Biologists predict which WMAs will be hot, not in 2011-12

Few hunters go through the trouble of planting dove fields, but everyone loves to hunt them this time of year. Here’s one option.

2011, ironically, featured record floods and parching droughts. Here’s how the meteorological conditions will impact hunting this season on the state’s public lands.

By mid-June, Louisiana’s outdoorsmen were aware of either too much water because of flooding or too little water because of an extended dry spell accompanied by unseasonably high temperatures, even for the Sportsman’s Paradise.

Mother Nature took it from one extreme to the other in the months leading up to the hunting season for 2011-12. Popular public hunting areas were among the regions that experienced the effects of one or the other, or both.

Of the eight veteran wildlife biologist supervisors with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who oversee wildlife management areas in different regions of the state and provide preseason reports for Louisiana Sportsman, none saw what Jonathan Bordelon saw at WMAs — particularly Sherburne — in his part of the South Mississippi Alluvial Valley that absorbed the brunt of flooding in 2011. The biologist supervisor monitored the event from the start, and has been dealing with the after-affects ever since the water started receding in late June.

Too much water

Sherburne WMA was inundated quickly by floodwaters when the Morganza Spillway was opened in May for the first time since 1973. The flooding was so complete and devastating there that deer hunting regulations have been adjusted for the upcoming season.

Bordelon called it a “much more conservative season” than previous years, adding the department would rather err on the side of caution. Animals moved out and moved back, but there was mortality, all numbers that are unknown.

On Sherburne, where numerous raised roads were washed out, ATV trails obliterated and bridges damaged, deer hunters will have two either-sex days open to firearms right after Thanksgiving, one week of bucks-only during the Christmas holidays and two primitive firearm either-sex days in January. There will be no changes in the archery and youth hunting seasons because of the small percentage of harvested deer they typically record.

The deer hunting season also has been shortened on Attakapas WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin, where the water rose as high as 24 feet on the Atchafalaya River gauge at Butte La Rose.

Attention has been focused on flooding and the aftermath at Sherburne WMA as well as the region’s other WMAs, including the Red River WMA’s batture lands, which were underwater because of Mississippi River flooding. Bordelon pointed out the rest of Red River WMA is protected by levees that kept the area dry during the spring. Also flooded were Attakapas WMA, Grassy Lake WMA and Three Rivers WMA, all inundated by floodwaters from the Red and Atchafalaya rivers.

Red River WMA is adjacent to Three Rivers WMA, which does not have the protection of a levee along the Red River, Bordelon noted. All of Three Rivers WMA flooded, but nearby higher ground on Red River WMA offered refuge to wildlife fleeing the flood.

Bordelon and four or five others worked daily repairing infrastructure on Grassy Lake WMA and Three Rivers WMA in time for the hunting seasons while waiting for the water to fall on Sherburne. Then they rolled up their sleeves and started working there.

“We’ve made most of our repairs on Three Rivers and Grassy Lake,” Bordelon said July 27 from his office in Opelousas. “They’re pretty much back to normal and ready for the public.

“Sherburne’s the only area we still have some repairs to do. We’ve got a good bit of it done.”

Fortunately, Morganza Spillway’s floodwaters didn’t carry a lot of silt, so there wasn’t much sediment deposited on the roads at Sherburne, he said.

The fast rise posed a daunting challenge for the area’s deer herd. Bordelon remembers the first few days well, noting a gauge on a road alongside a levee that he saw jump 4 feet in eight hours. Then it kept going up quickly.

“That’s where animals get in trouble,” the 12-year veteran wildlife biologist said.

He and his staff noticed many animals, particularly deer, seeking refuge on the edges of Sherburne WMA. After it submerged, the staff went in boats and traveled in transects regularly to look for live or dead animals.

“We did document some mortality. Feral hogs and deer did drown,” he said, adding he couldn’t put a percentage on the mortality of the deer herd.

Most of the animals were able to escape, he said.

It isn’t the end of the world for deer hunting at Sherburne, Bordelon said. Deer are resilient and productive animals. But it is unknown how productive they will be there this year. Does were in good health, he said, but there is no way of knowing the number of miscarriages due to stress. Bordelon said fawns started hitting the ground the last week of July and they found flood-ravaged areas already starting to “green up” nicely on Sherburne WMA.

On July 28, the LDWF announced it was reopening Sherburne WMA effective Aug. 1. The public shooting ranges that include the rifle, handgun, archery and shotgun range 1 were included in the Aug. 1 reopening of those areas within the WMA that were closed since spring floodwater prompted LDWF to close the site in May. The public is reminded that Louisiana 975 south from U.S. 190 remained closed at the time. Access to the site was restricted at the time to Louisiana 975 from I-10 to the Sherburne WMA headquarters.

There were other negative impacts because of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya floods on some WMAs. In some ways, though, there were benefits to the environment from the high water on other public hunting areas.

Christian Winslow, the East Gulf Coastal Plain WMA manager, noted the flooding impact was slight on his areas. An access road to Tunica Hills WMA was closed to high water throughout the flood “but that was the extent of it,” he said.

