News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

June 24, 2012

Dying for Rain

Drought’s impact to extend well into future for fish, other wildlife, experts say

TERRE HAUTE — Mother Nature’s plans might seem a little fishy to wildlife species native to wetlands.

Rusty Gonser, professor of ecology and biology at Indiana State University, said the ground has been pretty dry and crunchy of late, and this drought’s impact could extend well into the future where fish and wildlife are concerned.

“You might not see the effect on the population for two to five years,” he said, explaining shifts in reproductive cycles occur at all levels of the ecosystem. “And in three years, it might be raining a lot and people won’t realize a drought caused the issues seen then.”

According to last week’s numbers released by the U.S. Drought Monitor, 80 percent of Indiana and 70 percent of Illinois were suffering moderate to extreme drought conditions. Southern counties in Indiana have been particularly hard hit, and fish biologist Dan Carnahan said the impact could be significant if these conditions persist.

“Yes, we are definitely in the severe drought area,” the 20-year biologist said from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Sugar Ridge Fish and Wildlife Area, about 30 miles west of Jasper. Carnahan supervises the state’s fisheries there, covering 18 counties across Indiana’s southern third.

To his surprise, calls about fish kills haven’t been coming in yet, but if the heat and lack of precipitation continues, it’s just a matter of time.

“The main problem we’re going to see is in people’s ponds. When the water goes down, we’re going to see more fish kills,” he predicted.

The combination of heat and poor water circulation results in algae blooms. The algae depletes the water of what little oxygen is left given lower levels, he said. Homeowners with ponds can try to help the situation by agitating water with a pump, creating a fountain, or finding some other way to keep air moving through it.

“But that’s about all you can do,” he said. “Once your fish are dying, it’s too late to do anything.”

The IDNR provides a number of online booklets and publications about water management at its website, www.in.gov/dnr/, he added.

This region’s ponds are typically populated by bluegill, bass, sunfish and catfish, he noted. Of those species, the catfish are likely to fare best in droughts.

“They’re just a little more tolerant, a species of lower water quality,” he said.

This season’s drought isn’t the worst in history, but its impact on fish and wildlife could increase if the area doesn’t receive rain soon, he said.

But anglers hoping for a summer on state waters need not worry, said both Carnahan and Brian Schoenung, the state’s South Region Fisheries supervisor.

Working out of one of Indiana’s oldest fish hatcheries north of Bedford, Schoenung said an unseasonably warm spring kicked spawning into gear a little earlier than expected. While that spin in the cycle might cause some minor supply issues particularly with regards to walleye, on the whole, the state’s reservoir system should remain well-stocked this season. Striped bass numbers are good, and there should be a surplus of catfish, he said.

“The problems that we’ll run into are primarily in the smaller ponds, people’s ponds and ponds on private property,” he said.

Meanwhile, mounds of dead fish in the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area could be seen from U.S. 40 on Friday evening, as flocks of heron and egrets lounged about the buffet.

The well-managed reservoirs of Indiana might be able to keep sportsmen busy this summer, but out in the natural world, Gonser said adaptation is at play.

“There are short-term and long-term effects with a drought like this,” he said, pointing out some of the issues might even seem beneficial to some.

With moisture levels low, insect populations are down considerably. But that “base level of the food chain” is necessary to feed bats, birds and amphibians, all of whom will have altered reproduction cycles as a result.

“The other thing this can do is cause some behavioral changes in the species,” he said in reference to mammals such as raccoons. Whereas these nocturnal creatures prefer to avoid humans during the day, the lack of resources is likely to bring them out at odd times, into subdivisions and around homes, looking for water anywhere they can find it. Garden hoses, bird baths and garbage cans could all receive more visits than usual as raccoons, opossums and skunks get thirsty, he said.

Water quality is also being altered, he noted.

“As the water shrinks, any of the contaminants in the water become more concentrated,” he said, explaining this impacts everything down to plant quality. Those animals which typically feed on acorns, for instance, might be hard-pressed this fall, he remarked.

According to reports from Purdue University’s climatology department, the rest of June and most of July appear to be headed in the direction of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation. Rains could return to the area in late July or early August, that office stated in a release issued last week.

But for many creatures in the wild, they might just be left high and dry.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

 

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