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By Jim Low

Drought Tough on Nature

Everything from trees to fish felt the pinch of heat and drought this summer. The period from January through June was the hottest on record nationally, and 100-degree-plus temperatures lasted from June to August.

Many trees dropped their leaves and fruits early, cutting into acorn production. Some, particularly those in crowded stands, will die. The drought underscores the importance of proper forest management and working with a professional forester to promote healthy forests. Timber harvests could salvage some of the dead trees and improve survival of those remaining. For help making such decisions, find an MDC forester by visiting mdc.mo.gov and selecting “Who's My Local Contact.”

The drought also sparked wildfires. Missouri normally sends crews to help fight fires in the western United States, but this year most of MDC’s firefighting force stayed home, responding to calls from local fire departments. MDC has mutual aid agreements with more than 800 fire departments and has assigned approximately $70 million in federal excess property equipment to these partners for wildfire suppression. It awards an average of $400,000 in cost-share grants annually to fire departments to purchase equipment.

Native wildlife is adapted to Missouri’s changeable weather, but animals must change their behavior under extreme conditions. Deer, bears and other wildlife stay closer to shrinking water sources. Artificial water sources like birdbaths and swimming pools, as well as watered gardens and lawns, attracted wildlife, increasing nuisance-wildlife complaints. Deer, turkeys and other highly mobile wildlife travel farther than usual and move at times of day when they ordinarily would be inactive. Smaller, less mobile animals, such as frogs, take the opposite approach, hunkering down to wait out the heat.

The southern migration of hummingbirds began early, and biologists urge Missourians to leave nectar feeders out well into the fall to help late migrants. The drought likely will reduce the availability of seeds and insects that birds rely on for food, so backyard feeders are likely to be especially well-attended this winter.

Waterfowl hunters have been encouraged by news that near-record numbers of ducks will head south from nesting grounds in the northern United States and Canada this year. However, reduced availability of agricultural crops and natural food plants on wetland areas could prevent ducks from lingering in Missouri. Flooding wetland areas will be a challenge if the drought continues. Conservation areas most susceptible to drought include Bob Brown, Nodaway Valley, Fountain Grove and Otter Slough.

This year’s weather won’t have an immediate effect on deer and turkey numbers. A mild winter and early spring allowed the deer and turkeys to enter the summer in excellent condition. Deer antler growth won’t be affected, and the second year in a row without an unusually wet spring is likely to help with survival of young turkeys.

However, epizootic hemorrhagic disease and blue tongue always are concerns in drought years. Deer have more opportunity to contract the diseases when they are crowded around limited water supplies. This likely is one reason for an increase in the number of reported cases of epizootic hemorrhagic disease this year. MDC is monitoring these reports to determine the severity and location of outbreaks. Hemorrhagic diseases are different and unrelated to chronic wasting disease.

Warm, dry weather early in the nesting season gave quail, pheasant and other upland wildlife a much needed break from the wet, cold weather that has plagued them in recent years, raising hopes for those species’ future.

Livestock forage was critically scarce this summer, and MDC supported a request by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency to allow farmers to graze cattle on some land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and permit haying on land enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program. MDC also provides cost share to landowners who establish native warm-season grasses that provide forage when fescue and other cool-season forage go dormant.

Hot, dry weather increased summer fish kills. Warm water holds less oxygen than cool water, and hot weather increases the growth of algae. Cloudy weather turns algae from oxygen producers into oxygen consumers, so a couple of overcast days can have disastrous results for fish. An example was the early-August die-off of 20,000 fish at St. Joseph’s Lake Contrary.

Anglers and boaters found the water level in some streams so low that boat ramps were unusable. Until streams return to more normal levels, it’s wise to inspect the bottom ends of boat ramps before launching to ensure the concrete apron extends far enough to support your trailer.

The flow from springs that feed four of MDC’s five cold-water fish hatcheries was down by as much as half, forcing hatchery workers to transfer part of their fish to Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery. It has an abundant supply of cool water from Table Rock Lake.

