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Doug Leier, Published August 31 2011

Leier: Regional flooding impacts local wildlife

You don’t have to live in Fargo, Minot, Bismarck, Jamestown, Valley City or Devils Lake to have battled through drifts of snow and waves of floods through the past several months.

Like many North Dakotans, I have spent my share of time working in and through these floods since last spring with everything from sandbagging to pumping water and helping make repairs. Along the way, I have met new friends in sandbag lines and have enjoyed some of the conversations that materialize after my linemates find out I work for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

While the task at hand is first and foremost to protect human property, many conversations evolve from concerns about wildlife – pheasants and deer in particular – and how they are doing in the face of snow, cold and subsequent flooding.

I get the sense that many people believe fishing and hunting have a role in the return to a sense of normalcy. Don’t believe me? Ask any deer hunter if they purposely passed on applying for a 2011 deer license this June due to flooding.

Those same hardy folks reclaiming their homes and businesses will still pencil in the noon, Nov. 4 deer gun season opener.

Historically speaking, floods aren’t a new phenomenon for fish and wildlife. While they don’t typically help wildlife (fish are a different story that I’ll cover in a later column), they aren’t usually devastating to a specific population, either.

In terms of long-term adaptations, floods have been around forever. Same goes for many wildlife populations, though individual animals in these populations may never have dealt with rising water before.

Still, as rivers or lakes rise, most deer and other wildlife seem to know what to do. No need for them to dike or sandbag. They just move out of the way and relocate. A few may not exit before their escape paths are flooded, but most animals can swim pretty well, too.

In the short term, deer, turkeys and other game birds vacate the flood plain, and tend to refill the empty niche as waters recede.

Rapid flooding caused by spring and summer rains can literally wash away upland game chicks like pheasants, grouse and partridge. In addition, wet, cold conditions in late spring and early summer hurt game bird survival, as newly hatched chicks cannot regulate their own body temperature and many die of exposure.

If eggs are washed away before they hatch, however, grouse and pheasant hens will usually attempt to renest. This year, weather conditions weren’t all that great through mid-June, but birds attempting second nests at least had warmer temperatures, if not less rain.

The Game and Fish Department’s upland game brood surveys run through the end of August, so just how the varying summer weather influenced upland game reproduction is still in question.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at dleier@nd.gov

Leier’s blog can be found online

at www.areavoices.com