Along the parched lower Mississippi River, recent January rains are raising water levels – and wildlife managers' hopes.
"If we get another 8 to 10 inches by March, we'll be fine," says Bill Peterson, manager of Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, a migratory bird refuge whose groundwater levels rise and fall with the elevation of the big river, four miles east. The added rain would raise Wapanocca Lake, a key regional fishery that's dropped five feet, and cover thirsty hardwood bottomlands where winter waterfowl normally roost.
Randy Cook, manager of five wildlife refuges in western Tennessee, is also cautiously optimistic that rains will raise the river and the water table. A higher table helps his refuges provide winter habitat for migratory waterfowl.
But in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, there's no end in sight to the record drought that's shrunken bird habitat and forage, drained waterways and increased wildfires. (In the Midwest, refuge crews fought 80 wildfires last year, nearly double the five-year average of 41 fires per year.)
As Mississippi River levels dropped in 2012, the threat to commercial shipping south of St. Louis made national news. Less widely reported have been regional wildlife impacts such as changes in bird migration (area counts of ducks, geese and cranes were down sharply this fall) and the drying of thousands of acres of normally wet wildlife habitat. To flood 30 to 40% of their usual waterfowl impoundments, West Tennessee refuges spent $16,000 more to pump groundwater than they did in 2011.
Further north and west, wildlife refuges in Kansas have been particularly hard hit by drought. "Most wetlands on Quivira National Wildlife Refuge were largely dry this fall, reducing habitat for migrating waterfowl and whooping cranes," says Megan Estep, chief of the division of water resources for the Mountain-Prairie region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nearly 70 cranes touch down at the refuge – a normal to high count. But instead of staying the usual week or more, most took off within days.
With Texas and Oklahoma habitat dried up as well, she said, many cranes likely flew on to the Gulf Coast for food and rest. Continued drought stress on the birds' return flight, she ventures, could affect their ability to reproduce.
Reduced flow on the Marais de Cygnes River has taxed wildlife at Marais de Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge. Dozens of state-listed mussels were repeatedly stranded in September after rapid draw-downs of the drought-lowered river. Refuge staff rescued the mussels and moved them back, one by one, into the receding water. In the Midwest, low water exposed and stranded large numbers of endangered freshwater mussels in Indiana's Tippecanoe River; many died.
Fish kills included 58,000 (largely shovelnose sturgeon) on the Des Moines River in Iowa and thousands along the central and lower Platte River in Nebraska. The summer was so dry that the Platte stopped flowing along a critical habitat reach for terns and plover.
The U.S. drought outlook for early 2013 calls for drought conditions to improve along the Mississippi River and in the much of the East and Midwest, but persist in the West.