Flooding not always negative for Nebraska wildlife

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June 27, 2011 - 7:00pm

As thunderstorms continue dropping more rain onto the Nebraska plain, state rivers continue swelling. But humans aren't the only ones threatened by the downpour: animals also face immediate and long-term dangers.

Scott Taylor is an assistant division administrator for the Wildlife Division of Nebraska Game and Parks.

"Wildlife currently using that river bottom is shifting gears quickly now, trying to find other habitats that are suitable for them up on higher ground," Taylor said. "People can expect to see maybe some wildlife in some unusual situations perhaps and in some areas unusual densities of those animals that have been displaced. That's playing out now and will continue playing out over the next few months."

Species affected by flooding

Courtesy photo

White-tailed deer, seen here at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in 2007.





Photo courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks

Pallid sturgeon





Photo courtesy of Gary Noon

Pheasant

But humans who attempt to help distressed animals often only exacerbate their situation, he said.

"It's highly stressful for wildlife to be handled or approached by humans," Taylor said.

Jeff Hoffman, also with the Wildlife Division, said wild animals are like humans in some respects - they seek higher ground when flood waters rise, and some have trouble adapting to their new environments.

"We're probably going to see some increased mortality on some wildlife species," Hoffman said, especially among ground-nesting birds. "Some of the young of the year that were just either born or just hatched might not have been able to get out of the way of the floodwaters fast enough."

While that reduction in population should be short-term, Kit Hams said this summer's flooding will have a significant impact on the fall deer season. Hams is the big game program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks.

"We're going to have both public and private land areas along that river bottom where people have traditionally hunted" that are now submerged, he said, displacing deer. "I wouldn't expect deer to return to those flood zones probably until next year. People are going to have to find new places to hunt."

While certain stretches of land will see bleak hunting opportunities, the fleeing deer will cause an overabundance of game elsewhere.

"These new areas (like) the hills, the bluffs along the river, there will be a lot more deer," Hams said. "Those landowners might want to consider allowing other access opportunities, because there are going to be more deer than the traditional group of hunters is probably interested in."

But not all wildlife will be so drastically affected by the flooding.

"A lot of wildlife species respond favorably to a disturbance," Ham said. "Vegetation grows to a climax where it's not the best for some wildlife species, and sometimes a disturbance to that vegetation is good, because it sets it back and starts it up again. And some animals respond favorably to that early succession plant growth. And so it can be good for some species."

Fish, for example, actually benefit from flooding. Gene Zuerlein is the assistant division administrator for the Environmental Service Division of Nebraska Game and Parks.

"Flooding is a disturbance that's good for the ecosystem and good for fish, because it's a reset mechanism and it creates habitat," he said. "It distributes nutrients that eventually feed into the food chain. And so from that perspective, fish really do pretty good in this type of environment."

Zuerlein said fish use rising waters to move out onto the floodplain, taking advantage of the opportunity to seek out new ground.

"A lot of times in high water, fish will move great distances. They like to move upstream," he said. "In the Lower Platte, we noticed pallid sturgeon moving out of the Missouri River, among other things. Catfish do the same thing."

In the long-term, Hams said deer, too, will benefit from the flooding.

"We've got too many deer on that river corridor," he explained. "The loss of some fawns isn't really a bad thing, as far as the management of deer. That's going to benefit us in that regard. We've been scrambling to harvest deer along that river for the last five years."

As for the croplands which can sustain both humans and animals, Hoffman said river flooding can be a mixed blessing.

"If the current is strong, there's a chance that (it) could strip topsoil off those agricultural fields, which is not a good thing," he said. "Obviously, if you strip the topsoil, that's the most fertile soil. And at the same time, it could deposit sand on some of that crop ground, which is again not good because sand is not as good for growing crops as loamy soil."

But where the current is weaker, floodwaters can actually enrich farmland by depositing silt carried downstream.

Zuerlein with Environmental Service Division said that in his opinion, the river has been over-engineered, turning it into a giant bathtub drain.

"If the Missouri River was allowed to return to its more natural state, the more possibilities that river (would have) to the people of Nebraska," he said. "That's what I see as the long-term benefits, having a more beautiful river people love."

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