Wildlife Survive the Midwest's Mighty Flood

Rising waters affected ground-feeding birds, but many other birds and animals were able to escape

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THIS summer's floods in the Midwest have inundated wildlife refuges and conservation areas along with houses and cropland. The inhabitants of wetlands and riverside woods are likely to be a good deal more resilient than their human neighbors, however.

Just a few miles west of St. Louis, across the Missouri River, the August A. Busch Wildlife Area, Weldon Spring Conservation Area, and Howell Island Wildlife Management Area cover some 17,000 acres. All are administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The latter two areas, in particular, felt the brunt of this year's high waters.

Roy Grimes, the Conservation Department's wildlife district supervisor based here in St. Charles, points to the thick stand of trees across the river from Weldon Spring. That's Howell Island, but there is no ground left, only trees. Many ground-feeding birds that nest there, like pheasants and wild turkeys, took to the branches to escape the flood, he says. Many probably starved. It could take a number of years for the birds to repopulate the area.

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But other species, including deer, were able to swim or fly free of the island. Generally, Mr. Grimes says, ``wildlife living in or near rivers have adapted.'' To the animals, floods are simply another natural phenomenon. But the adapting can be awkward. Grimes recalls seeing fleeing rabbits share holes with skunks and notes that animals with territorial instincts, like raccoons, will find themselves unwelcomed by new neighbors with whom they compete for food.

SOMTIMES people try to rescue displaced or trapped wildlife, but experts don't encourage that. The animals may only become more alarmed. Some rehabilitation work with animals is carried out, Grimes says, but ``frankly, it probably does the people more good than it does the animals,'' which have to be released back into the wild as soon as possible.

As Grimes and his colleague Craig Crisler pilot a motor launch around a flooded portion of Weldon Spring, they point to the rooftops of rest rooms poking above the murky water. Those and other facilities serve hikers and bikers along the Katy Trail, a converted railroad right of way that is popular with outdoor enthusiasts in this region. A road that leads down to parking for the trail currently doubles as a temporary boat-launching ramp. Normally, boats are launched on the other side of a distant levee, which was breached by the river.

Hikers aren't the only people inconvenienced by the flood. Farmers have long sharecropped on the conservation area bottom lands. They forgo the use of pesticides and most herbicides and give the wildlife managers a quarter or so of their corn and soybeans, but the rich soils usually make it worthwhile to them. This year, those crops, too, lie six to 12 feet beneath the boat's bottom.

For some species, the flood is something of a boon, Grimes says. Many kinds of waterfowl, like ducks, may have lost nests and eggs because of the intruding waters, but overall the expanded wet areas will give them ``a lot more choices to nest and feed,'' he says. As the waters recede, wading birds will benefit from the increased mud flats.

Catfish, carp, and bass - among other fish species - have experienced a huge expansion of habitat. ``The flood may have been pretty good for them,'' says Wayne Fischer, who is with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Rock Island, Ill. ``It gives them the opportunity to spawn and rear young in areas they wouldn't normally get to.'' This could be a ``banner year'' for fish reproduction, according to Mr. Fischer.

Foxes, hawks, and owls that prey on rabbits and other rodents also may have it easier for a while, since their victims have been forced into unfamiliar territory away from their normal hiding places, Grimes says.

FOR the habitat itself, the woods and marsh land invaded by the water, ``this fall and winter will be difficult,'' he adds. ``But the plants will recover in the spring and you won't be able to tell the difference.'' Some species, like rabbits, multiply rapidly and will soon recover any lost numbers. Deer normally have only 1.5 fawns per doe, but the number of young could increase slightly in response to the flood disaster, Grimes says.

From a wildlife management point of view, the flood may have accelerated plans to rebuild some wetland areas along the rivers. ``We're taking a hard look at the area that was flooded, and we're not automatically going to rebuild these levees,'' Grimes says.

The ``flood provides a lot of impetus for taking a look at restoring wetlands and flood plain areas,'' Fischer says, noting that historically most natural wetlands along the region's major rivers have been ``either leveed off or drained.''

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