How Will the Mississippi River Flooding Affect Birds, Bears, and Other Wildlife?

How Will the Mississippi River Flooding Affect Birds, Bears, and Other Wildlife?

Alisa Opar
Published: 05/18/2011

Deer flee the rising water from the Morganza Floodway in the Atchafalaya Basin. Photo: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
The Mississippi River continues to swell, and towns in the flood’s path area are being evacuated as water levels rise and Morganza Spillway gates release millions of gallons of water. As the water spreads into the Atchafalaya Basin in south-central Louisiana, reports of wildlife on the run are pouring in.
“In the Mississippi alluvial valley flooding may displace a lot of different wildlife, from warblers to black bears,” says Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway.
“As birds start to lose habitat hopefully they will move out from flooded areas,” Driscoll says. “Other animals can get stranded more easily. A couple of years ago when the Yazoo River flooded a lot of the area that’s under water now, we saw alligators and cows, bobcats and deer, on levees within a short driving distance of each other. It was the only dry ground, so everything just moved onto the nearest levee. “

The Morganza Floodway. Photo: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Many deer and at least four black bears have been spotted on the move since this weekend, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began opening the Morganza Spillway, which is located about 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge and diverts water into the Atchafalaya Basin. The Corps is employing 16 of 125 gates, and may let water out of as many as one-quarter of them overall in order to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding. On May 10, the Corps opened another spillway, the Bonnet Carré, (about 30 miles northwest New Orleans), but that alone didn’t divert enough water to protect the city.
The only time the Morganza Spillway had been opened previously was when water levels rose perilously high in 1973. The Corps is releasing water at a slower rate this time around to allow wildlife time to get out of harm’s way.

Louisiana black bear cubs. In 1950, the 80 to 120 bears remaining in Louisiana were restricted to the Atchafalaya and Tensas River Basins. The population has grown to 500 to 700 bears today. Photo: USDA

Still, mortalities are likely, says Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition in Louisiana. “The young of the year for wild turkeys will be wiped out, and many newborn bear cubs will probably die,” he says. The Louisiana black bear, a threatened subspecies of the American black bear, nearly died out in the 1950s due largely to habitat loss. Deer, which haven’t had their fawns yet, will move outside the levee system for the next several months, he predicts. While drowning is an immediate concern for wildlife, starvation is another threat. “Summer plant foods normally available for bears, deer, and other species will be wiped out, requiring those animals to seek food elsewhere in the coming months” such as nearby agricultural crops, says Davidson. That, in turn, could lead to an increase in human/bear conflicts in populated areas.

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