Atchafalaya wildlife threatened by flooding

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Associated Press

Posted on May 16, 2011 at 6:36 AM

Updated Monday, May 16 at 7:08 AM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — It's been 38 years since the Morganza spillway has been opened to ease the threat of flooding from the Mississippi River.

The years have not erased the memories of the men and women who ventured into the region then.

Dead animals were everywhere, some in trees, mostly deer and cows, and other critters too weak to fight the rapidly rising water to find higher ground. Birds, mostly vultures, and other carrion eaters were feasting on these leavings.

"It was not a pretty sight," Leonard Kleinpeter said, recalling that first post-flood excursion years ago.

The two million-plus acres of swamp that make up the more than 50-mile-long spillway accepts the floodway's flow.

Despite efforts by Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents and biologists, with help from conservation groups, to capture and move whitetail deer, the Atchafalaya's deer herd took a hard hit.

"We've contacted some of the men who worked in the department in the '73 flood to ask about their experience, and we believe we're going to try a different way," assistant Wildlife Division administration Scott Longman said Friday.

Longman explained the now-retired experts believe that while the effort captured some whitetails, the activity had a negative side: "Deer escaping the flood used levees as temporary resting spot before dispersed outside the levees and when the department tried to go in and rescue them, the deer would move back into the swamp."

Longman said that Saturday's floodway opener comes after several weeks of rising water, a vastly different scenario than 1973 when the floodway's initial surge shot water levels up as much as eight feet in one week.

"As long as the water comes up slowly, and we think the corps (Army Corps of Engineers) will slowly introduce water into the Atchafalaya Basin, the animals will have time to migrate out of the area," Longman said. "We do expect a lot of animals to be displaced."

It's that migration Longman, his fellow LDWF biologists and managers, and wildlife folks at the LSU AgCenter said pose threats to the animals and the folks living around the country's largest overflow swamp.

The 2011 flood is different than the 1973 Morganza opening because LDWF efforts during the last four decades have increased populations of black bears and turkeys throughout the Atchafalaya Basin. And there is the ever-increasing problem with feral hogs.

"We're asking those along the spillway to stay out of the way of the animals," Longman said. "We're going to try to do the same. We're asking everyone to let the animals rest and disperse to suitable habitat adjacent to the spillway."

With input from the LDWF staff, Longman outlined several specifics, to include:

— Do not attempt to feed displaced wildlife. Longman said this will only delay an animal's return to its original home and habitat.

"These animals are resilient and have adapted to living in a spillway environment, and they do best in that habitat. After surviving the inundation, they will move back to their range as much as it is possible for them do so."

Avoid roadways near flooded areas to reduce likelihood of disturbance and collisions with wildlife.

— For black bears, Longman said they strong swimmers and will leave floodwaters. The Louisiana black bear is on the federal Threatened and Endangered Species List.

Turkeys are a major concern, Longman said. "They will move, but it's the peak of their hatch. The greatest impact will be to turkeys because of the impact on their reproduction, unless they re-nest and try to produce another brood," he explained.

— The problem of feral hogs could pose the biggest animal-human conflict because of the increased number of hogs and their ability to move into an area in large numbers. "We're advising to stay out of their way as much as possible," Longman said. "We know we can drive them off with our presence, but if we see a hog damaging the levees, then we're going to have to figure a way to get them out."

— In 1973, snakes posed the biggest problem for people. Alligators were a close second. The LDWF advisory on snakes and alligators says: "Flood waters will carry reptiles into populated areas where they may not normally be noted in significant numbers. Following the impact of flood waters, exercise extreme caution when salvaging possessions from flooded areas. Wildlife, especially reptiles, may remain in flooded areas and pose a safety threat."

Poisonous snakes living in the Atchafalaya include the canebrake, eastern diamondback and pygmy rattlesnakes; copperheads; cottonmouth moccasins; and the harlequin and Texas coral snakes. The LSU AgCenter also issued an advisory on snakes:

"Extreme care should be taken when handling any debris washed up onto higher ground," professor Don Reed said. "Snakes will often take refuge in these debris piles."

— Reed expanded the advisory to other species:

"When these animals are encountered, along with any of our smaller species such as raccoons, opossums, bobcats, et cetera, the proper and safe thing to do for both you and the animal is to walk away and leave them alone," he said. "It must be remembered that they have chosen their new location as a matter of survival and not to cause harm to anyone."

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