WILDLIFE RESPONSE TO FLOODING IN THE DELTA
For three consecutive years now, the Mississippi Delta has endured late winter and spring floods. However, 2019 flooding has been more extensive than the past two years. In addition to Mississippi River flooding, flood waters in the Yazoo Backwater Area are at its highest levels since the backwater levees and the Steele Bayou structure were installed. With this volume of water backing up across the area, animals are on the move and highly stressed as they just try to survive. For those animals that can move ahead of the floodwaters, they will be concentrated in areas of higher ground that may cause complications and conflict.
The potential for human-wildlife conflicts resulting from a flood of this magnitude are pretty high. With over a half million acres of land currently under some amount of water, there are large numbers of displaced animals on the move in search of higher ground. As a result, the chances for wildlife-motor vehicle collisions are much greater, especially at night. Making matters worse, many road rights-of-way are some of the only available high ground for now and there are a lot of deer, wild hogs, and other wild animals congregated along these areas. Once floodwaters recede, the potential for such encounters will continue for a while as animals return to their home ranges.
For those able to stay in their homes, take heed when leaving the house in the morning. Wildlife could seek refuge from floodwaters on porches, decks, and in yards during the night. These animals are already highly stressed and startling them or making them feel cornered can be dangerous. The same applies to returning home or stepping out after dark and entering open sheds and barns. You don’t need to live in fear, but do stay alert and be a bit more careful than usual.
When returning to flood-damaged homes, carefully go room to room checking for any lingering critters. Venomous snakes would be my first concern, but if an exterior door or window has been pushed in, there could be anything from a raccoon on top of the refrigerator to a bear on the bed. So, do use a little caution.
How Flooding May Affect Wildlife Populations
So, how big of an impact will this flood have on wildlife? At this point, there is no way of knowing for sure. Already there has been higher than usual motor vehicle related mortality. Due to displacement, and in some cases isolation with little to no resources, many animals are now at higher risk of predation. Drowning will be the cause of some mortality, but probably the biggest concern is the stress from being displaced and the lack of food resources. However, unless flooding is prolonged these events should not have too big of an impact. Probably the most noticeable impact on wildlife populations will be in the form of less recruitment—the addition of new individuals to the population.
Here are some general relationships to keep in mind; the smaller and less mobile the animal is, the greater the likelihood of flooding having a negative effect. For example, think of the effects of flooding on mice and rabbits versus deer. A flood that decimates a population of small mammals will have little, if any, effect on deer. What may be more important for animals like deer and turkey is the timing and duration of flooding. Although turkeys can fly, hens nest on the ground and flood waters could prevent a successful hatch. We have found similar results with deer. Flooding during the winter and spring essentially has no impact on deer populations or deer quality, but summer flooding can decrease fawn survival.
One tiny little sliver of sunshine amongst all of this is the potential to put a good dent in the wild hog population. Taking advantage of this situation to conduct wild hog removal may be unsettling to some, but so is having to plant corn 3 to 4 times in order to get a standing crop. They also are fierce competitors with native wildlife for resources and are opportunistic predators as well.
How big an impact the flood has on wildlife remains to be seen, but we predict, at least for the large mammals like white-tailed deer, that once the waters recede animals will recolonize their home ranges with little effect when hunting season rolls around this fall.