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Sunken South

4/22/2008

The human toll of the recent ongoing flooding in eastern Arkansas and along the Mississippi River has been well-documented: Swollen rivers have snatched homes from their foundations, crushing them against bridges, while hunting cabins previously on knolls have been swamped. Looters have been busy, plundering evacuated buildings.

But while homes get all the press, habitat is also a mess: In western Mississippi, deer, bear and wild boar have been fleeing en masse to higher ground.

"There is a heavy, tremendous deer herd from Natchez all the way to the Mississippi state line," said Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks spokesman Jim Walker. "I had one guy tell me in one night, on his (motion-activated) camera, he had over 1,200 different shots."

Walker's agency ramped up surveillance on the water and from the air, which he said helped add poaching arrests to the sundry looting and trespassing crimes.

What is becoming clear is that the flooding has touched the outdoors world at least as much as it has that of the indoors.

Surplus Cache

Flooding didn't cancel Arkansas' spring turkey season but may hamper future stocks, as well as quail and other ground-nesting wildlife, particularly in the northeastern part of the state.

"It may have some effect on nesting turkey populations," said Jonathan Windley, Deputy Project Leader of Central Arkansas Refuges. "We may see a decrease."

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a 64,000-acre area in Arkansas managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), was more than half-submerged by late March.

"Most of the refuge is within the floodplain of the Cache and White rivers," Windley said. "Probably three-quarters of the refuge is under water."

Areas along the White, Spring, Eleven Point and Black rivers in Arkansas reached 100-year flood stages in late March, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Bill Tuggle, a guide with the White River Guide Service, says national reports of the region's weather scared away his April customers.

"They'd already canceled because of what they'd seen on the news: 'It's flooded in Arkansas and we're not going,' " Tuggle said. "I wouldn't have taken them out on a couple of those days, but other days they were perfectly fine."

The reality, Tuggle said, is most of the areas he guides are safe. While water temperatures are cooler and the fish are scattered, patient anglers can catch trout.

"It's gonna give 'em a whole new area to feed in," Tuggle said. "The part that bothers me is that they may try to spawn in places that won't be under water in a week or two — and that can be a bad thing — but other than that, all the flooding does is move the fish around a lot."

Flood philosophy

The Mississippi has also risen in Louisiana, though with less destruction than farther north, in part because flooding there is a more routine, expected occurrence. Batture or alluvial animals temporarily migrate away from flooded areas, but have been doing so for a very long time.

The greatest flood-related concern for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, according to Region 4 Biologist Manager John Leslie, is flooding at spring's end. If the Mississippi should rise in June, nesting turkeys and deer populations on the verge of fawning could be effected.

"It has a very positive impact on fisheries, for the same reasons that terrestrial wildlife benefit," Leslie said. "The flood brings new nutrients and new fish populations into the oxbow lakes, up and down the river."

As long as the rains come earlier however — and no one is hurt — anglers around the country actually have a lot to be thankful for as waters start rising.

Humans, meanwhile, just have to wait out the wetness.

"All of our buildings are built out of concrete block and then faced with brick," said Todd Broussard, manager of Rifle Point Hunting Club in eastern Louisiana. "They're all flood-ready. We just have to move everything out when the waters come and put everything back when the waters recede."

Rifle Point, which encompasses about 6,000 acres, was almost entirely under water as Broussard spoke.

Concrete buildings or no, that's rough on a hunting camp.

"There are definitely a lot of animals that do not make it," Broussard said. "Out across the levy, you can see deer swimming and getting up. They are literally so exhausted that they don't care that you are around."

While post-flood populations of deer may be reduced — old-timers claim the biggest ones are always killed after a flood year, according to Broussard. This could be, he theorized, a result of deposited sediments nourishing more lush foliage.

Whatever the cause, he's not pondering the situation from home.

"The river's raging on both sides of my house," Broussard said, "So I don't sleep there at night."

A regularly-updated view of the flood situation around the U.S. can be found on the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) River Observations Map.