“It was a long and stormy night”…………or, as Bob Segar and the Silver Bullet Band popularized in the hit song “Against the Wind”………. life has its challenges. How one views these challenges depends a great deal on ones perspective.
Viktor Frankl, a noted Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist once quoted, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”.
To put that quote in its proper perspective, it is helpful to note that Frankl was born in 1905, died in 1997 and was a Holocaust survivor. There is little doubt that Dr. Frankl faced many changes and challenges in the 92 years he spent on this rotating globe called earth.
While I could not begin to compare my life with that of Dr. Frankl, I have enjoyed a gratifying professional forest/wildlife management career; much of it spent working in the lower Mississippi River Delta. For the past thirty-five years I have been privileged to work with the owners and managers of Tara Wildlife and their associated properties lying within the Mississippi River floodplain.
The Effects of Flooding and Deer Depredation
The River has always afforded an uncertain dynamic in managing timber, wildlife and recreational assets. Ironically, the period from 2008 to present has seemingly offered our greatest management challenges to date. The last attempt at commercial peanut farming on Tara Properties was circa 2006. Due to excessive depredation on the peanut crop, no farmer could be attracted to continue the annual practice. Corn followed peanuts, and the 2008 flood event was a fatal blow for commercial agriculture at Tara.
Failing to find a farmer willing to risk the risk of loss of his agricultural crops to deer depredation; a problem exacerbated by unintended seasonal high water events across the levee, much of the open agricultural area was reforested as a management choice of last resort. Thinking that the planted hardwood trees would afford deer some cover, browse and eventually hard and soft mast when forced from the other side of the levee by flood waters, the newly planted trees actually suffered a similar fate from depredation as did annual agricultural crops. Several fields have been replanted more than once.
In 2014, it was clear that annual flood events were becoming the norm; not the exception. Faced with the reality of lagging fawn recruitment and in an attempt to systematically decrease hunting pressure, a decision was made to reduce prospective hunt dates by 10%. Ironically, following that move, buck harvest actually increased! At present, demand for Tara hunts continues to exceed supply.
While unprecedented flood frequency and duration has persisted since 2008 (9 years out of 10 with 2011 setting all time flood records), it was perhaps the floods of 2015 and 2016 that most affected Tara and, in fact, a large contingent of Mississippi River Delta habitats and associated wildlife populations.
During that period, our spring and summer habitat missed nine (9) months of growth and development. Forced from their homes, the Batture floodplain was largely unavailable to deer, ground nesting birds and mammals, migrating Neotropical ground feeders/nesters, etc., as flood waters covered these habitats for extended periods during a time critical for normal reproduction and development.
Not surprisingly, excessively large populations of deer were forced to escape these flood events to “safe” havens that quickly became overpopulated and over utilized. In 2015, it was estimated that the approximately 1,415 acres of Tara property which lies on the protected side of the levee, were occupied by in-excess of 1,100 deer. It was the first and only time in Tara history that Management implemented an artificial feeding program. At its peak, protein pellet consumption exceeded 1.8 tons per day.
Following the 2015 spring flood event, deer returned home across the levee. Approximately 40 acres on the protected side of the levee were subsequently planted to forage soybeans and fields were protected from browsing by electric fences. Deer depredation in these fields was minimal. That is, until the Mississippi again rose to unseasonal heights the following July and August, forcing deer to return to the protected side of the levee to escape rising floodwaters.
While the “fenced” soybeans were in an advanced stage of development, it only took a matter of hours for the hungry deer to invade the electric fence perimeters and demolish the planted crops. Habitat on the unprotected side of the levee was severely compromised, as 2015 missed spring green-up and the normal summer flush of native browse. Unfortunately, spring 2016 would see another prolonged high water event and a back to back loss of spring browse. Browse and cover on the protected side of the levee was equally compromised as excessive numbers of deer were forced to co-exist on greatly diminished habitat.
