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Deepening drought affects forests, fish, wildlife

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Published on: Aug. 9, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY–Everything from trees to fish are feeling the pinch of heat and drought, and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) is tracking the effects of extreme summer weather and doing what it can to help people and nature.

The period from January through June was the hottest on record nationally. June was the sixth-driest on record in Missouri. The Show-Me State’s last rainfall of statewide significance fell on May 7. Meanwhile, extreme heat, wind and unusually low humidity have sapped what little moisture once existed in the state’s soil.

One-hundred degree-plus temperatures began in June and lingered into August. In July alone, temperatures topped 100 degrees on 15 days in central Missouri.

As of July 24, the National Climate Data showed the entire state of Missouri as being in at least severe drought. More than two-thirds of the state was in extreme drought, and the Bootheel and adjacent counties were in an exceptional drought, the most severe classification recognized by the National Climatic Data Center.

The National Weather Service’s long-range forecast is for drought conditions to persist or intensify across Missouri. No significant increase in precipitation is anticipated before October.

FORESTS

Missouri forests were stressed by several factors even before the drought set in. Most of the state suffered a severe, late freeze in 2007, killing flower and leaf buds on many trees. Multiple ice storms that same year wrecked hundreds of thousands of trees over large swaths of Missouri, and a freak windstorm, known as a derecho, flattened trees across parts of the eastern Ozarks in 2009.

The period from 2008 to 2010 set records for rainfall. Then, in 2011, the weather abruptly turned hot and dry, a trend that has worsened this year. Forests in southeastern and southwestern Missouri are hardest hit by drought, but trees are suffering statewide.

As if weather challenges weren’t enough, Missouri witnessed the emergence of a brood of periodical cicadas that covered most of the state in 2011, followed by an outbreak of jumping oak gall wasps and defoliating insects.

“All in all, it has been an extremely tough five years for Missouri forests,” says Forestry Field Programs Supervisor Nick Kuhn. “While it is still too early to know exactly how severe the effects will be, we expect to see some reduction in acorn and nut production. That could be a concern for animals that depend on acorns and other nuts for food, and for Missouri’s nut industry.”

Kuhn says many trees are dropping their leaves early to cope with the heat and drought. Shedding leaves reduces the amount of water trees lose through evaporation, helping them survive. However some trees will succumb to drought.

Kuhn says the drought will be hardest on old trees and those already weakened by disease or parasites. Trees growing on west- and south-facing slopes will face greater drought challenges, as will trees that are crowded or poorly adapted to the sites where they are growing. The drought underscores the importance of proper forest management and working with a professional forest to properly manage forests.

“Landowners can help their forests be more resilient to insect and drought stresses through proper management,” says MDC Forest Products Program Supervisor Jason Jensen. “Forests need management much the same as a garden or any other crop. When left unmanaged, forests become overcrowded. Trees all compete for water, nutrients and sunlight. When there are too many trees competing for these limited resources, the trees will become stressed and won't be as healthy and productive as a managed forest. Trees in well-managed forests grow faster and provide better wildlife habitat.”

For landowners who are interested in managing their forest or are seeing trees that have died as a result of the drought, a timber sale may be in order. Landowners should seek the assistance of a professional forester when considering a timber sale. MDC has foresters available to assist landowners. To find a forester in your county go to www.mdc.mo.gov and select “Who's My Local Contact.” Private consulting foresters are also available to assist landowners. To find a consulting forester in your area go to www.missouriforesters.com.

The ongoing drought also has heightened wildfire danger. Unlike western states, Missouri’s primary wildfire season is late winter. Once trees leaf out, the shade they provide causes humidity levels on the forest floor to increase, reducing fire danger. This year is an exception. MDC saw a 150-percent increase in the number of reported fires from May through June. This does not include fires on the 1.5-million acre Mark Twain National Forest. Since Jan. 1, MDC has recorded 2,280 fires affecting 26,944 acres. Those fires destroyed 15 homes and l51 outbuildings and damaged 331 other structures.

