worst or the saddest?

Dumont: It’s because the fish are about to go extinct. One of the deep concerns that I have personally, and that I know the other Tribal Council members have, is that this is going to happen on our watch. Not that it would be good any time. But our people have long memories, and we think about the things that our ancestors worked at and accomplished all the time. To be the council that’s in place when these fish blink out would really, really be a tough thing to handle. We’re right there. We’re one catastrophic event away from losing them.

Miller: You also wrote in that statement back in April, quote, ‘The Klamath Tribes remain committed to cooperating with those genuinely interested in restoring the ecological health of our treaty-protected lands. We are equally committed to fighting those who don’t.’ Do you have any tools to fight what’s happening besides lawsuits?

Dumont: We work as hard as we can with willing landowners. We also are able to work… There’s an irony in that these political decisions are made at the higher levels, but truth be told, if the scientists who are working more locally – for example with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – were in charge and making decisions, I think that we’d be having a very different conversation right now. We’re able to work with those local government folks and with willing landowners to do a lot of restoration work or to put up fencing to keep cattle out of rivers. So, there are things that we can do.

Miller: I want to go back to questions about what you’ve noted as, or ascribed to be, political reasons for this decision which you find scientifically mystifying. Last year, as some folks might remember, when water did not go to irrigators, some conservative anti-government activists essentially took over a piece of land right near one of the main gates to turn the water on and [were] threatening to turn it on. They never did; they never broke through to the federal infrastructure and turned it on. But they were there for a few months setting up what they called an information center. I imagine many of our listeners will remember this. I’m curious if you think that act had an effect on federal decision makers back in D.C. about whether or not to allocate water this year?

Dumont: I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to speak for them. I know that, locally, many of the ag folks were not happy that people from outside or members of more extreme factions were present. I heard from many folks in the agriculture community locally here who really wanted to try to keep the peace just as much as we did. My guess is that what’s happening, as far as those political decisions that are being made at the higher levels, that’s just about the way that government works in this country. Money greases the wheels. When you have tribal interests pitted against large agricultural interests, large agricultural interests that contribute lots of money to political candidates and political parties, that’s probably a better explanation than a few outlying activists.

Miller: I remember last summer talking to some ranchers in the basin who would say things like, ‘Yeah, this is a bad water year, but we’re going to go back to our historical average.’ This gets to what you were saying in terms of your understanding of the 40-year average that’s embedded in the biological opinion. But what goes through your mind when you hear things like this in 2022?

Dumont: Well, it’s just really shortsighted. I understand that folks trying to hold onto their livelihood don’t want to look at that bigger picture. It’s not comfortable to think that things are going to have to change. I’m sure that if you’ve been in agriculture for three or four generations, and you’ve got a lifestyle built up around that, that having to think about making dramatic changes that the ecosystem can sustain is not pleasant. But I would just remind folks that the Klamath Tribes have been watching this go on for over 100 years. Up until recently, we really had no say in the dramatic transformations that have gone on and that have brought us to this point. So we’re not strangers to that suffering.

Miller: In addition to this being a conflict over water between irrigators and the Klamath Tribes, some people also paint this as a conflict between the Klamath Tribes, who are advocating for endangered sucker fish in the upper basin, and tribes in the lower basin, who are working to save threatened salmon. What do you make of that framing?

Dumont: I think it’s unfortunate. I can tell you that we are in regular contact with the leadership from lower river tribal people. They understand, like we do, that this isn’t a problem of our making or their making, that we are both victims of changes that were made to the ecosystem from the headwaters all the way to the ocean that we had no control over. It’s really unfortunate that things are so dire that you’ve now got species pitted against species or tribe pitted against tribe. But that’s really a surface thing, and it’s brought on by the desperation of the predicament that we’re in. And our understandings are larger than that. I fully expect that we will have some of the Yurok leadership up in our country visiting us in the not too distant future.

Miller: Some folks who heard our conversation last July may remember that you pursued a life in academia. You spent almost three decades in the Bay Area before coming back to the Klamath Basin and eventually joining the Tribal Council. Three weeks ago, you became the chairman. What did it mean to you to be chosen by tribal members as the leader of the Klamath Tribes?

Dumont: It’s of course a deep honor, and it’s an immense responsibility. It’s not something that I coveted. It’s more of a feeling of obligation, and I’m not alone in that. Responsibility to the larger tribal community is an ethic that we’re all raised with. So I’ve long thought that I would come and ask for that responsibility. And like I said, I feel very honored that my people bestowed it upon me. I want to work as hard as I can for these next three years to do everything I can to better our situation.

Miller: What will success look like to you as the chairman?

Dumont: Although we’re talking about water and endangered species, we have a whole host of challenges. We lack housing. We have a lot of tribal members, both elders and those who have gone out away from home and acquired educations, who would like to move home and do exactly what I’m doing. But we have a severe housing shortage, and I promised to try to address that. We have economic development needs. We have property that needs infrastructure. We need water, sewer, power, and all of that of course needs to be done in an environmentally responsible way. So there’s big challenges… land acquisition, constant struggle to recover as much of our reservation, which was unjustly separated from us, as possible. We’ve begun to make some progress there as well.

Miller: Clayton Dumont, I look forward to talking again. Thanks very much.

Dumont: Thank you.

Miller: That’s Clayton Dumont, the chair of the Klamath Tribes. We talked earlier this week.

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