Wildlife refuge flooding

Published 12:02 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eric Shelton | The Natchez democrat — St. Catherine Creek Wildlife Refuge is already experiencing floods from the record Mississippi River rise. The refuge floods annually, but this year refuge officials are expecting more water. The refuge is already approximately 80 to 90 percent flooded.

NATCHEZ — As the people of the Miss-Lou scramble to prepare for an historic flood, the fowl, fish and furry critters of the St. Catherine Creek Wildlife Refuge are calmly anticipating an event that affects their lives every year.

“(The river rising) is an annual cycle,” refuge manager Bob Strader said. “The river goes up and down. The fish and wildlife on the reserve have adapted (to it).”

Strader said the refuge is approximately 80 to 90 percent flooded right now, but the land animals have to deal with flooding each year and they are used to being forced up into the hills of the refuge.

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Strader said the only difference this year is the water may be deeper than normal because of the record flood, and some of the animals may have to travel further than normal, which may cause some problems. But the deer, raccoons, pigs and other land animals are all good swimmers, and they have adapted to flood conditions.

The main issue with deer in flood stages is the overcrowding of the higher elevations, Strader said.

“The deer get stressed, because there are more deer than the land can support,” Strader said.

Strader said the fish are used to the flood cycles.

The fish come out of the river to spawn in shallow water, Strader said. When the river floods, it restocks many of the backwater lakes and those lakes become fertile fishing grounds for humans and birds, he said.

Strader said the biggest impact of the floods might not be seen until the winter, and that impact will be felt by the approximately 10,000 different species of water fowl the refuge sees each year.

“From a fish and wildlife stand point, it’s not a major impact,” Strader said. “The greatest potential impact comes from our inability to grow any crops. We typically grow (crops) for water fowl. That could start affecting them (in the winter), about a year from now. That’s the biggest impact I anticipate.”

Another impact for the refuge is its inability to complete several of the construction and maintenance projects that continue to get postponed due to the floods, Strader said.

The refuge has plans to repair roads and bridges that do not meet standards, as well as plant crops and build observation facilities, Strader said. He said none of those projects can get done during the flood season, which usually lasts until July.

Strader said that they have already had to close some roads on the refuge, but none of the major buildings on the St. Catherine Refuge are in much danger of flooding. But the staff is preparing just in case.

“We are preparing. We’re boxing up critical files, and we will probably make the decision early next week whether we will bring heavy equipment up the hill,” Strader said.

Strader said that the Bayou Cocodrie Refuge is their biggest concern right now, but it should be fine as long as the levee holds up.

The St. Catherine Creek Refuge focuses on migratory water fowl, Strader said. They receive approximately 20,000 human visitors a year, 8,000 to 9,000 of those are hunters, he said.

The flooding does affect the hunters. When the deer get forced up into the hills and are heavily concentrated in one area, Strader said he does not allow hunting because the flood prevents fair chase. He did not have to shut down the hunting season at the refuge this year because the water stayed down enough to allow it to keep going.

Strader said that the refuge is really trying to push for birding to become a popular attraction at the refuge.

On June 11 the refuge will host National Migratory Birds Day and Trails Day. There will be guided canoe trips and walking tours around the refuge where participants will be shown many of the species of birds that make their homes at the refuge.

Pond adventures and children’s activities will be available that day.