Causes of these fires included:

• Debris Burning – 794 fires consuming 4,942 acres

• Equipment Use – 154 fires consuming 1,937 acres

• Arson – 117 fires consuming 4,470 acres

• Smoking – 49 fires consuming 189 acres

• Campfire – 34 fires consuming 82 acres

• Children – 34 fires consuming 83 acres

• Lightning – 23 fires consuming 75 acres

• Railroad – 7 fires consuming 38 acres

• Miscellaneous causes – 1,068 fires consuming 15,129 acres

Compared to a normal year, total burned acreage has tripled. MDC normally sends crews to help fight fires in the western United States, but this year the agency’s entire force of 754 firefighters is at home, responding to calls for help 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. MDC also provides training to volunteer firefighters and awards an average of $400,000 in cost-share grants annually to fire departments to purchase wild-land fire suppression equipment.

Burn bans across most of the state discourage trash burning or any other open fire. MDC has banned open fires on all conservation areas.

“Everyone needs to be extra careful when working or playing outside,” says Forestry Field Programs Supervisor Ben Webster. “It doesn’t take much to start a wildfire.”

At home and on the farm, barbecue grills should not be left unattended. Exercise extreme caution when using farm machinery, mowers or other equipment that could strike a spark or put hot engine parts in contact with dry vegetation. This includes driving vehicles off road. Smokers are urged to put cigarette butts in ashtrays rather than discarding them along roadways. Homeowners should visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/5290 and use the Firewise checklist there to ensure that you can protect your property from wildfire.

WILDLIFE

Native wildlife is well-adapted to the range of conditions that can occur in Missouri. That does not mean, however, that weather does not affect animals, which may have to alter normal behavior patterns to meet their needs for food, water and shelter.

An example of such behavioral changes came to light recently when Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer attached a video camera to the radio collar he placed on a black bear. When he retrieved the camera and watched the video, he discovered that the bear had spent pretty much all its time walking through the water in a small stream.

Resource Scientist Jeff Briggler’s primary area of expertise is reptiles and amphibians, but he offers a general observation about how current weather could affect human interaction with wildlife.

“Wild animals need water, which is extremely scarce right now,” says Briggler. “People have plenty of water, and watered lawns and gardens, birdbaths, even air-conditioners that drip water are very attractive to all kinds of wildlife.”

Briggler says people shouldn’t be surprised to find squirrels munching their tomatoes or box turtles and frogs around backyard water features. Similarly, cool basements may attract animals trying to escape the heat.

“If an animal can’t get far enough underground to get away from the heat and find moisture in their normal home area, they have to look for someplace they can,” says Briggler.

Deer are traveling farther than usual for this time of year and moving during times of day when they ordinarily would be inactive. Aquatic turtles must move or die when ponds or streams where they live dry up. On the other hand, smaller, less mobile animals, such as frogs, often take the opposite approach, hunkering down to wait out the heat.

Hummingbirds go where there is food, and this summer that means forests, especially around permanent bodies of water, where flowering plants remain available. As a result, fewer hummingbirds are visiting nectar feeders in dry upland areas, causing some people to wonder what has become of the little birds.

Wildlife Ecologist Brad Jacobs urges people to leave hummingbird feeders out well into the fall, however.

“The southern migration of hummingbirds has begun,” says Jacobs, “with increasing reports of adult and young birds at nectar feeders. Artificial feeders are a welcome supplement for migrating hummers. The ruby-throats will be mostly gone by October, but several other western hummingbird species pass through Missouri on up until early December, and they might just stop by a feeder if you leave one out for them.”

Jacobs says the current weather has the opposite effect on birds whose primary foods are seeds and insects. Shortages of these staple foods have meant capacity crowds at well-stocked feeding stations. Putting out black-oil sunflower seeds, seed mixes and suet blocks almost guarantees that mobs of birds will visit your feeder.

Likewise, people are reporting seeing more herons this year. Jacobs says the long-legged wading birds are not more numerous this year. They simply are more visible because they are concentrated around limited water. Shallow, shrunken pools present a bonanza for these predators of fish and amphibians.

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 long enough to provide much hunting opportunity.

