I just received the Mississippi River Forecast/Update for May 3rd, 2019. It comes every day about this time and is a reminder of the current state of wet that defines the lower Mississippi River Delta. Peter Nimrod, Chief Engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board provides these daily updates and I am grateful for this generous public service. Latest forecasting calls for a relatively flat river that will be 48.5 feet (Vicksburg) on May 20. Remember that Flood Stage (Vicksburg Gauge) is 43 feet. Predictions are that the Mississippi will rise another +/-2.5 feet in the days following…..resulting in a 50 something foot river, extending into late May/early June.
Current high water events on the Mississippi River are a complicated dynamic of River and Backwater flooding. Backwater levels are largely controlled by a series of levees and structures associated with the Yazoo, Sunflower and Little Sunflower River systems; with a few other Bayous thrown in for good measure. The Mississippi River is controlled by God.
Just so you know, Steele Bayou and its associated Flood Control Structure, is visible from Highway 465, the main travel artery to Eagle Lake and Tara Wildlife. Collective high water events on the Mississippi and within the Backwater area during 2019 have led to numerous road closures in the south delta; including Highway 465.
While the Steele Bayou Structure is the primary outlet for release of Backwater flooding, the system is designed to be closed so as to prevent upstream flooding when the Mississippi/Yazoo River confluence is high. Unfortunately, however, rain falling into the Backwater area cannot get out when the gates are closed. As a consequence, everything behind those gates begins to flood. At the height of Backwater flooding in 2019, it is estimated that in excess of 500,000 acres of the lower delta were flooded. Adding to the misery and simultaneous to this backwater flood event, the Mississippi River has remained above flood stage. Much of the habitat between the Mississippi River and the Mainline Mississippi River Levee remains underwater.
When the Steele Bayou gates were opened on April 1, the Backwater (Landside) had crested at 97.2 feet with an estimated 512,000 acres being flooded. In the 33 days following, the backwater water levels have dropped only 1.4 feet (about 1/2 inch per day). Copious amounts of rain in the Backwater watershed have continued to add to Backwater misery and a rising Mississippi River, as is predicted, will almost certainly lead to the Steele Bayou gates being closed once again. As of yesterday’s report, there was only a 0.5 foot differential between Riverside and Landside readings. Current events have clearly increased/extended the misery index for all who have been and are affected by Backwater and River Basin water levels.
So what about the deer
We all know that deer are resilient animals. The good news is that they will return to their home if and when they are physically able. The homing instinct is strong. Research has shown that fawns which are born away from the mother’s home range during the displacement period may actually adopt that area as a part of their home range and may travel back to those areas on a regular basis, even after the water has receded. While one could call current events unprecedented, previous high water periods provide some insight into a whitetails life following prolonged flooding.
A few things we can expect and/or that we will be looking for going forward
Deer will follow the water line back home and will visit the receding edge as often as necessary to see if they can get back in the door to their home base. Once back in their familiar home range, deer typically arrive to find a silted in mud-flat, devoid of any reachable browse component; low or high. Forest edges will express a level flood-line that appears to the unknowing eye like a browse line, which it is not!
It may take several days/weeks for the browse/understory vegetative component to develop into a recognizable plant community. Nevertheless, deer will occupy the compromised habitat, often losing weight and taking on the gaunt appearance of a starving/sick/malnourished animal……………which they well may be. Does and bucks alike may be challenged to find nutrition adequate for normal physiological function………including fawn production and antler development. Fawns born in 2018 and displaced by floodwaters will probably express higher mortality rates than will the adult population. Pregnant does carrying a fetus may abort, adsorb the fetus or produce a stillborn fawn.
I frankly do not expect 2019 to be a stellar year for live fawn production in the Backwater or Batture areas. Tara Wildlife is affected by both environmental phenomenons. Conditions that we are currently experiencing will likely negatively affect population survival/recruitment from both 2018 and 2019. These anticipated reductions in population survival/recruitment will likely affect recommended management strategies for the 2019-2020 season.
In the coming days/months, we will be closely monitoring receding water levels, active deer numbers, browse conditions, fawn sightings, etc. During the 2019-20 hunting season, we will be looking closely at both lactation data and 1.5 year old antlerless harvest; a collective window of population (fawn) recruitment from 2018 and 2019.
As waters recede, roads will be cluttered with debris and possibly compromised in other ways, making vehicular travel difficult. Deer will also be making their way back home, as does carrying fawns will be looking for a quiet respite. They will find little rest as mosquitoes; yellow flies and horseflies will be thick, dealing misery to every warm blooded creature in existence. Inasmuch as is possible, however, maintaining quiet interior habitats free of human disturbance is an important management strategy during this early stage of return to home base.
The next 4 to 5 months will be the most logical window from which to view prospects for the coming 2019-2020 hunting season. Beyond that window, the collective analysis of browse conditions, hunter observations (including observation cards) and hunter harvest will be critical to determining the most favorable and realistic path forward for the deer management process.
In spite of current conditions and a certain air of negativity, I remain positive about the coming deer season and feel strongly that our past management efforts will play favorably in the coming months. Deer truly are resilient animals! Hunters tend to be equally resilient.
By W.H. Tomlinson, Certified Wildlife Biologist
Sustainable Resource Managers, LLC
PO Box 820186, Vicksburg MS 39182