August 15, 2012
If the current nationwide drought has taught us anything, it is that humans are powerless when it comes to changing the course of climatic disasters. Rather than despair, however, some people roll with the punches and always seem to find a silver lining.
According to these upbeat outdoorsmen, even droughts produce some benefits.
On the whole, droughts are difficult on wildlife and the landscape, but there is evidence some flora and fauna are helped by abnormally dry periods, and in a few cases, actually rely on them to survive.
"When wetlands go for years without experiencing a dry phase, they consequently decline in productivity," said David Brakhage, Ducks Unlimited Regional Biologist. "As wetland plants grow and die, they deposit leaves, stems, and other material in wetland basins. This plant matter is attacked by decomposers (microbes and insects), and the leftover organic material gradually accumulates on the bottom of wetland basins.
"Nutrients get trapped in this organic soup where a lack of oxygen inhibits further decomposition. Under these conditions, the productivity of wetlands gradually declines. Over time, the plant community shifts from annual species that produce an abundance of seeds to perennials like cattails.
"The bottom also becomes increasingly soft, making it difficult for plant roots to hold. As plant growth declines, open water increases, reducing habitat quality for waterfowl and other wildlife."
When a wetland dries out, on the other hand, the muck bottom firms up. This allows oxygen to restart decomposition and a breakdown of the organic material that was accumulating.
"Nutrients are released, having the same effect on vegetation as fertilizing a lawn. Plant seeds that have been dormant in the soil have a chance to germinate and grow. The clock on the natural aging process is turned back, and the wetland is rejuvenated," Brakhage said.
In the fields
This is all certainly good news for the future of some wetlands and the many species of animals that live near them, but a large percentage of game species rely on grain crops more than wetlands for their overall health.
The most recent data released by the USDA revealed the bad news.
An average of 37 percent of the nation's soybeans are ranked from very poor to poor, the lowest quality recorded since a massive drought in 1988. Additionally, nearly half of America's corn crop is also rated very poor to poor, while 57 percent of U.S. pastures and rangeland are similarly graded.
Consider the theory that nearly every record book whitetail buck in the Midwest dwells within five miles of a grain crop, and the future for hunters starts looking bleak again.
Not all the news is bad on the grain front, however.
Amid the trauma of ongoing drought and declining corn and soybean conditions in Illinois, there is some good news.
"The 2012 wheat yield came in higher than expected at 64 bushels per acre," said Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Crop Sciences Professor. "That ties for the third highest yield on record for Illinois and is five bushels higher than the average over the last decade."
Dry weather limits disease, making harvest possible without the grain getting wet. It also provides good conditions for wheat grains to fill in, unlike corn where drought causes kernels to not fill in.
In the woods
"There is ample scientific evidence that this drought is not just a simple coincidence and that we are experiencing a climate swing," said David Dilcher, Professor Emeritus of Geology and Biology at Indiana University. "The long-term consequences from the swing include a shift in the types of plants and animals that live around us."
For hunters, not everything about the shift is bad, however.
According to Dilcher, some woodlands may gradually become grasslands, supporting a different variety of game species. Midwestern hunters may, in theory, one day find themselves hunting antelope and pheasants where deer and turkey once thrived.
And while the complete shift may not happen in the near future, there are signs it has already begun.
"The range of sweet gum trees, for example, continues to creep north at an historic rate," he said.
Making way for them and other new growth are tree species that are drought intolerant, even when mature.
Tulip trees, for example, cannot survive extremely dry conditions. As large tracts of them and other drought intolerant species die, the canopy opens and sunlight reaches the forest floor for the first time since they were small.
The result is the type of early successional growth necessary to sustain all sorts of woodland creatures.
Like other scientists, Dilcher understands drought is more bad than good, but like hunters, he takes what Mother Nature gives him and makes the most of it.