Keeping wetland areas wet enough for ducks could be a problem if the drought continues. Low water levels in streams and wells have raised concerns about the availability of water later in the fall at managed wetland areas, including Bob Brown, Nodaway Valley, Fountain Grove and Otter Slough.

On the other hand, low water levels allow maintenance work on boat ramps and other areas that normally are too wet. Lack of moisture also permits habitat work in areas where soil normally remains saturated throughout the summer and provides opportunities to control invasive plants.

For all these reasons, the quality of this year’s waterfowl hunting remains a question mark in spite of the abundance of ducks.

Resource Scientist Emily Flinn specializes in deer biology and management. She does not expect big changes in deer numbers on account of this year’s weather.

“Deer are resilient animals and have dealt with extreme conditions for millions of years,” she says. “Although fawn survival can be affected by drought, the mild winter and early spring green-up allowed the deer population to enter the summer in excellent body condition. So I doubt that fawn recruitment will be significantly affected statewide.”

Flinn says epizootic hemorrhagic disease and blue tongue (another hemorrhagic disease) always are concerns in drought years, because deer have more opportunity to transmit diseases when they are crowded around limited water supplies. She noted that hemorrhagic diseases are different and unrelated to chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

She has received some reports of dead deer around water, which is typical of hemorrhagic diseases, but she is awaiting test results to confirm the cause. Such outbreaks are difficult to document, since affected deer typically die quickly and are immediately consumed by scavengers. Citizens who see dead or sick deer can report the sightings to the nearest MDC office.

Flinn says she is receiving a larger-than-normal number of complaints about deer damaging crops. She attributes this to reduced availability of other natural foods. At this time of year, deer normally are browsing on plant leaves, buds and fruits.

MDC provides landowners considerable ability to manage deer by providing depredation permits to address localized crop damage and free or low-cost deer hunting permits during the hunting seasons. Flinn stresses that it is important for neighbors to work together to manage deer in their area.

MDC is working with landowners to encourage quality deer management at the community level. Several deer-management landowner cooperatives have started across the state where landowners are working together to better manage the local deer herd.

“Deer hunting is a rich tradition in Missouri and important to our economy,” says Flinn. “MDC wants neighbors talking to each other about how they can work together to better manage the local deer herd “and we’re here to help.”

MDC is hosting four deer-management workshops in August and September that will focus on managing deer on private land. For details, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/18243. For more information on deer landowner cooperatives, contact your county private land conservationist using the “Who’s My Local Contact” link at www.mdc.mo.gov.

Weather conditions do affect deer behavior, and Missourians might be seeing evidence of that as deer travel longer distances to find food and water. This could result in deer being active throughout the day, rather than just from dusk to dawn, as they normally are.

One thing that is unlikely to be affected by weather is the size of bucks’ antlers. Flinn notes that deer in Texas showed no change in antler growth last year after experiencing a record drought.

“Again,” says Flinn, “the mild winter and early spring allowed deer to store nutrients and enter the summer in great body condition. I don’t think hunters are going to see any effect on antler size related to the drought and heat.”

For the same reason, Flinn said deer don’t need supplemental feeding.

“We do not need to provide supplemental food or water sources,” says Flinn. “This mainly increases the risk of disease spread, which could cause more harm than good.”

Resource Scientist Beth Emmerich says warm, dry weather early in the nesting season gave wild turkeys, quail, pheasant and other upland birds a much needed break from the wet, cold weather that has plagued them in recent years. She says quail should have no trouble finding food because grasshoppers – one of their staple foods – are abundant.

“Most people I’ve talked to are seeing and hearing more quail than they have in the last several years, when it was wetter,” says Emmerich. “It should be good for rabbits, pheasants and other upland wildlife, too. Quail can tolerate periods of dry weather well, as they get their water from dew and food. The mild winter, coupled with a dry summer should be good news for them. I have my hopes up for good survival of quail chicks this year.”

FISH

The most dramatic effects of the current drought on fish and other aquatic life are occurring in ponds, small lakes and streams. Fisheries biologists across the state report increased incidence of fish kills in small impoundments.

