Wildlife in floodway suffer habitat loss after levee breach

Thursday, August 25, 2011
Ben Stratton of the Missouri Department of Conservation looks for signs of swamp rabbits Tuesday at the Robert G. Delaney Conservation Area in Mississippi County. Swamp rabbits and bobwhite quail are among the species in Southeast Missouri that were affected by the breach of the Birds Point levee. (Kristin Eberts)

Hunters, whose beagles run after them through the Mississippi River bottoms, call them "swampers."

Swamp rabbits, popular with small-game hunters in the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway, were nearly wiped out when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally blew up the Birds Point levee May 2.

Many hunters like to fry them or cook them in a stew. Others, like Jim Bonner of Sikeston, Mo., say their passion lies in the pursuit itself.

"I'm really not interested in killing any of them," Bonner said of the rabbits that can be bigger than a house cat. "They're a great competitor, and they'll lead dogs on a merry chase."

In the past, Bonner's enjoyed hunting in the lowlands in Mississippi County, but he won't be hunting there this year.

Among the 130,000 acres flooded in the levee breach was a significant amount of wildlife habitat -- a haven for local hunters.

"The floodwaters didn't naturally creep up like you see in a normal flood situation. This was an immediate rise of water and it was substantial," said A.J. Hendershott, regional outreach and education specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We did lose some wildlife as a consequence of that."

The animals that were left went to high ground along levees and atop the Towosahgy Indian mounds. But there wasn't much high ground, nor did it have much of a food supply, creating what Hendershott called a tense situation for wildlife.

"This was an extraordinary situation. The department has a normal policy of not feeding wildlife. We changed on this one because of the magnitude of what went on," Hendershott said.

As the waters recede, conservationists have been watching the floodway closely and are seeing signs of habitat recovery.

"The wildlife that are left do have some habitat, and that's the key. As long as they have habitat, they are going to make a rebound, and that's something we've seen flood after flood after flood," Hendershott said. "Wildlife do recover."

In Missouri, Sylvilagus aquaticus, more commonly known as swamp rabbits or simply just swampers, are only found in the southeast part of the state. Swamp rabbits are common farther south along the Mississippi River.

It's a species of management concern for the Department of Conservation, which began tracking the swamp rabbit population last fall.

It's not known exactly how many swamp rabbits were in the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway before the levee breach, but agents have reported that some of them survived the flood, Hendershott said. Agents will be looking across Southeast Missouri and specifically in the floodway for signs of swamp rabbits again this fall.

"Swamp rabbits are secretive. So we look for presence or absence. We document presence of their latrines, which are distinctive, and any swamp rabbit sightings," Hendershott said. The survey will continue for at least three more years.

Swamp rabbits are a cousin to the cottontail rabbit and can be as big as the dogs that chase them, Hendershott said.

Aaron Wallace, whose family has farmed in the floodway near Big Oak Tree State Park for more than 100 years, captured video of a swamp rabbit huddled on a log sticking out of the floodwaters a couple of weeks after the levee breach while he was touring the floodway by boat. Although swamp rabbits can swim, it's doubtful they could make it the miles and miles it would take to get to dry land.

Wallace saw the devastation the levee breach brought upon several species in the weeks that followed.

"We've seen dead deer hung up in [irrigation] pivots when the water was at its highest," he said. "We saw 60 deer, three or four coyotes, and turkeys, too, on the Towosahgy mounds with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. They were just starving to death. You could see their ribs, all their bones."

Deer, turkey, bobcats and the bobwhite quail all suffered population losses as a result of the levee breach.

Surveys conducted by the Department of Conservation this summer recorded no quail in the floodway portions of Mississippi or New Madrid counties.

"That does not mean there are zero quail. It simply means if present, they are hard to detect," Hendershott said.

Bobwhite quail can lose up to 90 percent of its population each year due to natural factors such as starvation and predation. The 10 percent that's left rebuilds the population in the spring, he said.

While quail populations declined from flooding, the least tern, a bird that normally nests along the Mississippi River, moved inland. Some came to nest in a sand deposit covering a field on Wallace's farm near the middle levee breach site. The field where soybeans once grew is now home to a lake, and it is covered in spots by several feet of sand.

The birds have since migrated south, but while they were nesting, Wallace said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to repair any flood damage at the levee breach for fear of encroaching on the least terns' habitat.

The Department of Conservation has been working to restore habitat at 10 Mile Pond that was destroyed by the flooding, and biologists continue to monitor the floodway areas habitat and wildlife populations.

There won't be any restrictions placed on hunting in the floodway by the Department of Conservation, Hendershott said.

"It's a self-regulating system. There are fewer animals to hunt. The hunters who do go out in that area aren't going to see as much; therefore, they won't take as much," Hendershott said. "A lot of the residents down there do care about their wildlife, and they're probably going to go elsewhere for their hunting. That's a good thing if they can give them some relief from hunting pressure."

Bonner said he doesn't intend to hunt in the floodway area this year.

"I've had reports from various hunters that they're not finding the population that was in there prior to that incident," Bonner said. "If people will give it a break and not hunt it so hard, it will probably take it two or three years to recover."

mmiller@semissourian.com

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Mississippi County, MO

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