For months, Jim Huff has been seeing what one of the worst droughts of his 65 years has inflicted on farm and ranch lands in Crawford County.
On an especially hot afternoon, an odor led him to proof that it has been just as deadly on Kansas’ wildlife.
The rancher had just entered a pasture when he smelled a dreaded stench coming from a nearby pond.
“I was afraid one of my cows had gotten stuck (in the mud) and died,” Huff said. “But it wasn’t a cow. When I got to the pond it was a buck deer, a pretty nice 10-pointer. He was done, out in the water.”
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Biologists say the one-two punch of excessive heat and Sahara-like drought is killing a variety of wildlife directly, like broiling baby birds in their nests.
It’s also proving fatal indirectly, like the prime-of-life buck that apparently died from a disease triggered by the conditions.
Most ages, sizes and species of Kansas wildlife have been affected.
Serious declines in some species are expected to take millions of dollars from the state’s economy this fall and winter.
Some people are concerned a recent government program designed to help agriculture could even worsen conditions for some kinds of wildlife.
Deer die-offs, young and old
Lloyd Fox isn’t surprised Huff and others have found dead deer in or near water.
It happens during most periods of extreme dryness.
Fox, big-game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said the deaths are probably from epizootic hemorrhagic disease.
Fox said EHD outbreaks usually occur when deer are concentrated near small, stagnant bodies of water. Midges — tiny blood-sucking insects — thrive there, often feeding on several animals per day.
It’s a fast way to spread a disease from one ill animal to others. Suffering from high fever, many ill deer head to creeks and ponds to die while attempting to cool their bodies.
“We’re getting a lot of reports and we’re expecting a lot more,” Fox said. “This could be a really bad summer.”
In some states EHD outbreaks have taken large percentages of deer from local herds. Fox has found as many six in a mile of creek during past Kansas outbreaks.
Fortunately, the disease is largely confined to eastern Kansas, and outbreaks often seem spotty.
“We may have a stream or woodlot where it looks like every deer has died,” Fox said. “But five or 10 miles down the road, those deer aren’t affected.”
Severe drought carries other threats to young deer. Fox said studies show predation on fawns goes up as vegetation growth is slowed.
“With less feed, does tend to produce less milk, and that sets fawns up for predation,” he said. “That probably causes some fawns to be more robust looking for other food, and they also have less vegetation for (hiding).”
Coyote predation on fawns increases in such times, probably because the little deer are easier to find, and the rodents on which the wild canines usually feed have been reduced by the drought.
Unfortunately, naturally more active buck fawns make up the highest percentage of such predation.
That can take a large bite from rural economies for several years.
Figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 say deer hunting adds about $80 million to the Kansas economy.
Much of it comes from nonresidents, who may pay more than $8,000 to hunt for the buck of their dreams.
Several western Kansas outfitters are hosting fewer hunters to make up for reduced deer numbers.
Drought not pleasant for pheasants
But deer population reductions are minuscule compared with the population decrease amid Kansas’ most-famed game – pheasants.
The same federal report says upland bird hunters add about $120 million annually to the Kansas economy. The 2010 season saw some of the highest pheasant populations in decades. This season is expected to see one of the worst.
“Brood reports are basically nonexistent,” said Brad Odle, a Wildlife and Parks biologist supervisor. “My guys aren’t even speaking of seeing any broods, so that’s not good.”
Odle, based in Hays, said the 2011 drought over most of Kansas had populations spiraling downward last summer.
If possible, things are now worse. This spring’s early wheat harvest probably destroyed a lot of nests.
Low plant growth because of the drought left the few chicks that hatched precious few places to hide from intense heat and assorted predators.
The drought also hampered another important ingredient for high pheasant chick survival – lots of insects.
“Insects are the main source of protein for pheasant chicks and lots of other birds,” said Mark Witecha, a Pheasants Forever biologist who serves seven counties around Ness City. “Our abundance of insects depends on our abundance of those wildflowers that have the insects. When wildflowers are severely impacted by drought, like they certainly were this year, it severely impacts the young chicks.”
Prolific pheasants aren’t the only ground-nesting birds struggling this summer. Audubon of Kansas executive director Ron Klataske said meadowlarks, prairie chickens and a myriad of grassland birds are probably suffering from a lack of shelter, food and increased predation.
And surviving the summer may not be their only problem.
Max Thompson, an ornithologist and birding author from Winfield, fears tough times this winter.
“I think finding food could be their biggest problem,” Thompson said. “The heat just burned a lot of important plants up before they could form seeds. You drive around, you don’t see nearly as many sunflowers as you normally do. Things like that are a very big food group for a lot of things, like goldfinches and wintering Harris sparrows. There’s just not much out there.”
Klataske is also concerned a federal program designed to help drought-stricken ranchers and farmers could negatively affect some wildlife for many years.
The new program allows landowners to mow or graze normally off-limits grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program.
The lush grasses are the primary home to a wide variety of birds and mammals over much of the state.
For about 25 years, Kansas has been home to about 3 million acres of CRP grasses. It’s been a win-win situation for landowners and wildlife. Kansas landowners have been paid collective billions to take land out of production to reduce crop surpluses, soil erosion and water pollution.
Required to be planted to native grasses and forbs, CRP has become a major habitat for everything from tiny mice to huge mule deer.
Now, much of it is disappearing. The federal government is allowing landowners to graze all of its CRP lands, or cut and bale half for hay to feed cattle.
That could make tough conditions much tougher for wildlife.
“I have a lot of empathy for people trying to feed their cattle and make a living, but I think wildlife considerations need to be part of the formula,” said Klataske, a rural landowner. “Winter survival depends on cover, and it’s really critical they have sufficient cover when it comes to nesting next spring.”
Complicating things for wildlife this winter is that a similar program was allowed last year on many fields. Klataske said halves that were hayed last summer experienced very little growth this year because of the drought.
CRP fields stocked with cattle can be grazed down to about 5 inches, which is too short to benefit wildlife through the winter and spring.
That means either grazing or repeat haying could leave huge fields with nothing to offer wildlife that once thrived there.
Especially alarming to Klataske is that unlike last year, about 730,000 acres of special CRP lands deemed to be rare and declining habitat are now open to haying and grazing.
Some species of wildlife, like lesser prairie chickens, rely heavily on such habitats.
“It could take several years for them to get their populations back up, if they ever can,” Klataske said. “The public has invested pretty substantially in this habitat. It seems like in these situations wildlife often gets kicked under the bus.”