When the Steele Bayou gates were opened on April 1, the Yazoo Backwater Area (landside) had crested at 97.2 feet with an estimated 512,000 acres of the basin covered in floodwater. At a reading of 49 feet on the Vicksburg Gauge, the Mississippi River was at 6 feet above flood stage. On May 23, the Backwater Flood had risen to 98.2 feet with a River Stage at Vicksburg recorded at approximately 50 feet. At those recorded levels, 550,000 acres were now affected by backwater flooding; an area nearly three‐fourths the size of Rhode Island!
As of July 17, Backwater flood levels had only dropped back to levels recorded on April 1. One‐half million acres occupied by forest, wildlife habitat, agriculture, homes and associated businesses and recreational interests remain under water. Significantly, the flooded acreages referenced, include only estimates for Backwater Flooding and do not include the acreage flooded and lying between the Mississippi River Mainline levee System and the Mississippi River or between the Backwater Levee and the Yazoo River. Add those acres to the agony.
According to Peter Nimrod, Chief Engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board the River at Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez have been above flood stage for 152, 153 and 196 days respectively; making this the longest continuous flood event since 1927. What makes the current flooding scenario most significant and devastating, is that in the case of annual flood events on the Mississippi and Yazoo River Systems in the Lower Mississippi River Delta, large animals such as deer, coyotes, bobcats and bears head to habitats protected by either elevation or protective containment levees. In 2019, like no other year of record, animals fleeing river flooding found themselves running directly from one flood to another or as may be more graphically expressed, jumping from the fire into the frying pan.
Conditions for Whitetail Deer
On January 2, 2019, the Mississippi River began its steady march to flood stage and beyond. It remains in flood today and is so projected to remain there through the end of July. Many of you are painfully aware, as are we, that rising floodwaters in January, forced the closure of hunting season at Tara Wildlife and subsequent cancellation of all hunts booked for the remainder of the season. If the story had ended there, we would all be sad about the hunts cancelled, but happy to look forward to 2019‐20 and another productive year afield. I wish that was the end of the story. However it is not.
With steadily rising water levels on the river and in the backwater, frustration continued to build in late February. By March 15, the typical beginning of spring green‐up between the river and levee, the river stage at Vicksburg was down by 1.2” or 51.3, having crested at 51.4 three days earlier. The River was still over eight feet above flood stage with no green‐up in sight for the unprotected side of the levee and decreasing expectation for relief in the Backwater. On March 4, 2019, the Mississippi Levee Board closed the Yazoo Backwater Levee at Highway 61, “due to the thousands of deer that are trapped on the Brunswick Extension Levee.”
With the Mainline and Backwater Levee Systems and few islands of agricultural acreage remaining as escape habitat, compressed deer populations began to shrink, as one‐by‐one, dead and dying deer became a prominent visual. Count March as the beginning of physical, physiological and nutritional stress on the whitetail deer population and the start of a steady and systematic decline in numbers. As deer condition continued to decline, the unnatural concentrations of animals and its toll on the resident population were increasingly evident. Deer that were weak, sick or dying were easily spotted, as were the bloated carcasses of the lucky ones which lay in clear sight. The numbers of sick, dead and dying animals continue to be a constant gut‐check and an inexplicable visual for those experiencing the drama first‐hand.
As a cooperative effort between concerned land managers, landowners and the state wildlife agency, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) began issuing Supplemental Nutrition Permits to limited numbers of affected landowners on June 14, 2019. Requirements promulgated by MDWFP provided that supplemental feeding of deer if implemented, would be restricted to a pelleted ration, containing no more than 16% crude protein and/or alfalfa hay, that corn and other high‐energy supplements would be strictly forbidden, that feed would only be provided from above ground covered feeders and that feed stations located on the levee would need to be placed at the base/toe of the levee with no feed stations being placed along the road surface or slope of the levee. The permit, as issued, is valid through September 15, 2019.
A pelleted 14% crude protein based ration identified as “Warren – 9” and used by Tara Wildlife and select adjacent ownerships was developed in cooperation with Tara Management and Mr. Richard Ware of Ware Milling in Houston Mississippi. Richard provided invaluable information as per nutritional demands of nutritionally stressed and deprived ruminants and has contributed financially and intellectually to the feeding effort.
Twenty‐two tons of rations were delivered to Tara on June 20 and feeding operations began that day. Expectations are that the initial twenty‐two tons of deer pellets will be completely exhausted within the next five to seven days. Plans are to continue feeding through the permitted date of September 15. This is strictly a landowner based feeding operation, with all expense of feed, labor and sweat equity paid by a limited number of conservation minded property owners with no thought as to which property the deer that they are feeding occupies. It simply doesn’t matter. Deer are still dying daily.
It is difficult to project what one will find over the next few weeks/months when the River and Backwater subsides. Hopefully we have some answers by mid‐August, possibly later. Nevertheless, it is a given that we have suffered catastrophic losses in the yearling (2018 fawn crop) and fawn‐of‐the‐year (2019) population cohorts. Significant adult losses are evident as well.
Deer surviving this catastrophic and prolonged event are unlikely to be in good flesh in October. Economics and statewide hunting seasons aside, it is difficult to imagine that being given regulatory authority to feed stressed and starving deer then killing them a few short days later makes any sense at all; either ethically, emotionally, biologically, economically or publicly.
Regardless of the 2019‐20 Mississippi State Hunting Season framework promulgated for whitetail deer by MDWFP, Tara Wildlife has made a decision to sit out 2019‐20 deer season. Others, who are similarly affected by the river and backwater floods, have or will undoubtedly make similar commitments to conservation and our collective shared natural resources.
By W.H. Tomlinson,
Certified Wildlife Biologist/Registered Forester
Sustainable Resource Managers, LLC
PO Box 820186, Vicksburg MS 39182