Mississippi River Flood: Threatens Wildlife and a Way of Life

Mississippi River Flood: Threatens Wildlife and a Way of Life
Mississippi River Flood: Threatens Wildlife and a Way of Life

The Mississippi alluvial valley that runs from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico spans seven states. It’s a haven for various species of fish and wildlife, including many game species important to the nation’s hunters and anglers. The land itself plays a key role in the recreational pursuits of tens of thousands of sportsmen and women from the region and across the country.

With the surging Mississippi River flexing its muscle and reaching record levels up and down its lower portion, the “Big River” threatens lives and property from southern Illinois to the Louisiana Gulf Coast. It’s also having a profound effect on fish and wildlife and the people who pursue them.

And it’s not just the Mississippi River. Its tributaries throughout the Delta have swollen past capacity and inundated chunks of land that are measured not in acres but in square miles. Worse yet, with the Mississippi staying high for the next few weeks, the tributaries can’t go anywhere, and water is backing up.

The Black River of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas left its banks and flooded land from the Missouri Bootheel and into Arkansas. Copious amounts of runoff from late April rains flooded Arkansas’ White River, which reached record highs and flooded towns up and down its banks, as well as mile after mile of farmland and bottomland forests.

Tributaries such as the Wolf and Hatchie flooded in Tennessee; the Yazoo climbed to near record highs in Mississippi. And with the Mississippi’s huge slug of water making its way toward the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has opened floodways in Louisiana that will send water into places it hasn’t been since the water-control devices were constructed in the 1930s.

While the human life and property are obviously the biggest concern, hunters and anglers want to know how all the water will affect game species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and waterfowl. And what effect will the water have on fish?

Scientists say the end result probably will be a mixed bag.

“When it comes to fish, it’s could be some good and some bad,” said Don Brader, assistant chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “There are some instances where the higher water levels may actually be beneficial. In other cases, it may spread fish out and push them around in a way that’s not as beneficial.”

Brader, a 32-year veteran of fisheries management in Arkansas, pointed to big Corps of Engineer reservoirs like Bull Shoals, Norfork and Table Rock along the Arkansas-Missouri border. With water levels extremely high, the timing of the spring flooding in those upland bodies of water will create additional habitat that will benefit young of the year fish that were spawned this spring. They’ll have more places to hide and avoid predators, and it’s a good bet anglers on those lakes will see exceptional fishing in coming years. Just this spring, Arkansas fisheries biologists have seen evidence of the benefits of high water in 2008 during electrofishing samples, which show good recruitment in many game fish species like bass and crappie.

But in some streams like the White, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, extremely high flows potentially could prevent good spawns in many species, scientists have said.

And then there’s issue of access. Many parks, campgrounds and boat ramps are underwater, preventing anglers from even getting on the water. And few sportsmen want to tangle with the turbulent forces of the big rivers right now. (There’s some anecdotal evidence, however, that some anglers may be taking advantage of high water on the Mississippi; news reports say many anglers along the Mississippi River in places like Greenville, Miss., and rural southeast Arkansas are fishing off the levees or in flooded areas near the river.)

There will be ramifications for wildlife, too. The floods hit at a time of year when turkeys are nesting in the bottomland forests along the Mississippi, potentially wiping out nests and resulting in poor reproductive success that will be seen in the years ahead. Likewise, many white-tailed deer are being displaced by the flood, including does carrying fawns. But experts say it’s not going to put any animals on the endangered species list, either.

“Wildlife are resilient,” said David Goad, chief of wildlife management for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “The deer are going to move when it floods, and we’re seeing that right now.”

The Arkansas fish and wildlife agency has a current deer research program based at Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area, the only Arkansas public hunting land inside the Mississippi River levee. The Mississippi crested at more than 16 feet above flood stage at the management area May 16, and most of the 20 satellite-transmitter-collared deer evaded the floodwaters by crossing the levee to dry ground; four of the deer even swam across the raging river and are now in Mississippi.

With so much agricultural land flooded, many crops that were planted just prior to the rising water have been destroyed. In some cases they may be replanted, but some areas will be too wet to plant this season. That could have effects on wintering waterfowl populations next fall and winter, but how much remains to be seen. Because of their mobility, waterfowl tend to find suitable habitats. But the availability of food in specific locations may be smaller than usual next duck season.

The flood figures to have a huge effect on hunters. Already many hunting camps have been flooded throughout the Delta, likely causing millions of dollars in damage. Greg Hackney, a professional bass fisherman from Gonzales, La., and an avid whitetail hunter, has a camp inside the Mississippi River levee near the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Last week, before the river had even crested at Greenville, his camp house had water nearly up to the roof.

“And it’s on a mound that puts the floor 13 feet above the surrounding land,” Hackney said. “Plus, that area is one of the highest areas in that part of the world. Of course, it’s all floodplain, but it’s actually higher than a lot of ground around there.”

Hackney planned to travel to the camp this week and inspect the property by boat. And he’s probably not alone. Up and down the Mississippi and along its swollen tributaries, sportsmen and women are waiting to see how the long the water will stay, how high it got, and what kind of damage it has done to their hunting and fishing land and camps.

They’re also wondering about the short- and long-term effects this spring’s historic flood will have on the game and fish they chase.

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