More importantly, Winslow said, the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s opening raised water levels slightly and brought a welcome influx of fresh water to portions of Joyce, Manchac and Maurepas Swamp WMAs.

He also noted that flooding on Pearl River WMA was due to locally heavy rainfall in March and was unrelated to the flooding of the Big Muddy. Because it happened early in the growing season, habitat there recovered, he said.

Mississippi River flooding in the central portion of the South Mississippi Alluvial Valley was mostly at Dewey Wills WMA and, to an extent, on Little River WMA, according to Steve Smith, biologist supervisor for that region.

“Dewey Wills WMA got impacted,” Smith said. “Everything was underwater except for the higher ridges adjacent to the waters.”

How high did the Mississippi River get there? Smith said the gauge he uses at Catahoula Lake told the tale when it got as high as 48.62 feet when normally at that time of year it’s at 34.0 feet. He said the water usually doesn’t start coming out of the bayous and impacting the management areas until it gets around 42.0 feet.

“Some areas had 6 to 8 feet of water on them at Dewey Wills WMA,” he said.

Deer moved to higher ground.

“I don’t think the flooding had enough of an impact on the deer population to affect hunter success,” he said.

For sure, some rabbits survived.

“They definitely had to be impacted. To what extent I don’t know,” he said.

Not enough water

Extremely dry conditions for extended periods of time were a concern for some state biologists, as much or more so than worries about flooded areas. However, midsummer rains apparently were beginning to save the day for many regions across the state.

In Southwest Louisiana, during the first week of July, Wendell Smith reported drought conditions were starting to affect vegetation (forbs and grasses). Two-and-a-half weeks later, the West Gulf Coastal Plain biologist supervisor said frequent heavy rains were pelting the area.

No matter how dry it got over there, Smith said, spring-fed creeks provide water to deer, turkeys, squirrels, etc., all year long.

“There’s running water 365 days, mainly on Clear Creek and at Fort Polk, so the animals have water to drink. The only problem is what kind of stress (dry weather conditions) will have on forage food,” he said.

Winslow agreed rainfall was well below average in his region in early July. More rain in mid-July helped significantly, he said.

The dry spell took its toll somewhat early during the growing season on Ben’s Creek, Hutchinson Creek, Lake Ramsay, Sandy Hollow and Tangipahoa Parish School Board WMAs, where he found soft mast (blackberries and huckleberries) was poor. And during a deer-browse survey in late June, he saw some vegetation in poor condition on Ben’s Creek, Maurepas Swamp and Tunica Hills WMAs. However, rainfall the next month improved habitat conditions going into the fall, he said.

Jeffrey Johnson, Northern Gulf Coastal Plain biologist supervisor, admitted habitat conditions weren’t the best as of mid-July but “they could also be much worse.”

Winter and spring seasons were drier than normal, and the trend continued into the summer. There was no flooding on any of his areas, which include Loggy Bayou WMA, Union WMA, Bodcau WMA and Jackson-Bienville WMA, he said.

“We need significant rainfall to get out of this drought we are experiencing,” Johnson said July 20. “That said, some decent rains as of late have kept conditions from deteriorating any more and perked up the plants a little for the time being.”

Drought conditions also were addressed by Lowrey Moak, one of two biologist supervisors in the North Mississippi Alluvial Valley.

Moak, whose WMAs include Sicily Island Hills WMA, Big Lake WMA, Bouef WMA and Buckhorn WMA and Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, pointed out that what’s bad for some species is good for other species, adding that dry weather is good for upland game such as turkey and other small game, which “should do well.”

Also, he said, dry ground helps the dove situation on Bouef WMA north of Highway 4, where there are several small fields, and benefits turkey on another one of them. He also noted there were excellent conditions for a turkey hatch on Sicily Island Hills WMA and Big Lake WMA.

“I don’t remember it being this dry this early since I’ve been with the department (18 years),” Moak said. “Normally it’s really dry in mid- to late-August. But we have dry conditions in late June and July, so far.

“My biggest concern at this time is do we have a mast crop in our hardwood? With proper rainfall we’ll do OK. If it stays dry, I’m not sure fruit trees will hold fruit or not when they mature.”

Charlie Booth, the other biologist supervisor in the North Mississippi Alluvial Valley, was keeping his finger on the pulse of the dry spell. His areas, which include Bayou Macon, Russell Sage and Ouachita WMAs, were drier than normal during the spring and into the summer.

“The most notable impact I have observed, not only from lack of rainfall but also from very warm daytime temperatures,” Booth said, noting the heat wave that baked the region from May through June, “is stress starting to show on some browse plants utilized by white-tailed deer. These plants are beginning to look like you would expect them to look in late summer or early fall.

“If drought conditions continue to persist through the summer months, deer weights could be impacted due to a reduction in both quality and quantity of these plants.”

Booth also noted prolonged dry weather can impact hard mast, a food source for many wildlife species each fall.

“We will simply have to wait and see how this weather pattern plays out over the next few months,” he said.

About Don Shoopman 567 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.