Chronic Wasting Disease
In January 2018, Mississippi recorded its first Chronic Wasting Disease positive deer. The infected animal was discovered in Issaquena County; at a location within a 10 mile radius of the Tara Wildlife Headquarters. Ironically, since 2002, over 14,000 CWD samples have been taken/tested in Mississippi’s 82 Counties and, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), Issaquena County is the most tested county in the state!
Since discovery of the infected animal, over 800 deer have been collected and tested within the 25 mile quarantined area. Test results have all come back negative (disease not detected). As of this posting, all of Warren County (Tara Properties) and portions of Issaquena and Sharkey Counties are included in the quarantined CWD Management Zone. Deer harvested within this zone may only be transported to a meat processor or taxidermist who is located within the CWD Zone. Only cut/wrapped meat, deboned meat, hides (no head), finished taxidermy, antlers/skull plates (no tissue) or cleaned skulls with no brain or lymphoid tissue may leave the CWD Management Zone.
Since discovery of the CWD positive deer in January 2018, Tara has cooperated with MDWFP at all levels and allowed sharpshooter harvest and testing of 20 deer during summer 2018. Importantly, no deer harvested during this non-hunting season sampling process, at Tara or elsewhere, tested positive for the disease.
In conjunction with MDWFP, Tara has agreed to test all hunter harvested deer during the 2018-19 hunting season. Fresh lymphatic tissue samples will be taken by Tara personnel, labeled accordingly, picked up weekly by MDWFP and subsequently delivered to the Mississippi State University Diagnostics Lab in Pearl, MS for testing. Results are anticipated to be returned within 1 to 2 weeks of sample submittal.
Negative (disease not detected) results will be posted on the www.mdwfp.com website and linked to the CWD page. A positive result will not be posted but will result in immediate phone calls to Tara and to the hunter. Hunters may choose to wait on the test results before consuming harvested venison. In any event, it is recommended that the meat be kept separate in the unlikely occurrence of a CWD positive test. The cost of all sampling and testing will be collectively shared by MDWFP and Tara Wildlife.
Outlook for 2018-2019 Hunting Season
Despite all of the management challenges Tara has faced over the years, the outlook for the upcoming 2018-19 hunting season, is bright. (See photos from the trail cameras for this year). If the current years fawn crop pans out as projected, we will have maxed out our productivity curve two years in a row!
As for the open agricultural acreage on the protected side of the levee, Tara has negotiated an innovative crop rent process with a local farmer. Winter wheat and soybeans are again, populating vacant agricultural acres. Additionally, Tara planted 40 acres of Aeschynomene (deer vetch/joint vetch) in selected areas on both sides of the Mainline Mississippi River Levee System. If utilization is any measure of success, deer and turkeys seem to have benefitted from these plantings. At any time, day or night, deer can be found feeding, loafing and bedding in these vetch fields.
Some early food plots have already been planted to purple top turnips, with the remainder being readied for an early October planting of mixed winter annuals. For early season bow hunters, persimmon trees have limbs that are breaking under the weight of the fruit and honey locust trees are loaded with pods. In selected areas, acorns and pecans should be plentiful. Frequent rains the latter part of July and continuing through August and September have been a tremendous boost to soft and hard mast producers, as well as to preferred summer browse.
Quoting Guide Bobby Culbertson, “We are business as usual for this time of year; hanging stands and planting food plots. The outlook for the upcoming season is looking really good with plenty of quality bucks and a solid fawn crop. For those of you that were not able to hunt over a honey locust or persimmon tree last year…….you will most definitely not be disappointed this year”.
Tara has a long history of management success operating within the changing face of the Mississippi River Delta. Our goal is to meet each day with resilience and firm resolve; focused on the future and not the past. Today’s challenges will be met with new perspectives and those perspectives will be used to advance the management process to the benefit of generations that follow.
By W.H. Tomlinson, Certified Wildlife Biologist
Sustainable Resource Managers, LLC
PO Box 820186, Vicksburg MS 39182