Good news related to the drought was scarce, but there were a few silver linings. Ticks and mosquitoes were less troublesome. The die-off at Lake Contrary killed invasive Asian carp. Zebra mussels can’t tolerate warm water and likely were set back in some of the Missouri waters they have invaded. Low water allowed maintenance work that normally would be difficult at boat ramps and wetland areas.

While individual animals and local populations may suffer, MDC experts agree that forests, fish and wildlife overall will bounce back from the current drought and heat.

“The resiliency of wild animals and the stability of natural systems is truly remarkable,” says one biologist. “Trees and animals don’t fret over the present or the future. They just persevere.”

MDC Magazines Take Top Honors

Missouri Conservationist and Xplor magazines both scored wins in a national competition sponsored by the Association for Conservation Information (ACI).

Two articles (The Royal Kingbirds of Kauffman Stadium by Larry Rizzo, July 2011 Conservationist, and Animal Assassins by Matt Seek, October– November 2011 Xplor) tied for first place in the competition for Best General Interest Article. Xplor took first place in the Best Magazine category. Only one entry was allowed per agency, so the Conservationist wasn’t in the running.

MDC also took first place for its website and for the 2011 Natural Events Calendar. In all, Missouri won 19 awards—more than any other state—in categories ranging from Best Book (Cooking Wild in Missouri, first place) to Big Ideas-Small Budgets (Invasive Species Alert: ZOMBIES! on MDC’s Fresh Afield blog, first prize.)

ACI is a nonprofit association of information and education professionals representing state, federal and Canadian agencies and private conservation organizations.

Share Your Harvest

The Conservation Federation of Missouri once again is asking deer hunters to help feed thousands of Missourians who are having trouble making ends meet.

Share the Harvest is a citizen-led program that lets hunters donate whole deer by simply dropping them off at participating meat processors. Contributions from sponsors pay for processing most whole-deer donations.

Last year, hunters donated 6,191 deer out of the 291,592 deer taken during the firearms and archery deer seasons. That put 317,882 pounds of venison into community food pantries and charitable groups statewide.

To learn how and where to donate deer through Share the Harvest, call 573-634-2322, email mofed@socket.net, or visit mdc.mo.gov/node/2544. Participating meat processors also are listed in the 2012 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold or online at mdc.mo.gov/node/3610.

Waterfowl Seasons Coming Up

Duck-hunting prospects are bright again this year, with a liberal season and historically high duck numbers. Food and water supplies remain a concern, however.

Changes in this year’s hunting regulations are few. The only change in bag limits is an increase from two to four scaup daily. Hunter preferences regarding the possible addition of a fourth zone or a split hunting season were so divided that choosing any combination of splits or zones would have displeased a majority of hunters. Consequently, Missouri will have continuous waterfowl hunting seasons in three zones again this year and through 2015. Youth waterfowl seasons will take place the weekend before the regular season in each zone. This is different than the past two years, when the youth hunt was held two weeks before the regular season opener to avoid an overlap with youth deer season.

Duck season dates are:

North Zone:

  • Youth season Oct. 20 and 21
  • Regular season Oct. 27 through Dec. 25

Middle Zone

  • Youth season Oct. 27 and 28
  • Regular season Nov. 3 through Jan. 1

South Zone:

  • Youth season Nov. 17 and 18
  • Regular season Nov. 22 through Jan. 20

This year’s season for Canada geese and brant is Oct. 6 through 14 and Nov. 22 through Jan. 31 statewide. The season for blue, snow and Ross’s geese is Oct. 27 through Jan. 31 statewide. Whitefronted goose season is Nov. 22 through Jan. 31 statewide. The Light Goose Conservation Order is Feb. 1 through April 30, 2013.

Full details of waterfowl hunting regulations are available in the 2012–2013 Waterfowl Hunting Digest, available wherever hunting permits are sold or online at mdc.mo.gov/node/5646.

