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Drought making summer difficult for wildlife

August 19, 2012 at 08:54 PM

The Associated Press

LE MARS, Iowa (AP) — This summer’s hot, dry weather is not only impacting crops, but also wildlife — and the magnitude of those effects is uncertain.

Local experts explain that some species such as birds may have difficulty finding shelter this winter while species such as pollinating insects are currently struggling to find food sources.

“Water is such a basic need for everything — plants, fish, wildlife, all those things are going to be affected,” said Chad Morrow, conservation officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, for Plymouth County.

“When we have such a severe drought like we’ve had it really takes a toll on everything,” Morrow said.

Food and habitat concerns

Morrow said some drought effects could mean more diseases, fewer food sources and less natural habitat for shelter.

For example, conservation officers have seen reports of an increase in Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in deer, which is spread by biting midges (sand gnats), Morrow said.

“It can be worse in dry years because water is harder to find and you are going to have more deer concentrating in those water areas,” he said.

In addition, stunted crops means less waste grain left in the fields for deer and other wildlife, Morrow said.

“A lot of things depend on that waste grain in the field,” he explained.

The dry weather may also limit the size of other crops such as acorns from oak trees, Morrow added.

“You are going to have less of everything,” he said.

That in turn will affect other wildlife, even species, such as pheasants, that had population growth because the warm, dry spring weather protected their nests.

Bob Puetz, Plymouth County Pheasants Forever president, said he’s read some DNR articles stating that pheasant population is up 40 percent in northwest Iowa.

He explained the dry weather probably doesn’t affect pheasants currently because they get moisture from ground dew and insects.

However, the dry conditions will have a long-term effect for hunting and habitat, Puetz said.

“The drought is actually going to hurt pheasant hunting because they opened up the CRP land for haying and grazing,” he said. “That is definitely going to impact northwest Iowa.”

CRP or Conservation Reserve Program acres are kept out of crop production to preserve natural habitats.

Puetz said he doesn’t think there will be enough moisture for those CRP acres to grow back this year, which means natural habitats for birds and other wildlife will be affected.

“If we have a hard winter, they (pheasants) won’t have protection to get in out of the snow,” he said.

Predators will be able to hunt pheasants more easily because they won’t have adequate shelter, Puetz said.

Insect population impacts

Victoria De Vos, Plymouth County naturalist, said the hot, dry conditions have also impacted pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

“They are unable to find good nectar sources because flowers aren’t producing,” she said. “The flowers they feed on have gone to seed already.”

De Vos said that’s due to an early, warm spring followed by little moisture and hot temperatures.

Some populations like monarch butterflies have decreased because of limited food sources, she said.

“Early in the spring I saw more than I ever have before,” De Vos said. “I haven’t seen a noticeable amount recently.”

She said the true impact won’t be known until after the monarchs’ mid-September migration.

“If it had stayed nice and we had a reasonable amount of rain and things were blooming, we would still have them,” De Vos said. “The combination of hot and dry is the kicker.”

Fish kills

Fish kills are typical in the summer because hot temperatures and drier weather bring water levels down, depleting oxygen, Morrow said.

However, the number of fish kills this summer has been more prominent due to the drought depleting water sources, he said.

“Fish need that fresh water and oxygen,” Morrow said. “As the water goes down, it concentrates the fish in a smaller area.”

Like fish, the hot, dry conditions are also affecting fishermen and bait, according to Vikki and Harlan Herbst, owners of Four Seasons Bait & Tackle, in Seney.

“We have considerably less bait,” Vikki said. “Things like minnows aren’t holding up in the heat.”

She explained that from trapping to appearing in retail stores, minnows change water three times.

“This heat, they just can’t handle it,” Vikki said. “Even though you try to keep a constant temperature for them, they can’t handle the stress.”

In addition, she said fishermen are telling her that fish are dying in bait wells, tanks that circulate oxygenated water, on their boats.

“The fish are dying because it’s too warm and too confined,” Vikki said.

She said fishermen are also throwing fish that feel warm to the touch back because they may not be safe to eat.

Harlan explained that heat and lack of moisture are also affecting fishermen like himself.

“Nobody’s going, it’s too hot,” Harlan said.

Because of that, it’s also affecting his summer sales, he said.

“They’re probably 50 percent down from last year,” Harlan said.

Long-term impacts

Morrow said it’s too soon to identify what the overall effects of this summer’s drought may have on wildlife.

“It’s going to have a negative impact on them,” he said. “Whether or not it’s going to be significant enough to affect their populations, I guess we will have to see.”

De Vos noted that wildlife generally can adapt to a year of drought or a year of flood or a year of bad winter.

“Nature keeps nature in check,” she said.

However, Morrow and De Vos said if the dry conditions persist year after year, it could have a devastating impact.

“If you have two or three years of conditions like we’ve had, obviously that could have a pretty significant effect, Morrow said.


Information from: Daily Sentinel,

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