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Monday, May 2, 2016

Drought and high temperatures take a toll on area wildlife

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The ongoing drought has affected wildlife, fish and trees across Missouri and although some rain and cooler temperatures have given a little help, the extreme heat and lack of moisture are causing problems.

Josh Cussimanio, area manager at the Schell-Osage Wildlife area near Nevada, said, "There will be no teal season here this year. Lack of water in the marshes as well as reduced natural food and farm crops might keep the ducks moving south this season. Dove hunting will be slow on the area. The birds are spread out and all the corn has been picked in the county.

"Fields that normally produce 90 to 100 bushels an acre have been cut to around 40 bushels per acre. It's going to be tough on the teal hunters since the early forecast of a lot of teal heading our way. We hope to be able to pump water from the nearby river to fill the pools so that by the time the regular duck season opens, we will be in much better shape."

If the drought continues, waterfowl hunters will be in for a big disappointment since record or near-record numbers of most species of ducks will move into the area this season. At waterfowl areas like Schell-Osage, the water conditions could keep the birds from spending much time in the area, making hunting opportunities greatly reduced. Hunting for birds, including snipe, rail and ducks is a question mark in spite of the abundance of migrating birds.

Area residents are reporting seeing more deer this month at times when deer usually would be inactive. People shouldn't be surprised to find deer in their front yard or around any water source, including birdbaths. One thing that is unlikely to be affected by the drought is the size of bucks' antlers. The mild winter and early spring allowed deer to store nutrients and start the summer in good body condition. Hunters shouldn't see any effect on antler size related to the drought and heat.

The warm, dry weather early in the nesting season gave birds like quail, turkey and pheasants a needed break from the wet and cold than they have seen in the past several years. Hunting should be good for rabbits, quail, turkey and other upland game. We have seen more quail this summer than in the past several years. We have heard them calling and have seen a covey walk in our driveway recently and have flushed them along country roads. There should have been a good survival rate of quail chicks this year.

The drought has also increased wildfire danger. Unlike many western states, our primary wildfire season is late winter. Once the trees leaf out, the shade they provide causes humidity levels on the ground to increase which reduces the fire danger. However, this year is different. There has been a 150 percent increase in the number of reported fires from May through June in Missouri. The Missouri Department of Conservation reported there were more than 2,200 fires that affected 26,944 acres and destroyed 15 homes and 151 outbuildings and damaged 331 other structures. Causes of the fires included debris burning, arson, smoking, campfires, lightning and equipment use. Compared to a normal year, the total burned acreage has tripled.

This year, so far, has been the sixth hottest on record as well as the driest. The extreme heat, combined with wind and unusually low humidity has sapped what little moisture there was in the area's soil. The 100-degree temperature that started back in June has continued through August with most days in the high 90s to near the 100-degree mark. The entire state of Missouri is in severe drought as shown by the National Climate Data, which also reported that from May through July was the third warmest on record and the warmest and driest since 1936.

Fish in the large impoundments like Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Stockton aren't immune to the drought and heat, but most of the large reservoirs have some reasonably good water levels today, though the dissolved oxygen levels are falling. Fish grow sluggish when the water warms and the oxygen level falls, making for poor fishing. Fisheries biologists are concerned about the possibility of die-offs of prized game fish including walleye.

The fish in streams feel the effects of the drought and heat as well. Trout in the Current and Niangua rivers and small spring-fed streams are at risk because of the reduced flow from springs that has raised the water temperature.

Some of the fish from the state's fish hatcheries have been transferred to the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery where there is a good supply of cool water from Table Rock Lake.

Small lakes and farm ponds are feeling the effects of the drought and heat as well. There has been an increase in the number of fish kills in ponds and small lakes, but although the number of these fish kills is up this year, such events are normal in the state. In most cases, these fish kills occur because the fish can't get enough oxygen as warm water holds less oxygen than cool water, hence hot water is more stressful to the fish.

Fish gulping for air at the surface of a pond is an early warning of an impending kill. The situation can be improved by pond owners running an outboard motor with the prop close enough to the pond's surface to mix air and water, which increases dissolved oxygen. A word of caution, though -- if you're running an outboard motor, be sure not to stir up mud, as that could make things worse.

Good news related to the heat and drought is rare, but there are a few silver linings. High on that list is the fact that ticks haven't been as much of a bother as in a normal year. The invasive zebra mussels can't tolerate warm water very well, so this year's extreme conditions have helped contain the mussels.

Most wildlife experts agree that fish, forests and wildlife overall will bounce back from our current heat and drought.

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Ken White
Outdoor Living