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Relentless drought extending toll to wildlife

Heat marks set in Texas, Okla.

The head of the water and sewer department in Robert Lee, Texas, had a long walk across the dried bed of Lake E.V. Spence last weekend, when he was checking whether it was again time to relocate a pump feeding water into the city’s reservoir. The head of the water and sewer department in Robert Lee, Texas, had a long walk across the dried bed of Lake E.V. Spence last weekend, when he was checking whether it was again time to relocate a pump feeding water into the city’s reservoir. (Tony Gutierrez/ Associated Press)
By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
Associated Press / August 9, 2011

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CANADIAN, Texas - In a muddy pile of sand where a pond once flowed in the Texas Panhandle, dead fish, their flesh already decayed and feasted on by maggots, lie with their mouths open. Nearby, deer munch on the vegetation equivalent of junk food, and wild turkeys nibble on red harvester ants - certainly not their first choice for lunch.

As the state struggles with the worst one-year drought in its history, entire ecosystems, from the smallest insects to the largest predators, are struggling for survival. The foundations of their habitats - rivers, springs, creeks, streams, and lakes - have turned into dry sand, wet mud, trickling springs, or, at best, large puddles.

“It has a compound effect on a multitude of species and organisms and habitat types because of the way that it’s chained and linked together,’’ said Jeff Bonner, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday that last month was the fourth hottest July on record, and Texas and Oklahoma had their warmest months on record.

Oklahoma also had the country’s highest monthly average temperature ever, according to an associate state climatologist, Gary McManus. Its average last month was 89.1 degrees, topping the mark of 88.1 set in July 1954.

Since January, Texas has gotten only about 6 inches of rain, compared with a norm of about 13 inches, making it the most severe one-year drought on record. Last week, the US Climate Prediction Center said the La Niña weather pattern blamed for the lack of rain might return, and would almost certainly extend the dry spell into next year.

The extreme dry conditions have been made worse by week after week of triple-digit temperatures that have caused reservoirs to evaporate.

Already, some rivers and lakes are at lows not seen since the 1950s - the decade when Texas suffered its worst drought in recorded history.

And in some cases, bodies of water are at their lowest points ever recorded, said Joseph Capesius, chief of the Austin field unit for the US Geological Survey.

Of the state’s 3,700 streams, 15 major rivers, and more than 200 reservoirs, at least seven reservoirs are effectively empty, officials said, and more than half of the streams and rivers are below their normal flow rates.

Fish kills have already happened in parts of the state, including not far from the Panhandle’s Canadian River, which in some places has been reduced to barely a puddle. In West Texas, O.C. Fisher Lake has been so depleted that fish have died from a lack of oxygen, and bacteria have turned the remaining water red.

Without water, animals struggle with thirst. Few plants grow.

Without plants, there are fewer insects. No insects result in low seed production. The animals that rely on seeds and plants for nutrition have low reproduction. Predators that rely on those animals as a food source remain hungry as well, and they reproduce less.

“There’s a domino effect that goes out in however many more branches than you can actually ever keep count of,’’ Bonner said.

The long-term impact from the drought will cross state lines and country borders because Texas is so large and its ecosystems diverse.

For example, birds that migrate south in the winter will find little food and water this year in Texas, so they will have to fly even farther south and expend more energy. As a result, they could reproduce less.

Some of those birds fly to Central America, where there has been a lot of rain and more insects than usual, for part of the year. But because of the drought in Texas and the Plains, there may not be enough birds to consume the insects, Bonner said.

“Now, what happens? Continentally speaking, this big of an area not getting enough water can impact places far and wide.’’

The impact on species also could last for years after the drought officially ends. Quail normally nest in grass grown a year earlier, but because of the drought, there has been almost no grass growth this year. That means many quail won’t be able to nest next year, Bonner said.

With deer, the true impact may not be revealed for six years, when the low reproduction rates caused by the drought will leave an age gap between older bucks and younger deer.

John Baccus, a wildlife biologist at Texas State University in San Marcos, said he is most immediately concerned with bats and songbirds, both of which rely on insects for food. He believes that some females will not have any offspring this year due to a poor diet. Whatever babies are born will probably have a low survival rate because they are entering a world with a scarce food supply.

Already, Baccus said, he has noticed white-tailed deer that are skinnier than usual, their ribs jutting out. As a result, the mothers are producing less milk and the newest crop of fawns will be weaned at subpar weight.

“It’s an ecosystemwide problem,’’ Baccus said.

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