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Seeking Refuge

Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway

Robert M. Wilson is assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University.

Publication Year: 2010

Each fall and spring, millions of birds travel the Pacific Flyway, the westernmost of the four major North American bird migration routes. The landscapes they cross vary from wetlands to farmland to concrete, inhabited not only by wildlife but also by farmers, suburban families, and major cities. In the twentieth century, farmers used the wetlands to irrigate their crops, transforming the landscape and putting migratory birds at risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded by establishing a series of refuges that stretched from northern Washington to southern California. What emerged from these efforts was a hybrid environment, where the distinctions between irrigated farms and wildlife refuges blurred. Management of the refuges was fraught with conflicting priorities and practices. Farmers and refuge managers harassed birds with shotguns and flares to keep them off private lands, and government pilots took to the air, dropping hand grenades among flocks of geese and herding the startled birds into nearby refuges. Such actions masked the growing connections between refuges and the land around them. Seeking Refuge examines the development and management of refuges in the wintering range of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Although this is a history of efforts to conserve migratory birds, the story Robert Wilson tells has considerable salience today. Many of the key places migratory birds use - the Klamath Basin, California's Central Valley, the Salton Sea - are sites of recent contentious debates over water use. Migratory birds connect and depend on these landscapes, and farmers face pressure as water is reallocated from irrigation to other purposes. In a time when global warming promises to compound the stresses on water and migratory species, Seeking Refuge demonstrates the need to foster landscapes where both wildlife and people can thrive. Robert M. Wilson is assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University. "The author's skill in examining the interplay between wild birds, their increasingly manufactured habitats, and the varied human institutions responsible for altering them makes for a compelling story that readers will find fascinating." - William K. Wyckoff, Montana State University "Wilson ranges across the entire refuge system of the Pacific Slope in order to observe the dynamics and management challenges associated with the whole flyway. The result is a tour de force of historical and geographical analysis that will surely become a standard work on its subject." - William Cronon, University of Wisconsin "By surveying the complex history of the Pacific Flyway, Robert Wilson has provided us with the portrait of a win-win ecology, one where the needs of a bewildering variety of migratory waterfowl are met even amidst the surging activity, agriculture, and land transformations of humankind. More than this, he has shown us that such reconciliation ecologies are very political indeed. Eschewing environmental romances typical of conservation by stressing historical struggles over land and water, Wilson nevertheless preserves a wonder for a 'natural' world always in-the-making." - Paul Robbins, Professor of Geography at the University of Arizona and author of Lawn People "How do American farm policies reshape wild landscapes to produce food for people? How do American wildlife policies reshape wild landscapes to produce habitat for ducks? These may seem like quite different questions, but Robert Wilson's Seeking Refuge brilliantly reveals the interconnections between wildlife refuges and agricultural systems in the West. Wilson explores how the toxic waste water running off farm fields became integral to wildlife refuges. Irrigated agriculture fed a hungry nation while it created wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl. But the results poisoned both chicks and children. Clearly argued and wonderfully written, Seeking Refuge illuminates the intricate connections between wildlife and people in America." - Nancy Langston, University of Wisconsin-Madison Visit the author's website at: http://www.seekingrefuge.org/

Published by: University of Washington Press


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pp. v

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Foreword: A Wilderness on Wings

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pp. vii-xii

One of the deepest convictions that geographers bring to every subject they study has to do with scale, a concept they understand with far greater rigor and subtlety than those who have never had to grapple with the befuddling complexities of mapmaking. The rest of us more often than not rely on spatial common sense as we navigate our daily life.

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pp. xiii-xvi

I started this project while a graduate student in the Geography Department at the University of British Columbia. I was fortunate to have a talented and supportive graduate committee. Cole Harris read more drafts of these chapters than I care to count, and his door was always open if I needed to discuss ideas with him. Some of my fondest graduate school memories are of the field reconnaissances he led into the British Columbia interior.

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pp. 3-15

One of America’s great wildlife spectacles is found not in Yellowstone National Park or the backwoods of Alaska, but at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge beside Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley. Situated amid the vast rice farms that carpet this part of the state, the refuge seems uninviting at first glance, particularly in the summer when its ponds shimmer in the heat and the surrounding dry grass is baked brown by the harsh sun.

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1. The Wetland Archipelago

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pp. 16-33

The word “flyway” conjures up visions of an aerial highway that birds follow up and down the continent, taking rest stops along the way. But the word is misleading. There is no interstate in the sky for the birds to follow. Ornithologists realize that beneath the simplicity of the flyway concept lays a very complicated network of crisscrossing migration paths.

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2. Elusive Sanctuaries

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pp. 34-64

During the early twentieth century, the tapestry of wetlands along the southern portion of the Pacific Flyway largely disappeared. Although government agencies did not tally the disappearance of marshes at the time, more recent studies provide some sense of what was lost. By the 1930s, states such as Washington had lost nearly 31 percent of wetlands and Oregon 38 percent.

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3. Places in the Grid

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pp. 65-98

By the early 1930s, migratory bird populations were plummeting. Although both the U.S. and Canada had implemented more stringent hunting regulations and had had some success curtailing market hunting, wetland drainage continued at an alarming rate. Farmers, often with the aid of government agencies, drained wetlands or diverted the water that nourished them for the benefit of agriculture. This onslaught took a devastating toll on the wetlands in the wintering range of Pacific Flyway birds.

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4. Duck Farms

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pp. 99-131

Refuge management involved many things—building ponds, raising food, and regulating hunting. In the mid-1940s, it also entailed flying airplanes and lobbing hand grenades. As waterfowl returned in greater numbers to the Klamath Basin and Central Valley during their fall migration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service was ready with this new arsenal to contend with flocks of ducks and geese feasting on private farms.

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5. Refuges in Conflict

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pp. 132-164

By the mid-1960s, the Fish and Wildlife Service had secured a place for refuges amid the Far West’s irrigated landscapes and had successfully fended off attempts to open its premier refuges in the Klamath Basin to homesteading. The splendor of the West’s marshes, which had once cloaked many of the region’s larger valleys and basins, was long gone. But amid this destruction, the agency had constructed a network of refuges to sustain migratory birds within an otherwise forbidding landscape for waterfowl.

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pp. 165-172

In the spring of 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service observed the one hundredth anniversary of the national wildlife refuge system. It was a muted celebration. While the agency praised the growth of the system since the creation of the first federal wildlife refuge on three acres of mangrove swamp in Florida by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, commentators noted that most of the agency’s 540 refuges were underfunded and poorly maintained. As the FWS celebrated the past, Interior Secretary Gale Norton threatened the future by lobbying strenuously for the U.S. Congress to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Citation Abbreviations

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pp. 173-174


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pp. 175-214


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pp. 215-235


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pp. 237-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780295800073
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295990026

Publication Year: 2010