Management Notes from Tara 2015/2016 Deer Season Update – High Water Edition
By W.H. “Bill” Tomlinson, CWB, RF
Let me start off by saying that I have been involved with deer and deer management for my entire life; first as a hunter and then as a hunter turned professional forester/wildlife biologist. You might conclude then, and rightly so, that I am a tormented individual, often questioning facts over emotion; and few things are more emotionally charged than conversations amongst deer hunters. Mark Twain said “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” I once had a Sunday school teacher who was a deer hunter. On more than one occasion he would start with a wild story, then add to his tale “I can’t tell you no more; I done told you mor’n I know already.”
Regardless of where you hunted deer in Mississippi, the 2015-16 hunting season was perhaps one of the most frustrating, exhilarating, aggravating, hot, cold, wet, dry, …….well you get the picture. The season past was a mixed bag for many of us. Add to the equation rising flood waters in the Delta Region and subsequent closure of the deer season by the state wildlife agency and the picture becomes a bit more focused and painful. Mississippi lost revenue from license sales, residents and non-residents alike purchased licenses, but had no place to hunt, restaurants had no hunters, rural grocery stores had no shoppers, taxidermists and meat processors saw dramatic reductions in deer that were never harvested and which never made it to their doors and into their pocketbooks.
Ironically, the effects of the 2015-16 flood event on deer and deer habitat has been largely ignored by the media and the general public. Sure there were stories and pictures of deer that were displaced from their natural habitat and which ended up in unusual places. Ditto the mangled carcasses of deer fleeing the high water and ending up as a highway casualty and an insurance claim. But what happened to the ones that made it out of the high water and into a supposed safe haven.
At a river stage of 37 feet in Vicksburg, travel between the levee and river (the Batture) at Tara is somewhat compromised. At 38 feet and beyond, deer are displaced, vehicular travel is not practical and hunting is generally stopped out of safety concerns for deer and hunters alike.
What made the 2015-16 flood events so different from many others were the duration and tenacity of the high water period. Like a seesaw, the water began a steady rise on March 6 2015, culminating .02 feet from flood stage (43 feet) at Vicksburg on April 1. The river began an agonizingly slow fall after April 1, only to begin rising again on May 14. In an unprecedented summer rise, the river again reached flood stage on July 6. The water would not return to March 2015 levels again until mid-August. Vegetative re-growth in the flooded delta would only be allowed a short two month reprieve before Fall when growth slows and frost marks the end of the annual growth cycle. In late November, the river began another uncharacteristic rise, this time marching to flood stage on January 3, thereby marking the imposition of the states mandated closure of hunting season in the affected Delta areas. The river would continue to rise to 50.2 feet on January 15. Through the first two-thirds of February the river would fall then rise again to a projected 38 feet on February 20. Is that a crest? It’s anyone’s guess.
With hunting season closed and the river continuing to rise, Tara saw a majority of deer migrate from the flooded batture to the protected side of the levee where the lodge, cabins and office infrastructure are located. On January 11, 2016, with the river at 49 feet and rising and the levee and a portion of Eagle Lake Shore Road closed to use by the general public, Tara made a decision to begin providing supplemental food to the herds of deer that were seeking refuge on approximately 1,415 acres of Tara owned habitat and which was protected from flooding by the Mainline Levee System. Significantly, Tara had never before in its history, provided supplemental food to its resident deer herd; choosing rather to invest in scientific deer harvest and state-of-the-art habitat improvement for herd management and maintenance. Nevertheless, realizing the dire condition of the habitat on both sides of the Levee and the concentration and condition of deer escaping the floodwaters, Tara purchased high quality protein feed and thirteen (13) gravity flow feeders and on January 12, began distributing supplements to the deer herd. Cameras were placed strategically at the feeders to monitor acceptance by the animals. It took only two (2) hours for the deer to begin feeding on the pellets. No corn or soybeans had been added as an additional attractant. At a 50.2 foot river stage, it was estimated that as many as 1,300 deer were feeding heavily on the supplements. At its peak, protein pellet consumption exceeded 1.8 tons per day. Raccoon traffic was/is minimal.
In the past 28 days, Tara has spent $16,874.00 on protein feed and feeders with feeders representing only 27 percent of the total cost and feed representing the remaining 73 percent. That number becomes even more significant to Tara and beyond, considering the 2015/16 hunting season closure due to high water, the resulting financial loss of hunting revenue and the equipment and labor invested in maintenance of the supplemental feeding program. Deer have remained in great condition and only recently have the bucks begun shedding their antlers; another visible sign that they have maintained good post-rut conditioning. Does, many of which are pregnant, exhibit slick coats and have maintained good conditioning overall.
Some deer are now returning to the Batture, where the habitat is less than optimal and hard and soft mast have been swept away by floodwaters. Paradoxically, the river has again begun a slow rise and is projected to be at 37.5 feet and still rising on February 13. There is currently no projected crest. The great unknown is what lies ahead for the spring, when the river typically rises with spring rains, snow melt and water release from flood control reservoirs. What we do know is this; with the occurrence of a normal spring flood event in 2016 (March – May) coupled with the most recent 2015/16 flood events, the battered Batture habitat will have been completely inundated or otherwise adversely impacted by abnormally high seasonal water levels for 12 of a projected 15 month period. Nine of those months coincide with our critical growing season for herbaceous plants, forbs and vines aka B-R-O-W-S-E and C-O-V-E-R.
Tara will continue to monitor the health and condition of both the deer and their habitat over the next several months and will report significant observations/findings and expectations for the 2016-17 hunting season.