Resource Scientist Doreen Mengel says hunters need to know that the ongoing drought could dramatically reduce waterfowl habitat and hunting prospects in Missouri this year.

“Although duck-hunting prospects are potentially bright again this year, with a liberal season and historically high duck numbers, hunter expectations must be tempered due to conditions created by the current severe drought conditions,” says Mengel. “Duck-hunting prospects will depend on the weather more this year than most. Fall rains will be needed to fill wetland basins and provide habitat for an anticipated record fall flight.”

Emerald Ash Borer Spreads

Forestry and agriculture officials urge increased caution by Missourians after the discovery of three new outbreaks of emerald ash borers in July.

The invasive beetle already has destroyed millions of ash trees in the northeastern United States and could wipe out ash trees in Missouri. Forestry officials have been on heightened alert since discovering an outbreak at a campground near Lake Wappapello in Wayne County in 2008.

An alert arborist spotted the signs and symptoms of an emerald ash borer infestation near Parkville in July. Around the same time, emerald ash borers also turned up in monitoring traps at two sites in Reynolds County.

MDC works with state and federal agriculture agencies to monitor Missouri’s forests and urban areas for signs of the insect. These and other members of Missouri’s Invasive Forest Pest Council are working to determine the extent of the new outbreaks and adjust the state’s emerald ash borer control strategy accordingly.

Emerald ash borers spread mostly by hitching rides with people transporting firewood, logs, tree debris or planting stock from place to place. Foresters encourage people to use native trees other than ash trees in landscape plantings, buy firewood near their destination when traveling and camping, and burn it all before departing. You can check trees for signs of the emerald ash borer using the online guide available at eab.missouri.edu and report concerns about trees by calling 866-716-9974.

For more information about the emerald ash borer, as well as the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s other programs, visit mda.mo.gov.

Give Bears a Heads-Up

Daron Wilkins enjoys seeing wildlife, but he got a little closer to nature than he bargained for while bowhunting last year.

He was in a 20-foot ladder stand at the edge of a field in Webster County when a medium sized black bear appeared in the field. Apparently, it smelled the deer lure Wilkins was using, and before the hunter knew it, the bear was in the tree with him.

“I had no idea how fast a bear can climb,” says Wilkins. “I don’t think she had any idea I was in the tree. She got to the foot part of my stand, where she couldn’t go any further. Then she went around to the back side of the tree and continued coming up.”

Until that moment, Wilkins had felt only excitement. Now, within an arm’s length of the animal, another emotion took over…fear.

Wilkins made some noise, and the bear climbed back down the tree, leaving the hunter shaken but unharmed. Video of the encounter is at youtube.com/watch?v=Q0KI8dhLd8w.

“That bear moved so fast, the only chance I had to stop her was when she was in the field foraging,” says Wilkins. “When she smelled something, her behavior went from one thing to something completely different in a matter of seconds, and I went from ‘Hey, this is cool’ to ‘She’s in the tree with me!’ If I had it to do over, I would yell at her when she was still way out in the field.”

For more about black bears in Missouri, see mdc.mo.gov/node/3506.

Did You Know? Conservation makes Missouri a great place to hunt and fish.

Federal Excise Taxes Support Conservation in Missouri

  • About $20 million per year is received by the Missouri Department of Conservation from federal sources. Most federal aid comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via the Wildlife Restoration and the Sport Fish Restoration programs. Funds are distributed to the states based on a formula that includes total area of each state and the number of paid license holders in each state.
  • The Wildlife Restoration Program began in 1937 and is funded by excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. Funding must be used on projects to restore, conserve, manage and enhance wild birds and mammals and their habitat. Projects also include providing public use and access to wildlife resources, hunter education, and development and management of shooting ranges.
  • The Sport Fish Restoration Program began in 1950 and is funded by excise taxes on fishing equipment and trolling motors, motorboat and small engine fuel tax, and import duties on tackle and pleasure boats. Funds must be used for the restoration, conservation, management and enhancement of sport fish, and public access development and maintenance.
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