Although the number of fish kills is up, such events are normal occurrences in Missouri. In most cases, fish die because they can’t get enough oxygen. Warm water holds less oxygen than cool water, so hot weather is naturally more stressful. Fish usually can cope with this unless other factors come into play.

Warm, fertile water sometimes promotes excessive growth of tiny aquatic plants known as algae. That’s fine as long as the sun shines and the tiny plants are using sunlight to put oxygen in the water. But cloudy weather turns algae from oxygen producers into oxygen consumers, so a couple of overcast days can have disastrous results for fish.

Fish gulping air at the surface of a pond is an early warning of an impending kill. Sometimes pond owners can improve the situation by running an outboard boat motor with the propeller close enough to the surface to mix air and water, increasing dissolved oxygen. However, they must be sure not to stir up mud, as this can make things worse. They also must ensure that the motor’s cooling-water intake remains submerged to avoid overheating.

More information about how to prevent and deal with fish kills is available at mdc.mo.gov/node/4891.

Fish in large lakes are not immune to drought and heat. Most of Missouri’s large reservoirs still have reasonably good water levels, but temperatures are climbing and dissolved-oxygen levels are declining. Fish grow sluggish as water warms and oxygen grows scarce, and this makes for poor fishing. Fish also are more susceptible to diseases and parasites in tepid lakes. The longer such conditions continue, the greater the likelihood that fish will die. At present, fisheries biologists worry about the possibility of isolated die-offs of large muskellunge at Pomme de Terre or the loss of walleyes and other prized game fish at other big lakes.

Fish in streams also feel the effects of heat and drought. Streams with healthy watersheds – including good soil-conservation practices, vegetated stream-side buffer zones and trees that provide shade – generally have good water quality and avoid fish kills. But even fish in healthy streams can experience stress in extreme droughts. Trout in the Current and Niangua rivers and small spring-fed streams currently are at risk because reduced flow from springs has raised their water temperatures.

Pools that serve as refuges for fish in small streams statewide are disappearing, leaving fish with nowhere to go. Even where pools remain, severe flow reductions can leave fish vulnerable to pond-like fish kills.

Anglers may find the water level in some streams so low that boat ramps are unusable. Until the drought breaks, it’s a good idea to inspect the bottom ends of boat ramps before launching to ensure the concrete apron extends far enough to support your boat trailer.

Four of MDC’s five cold-water fish hatcheries rely on natural springs to supply water for their operations. Some of those springs are down to less than half their normal flows. This has forced some hatcheries to transfer part of their fish to Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery, which has an abundant supply of cool water from Table Rock Lake. MDC’s four warm-water hatcheries are making do with reduced flows, but hatchery managers are watching conditions closely.

“Hatchery improvements completed the past couple years, such as dissolved oxygen systems, aerators, and renovated raceways have really helped us cope with the drought and low water levels,” says Hatchery Systems Manager James Civiello. “I’d hate to imagine where we would be in this drought without the hatchery improvements.”

PRIVATE LAND

Livestock forage is 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 offers cost share to landowners interested in establishing native warm-season grasses for forage production. Native grasses are more drought-tolerant than introduced cool-season grasses such as brome and tall fescue. During the drought, native grasses like big bluestem and switchgrass are still growing and providing forage for livestock and cover for wildlife. For more information on native warm-season grasses contact your local private land conservationist or regional MDC office.

Private Land Field Programs Supervisor Rex Martensen reminds landowners that the Missouri Wildlife Code allows them to protect crops and property from deer, bears, raccoons, coyotes, beavers and other wildlife with MDC permission. A call to the nearest MDC office is all that is needed to get help from a wildlife damage biologist.

CONCLUSION

Good news related to the drought is scarce, but there are a few silver linings. One is that ticks and mosquitoes are not as troublesome this summer as they have been in recent years. Invasive zebra mussels can’t tolerate warm water well and apparently were devastated by high water temperatures at Lake of the Ozarks last year. This year’s more extreme conditions could help contain the destructive mussels.

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 Briggler. “Trees and animals don’t fret over the present or the future. They just persevere.”

-Jim Low-

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