Small piles of white feathers and bones covered with dried red flesh dot the matted rushes and mudflats, all that is left after bald eagles and other predators fed on the goose carcasses. Some of the coots with their black heads and round slate-gray bodies were sprawled in the mud, unable to reach the shelter of the rushes before lying down to die. Mauser picked up a few by their wings and laid them in the back of his pickup truck.
At the refuge maintenance yard, the smell of burned flesh and feathers hung in the air. Mauser swung open the heavy door of an incinerator, placed the dead birds inside, then flipped a switch to ignite the gas.
Research indicates the disease spreads bird-to-bird, and outbreaks occur in cold months when birds are packed close together. Volunteers in airboats have picked up 3,500 dead birds and brought them to the incinerator to limit the spread of the bacteria. But with so many of the birds managing to hide before they die, most will never be found. About half the infected birds survive to spread the bacteria. Birds can die so quickly they fall out of the sky.
Record rains in March allowed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to start delivering all the water the refuge could take through the Ady Canal, but that will only be enough to flood 4,000 acres more before it runs out, said Cole. Prospects for this summer are not looking good.
Meanwhile, a deal that raises the refuge's water priority on a par with farms, while laying out how water is divided in drought years, has been stymied in Congress.
"Birds are hardwired to follow migratory routes they have followed since time immemorial," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audubon, which has joined two dozen conservation groups demanding Interior Secretary Ken Salazar assure the refuge gets the water it needs. "They are going to return to these places. The question is, will they find something when they get there."
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