About a week ago Louisiana State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Jim LaCour sat back a with a pair of binoculars and watched as hundreds of animals clambered over a levee to escape rising floodwaters. Deer, bears, turkeys and small mammals were all headed for the same place: high ground.
Photos Courtesy: Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
This was because for the first time since 1973, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to open the Morganza spillway in hopes of diverting the ever-rising waters of the Mississippi River away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This photo was taken May 14. On the left of the spillway you can see the swollen Mississippi overrunning it’s banks. On the right of the spillway, you can see all of the land that is about to be flooded. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers
The decision to open the spillway may have very well saved the two cities, but it also flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland, marshes and forests. You can see the spillway marked with the blue marker located about 50 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
Just as the people in the path of the flood had to evacuate, so did the wildlife. For days deer were spotted swimming for any high ground available. “Some of these deer probably swam for miles to find dry spots,” LaCour says.
While at first glance it seems like no animals – especially large mammals like deer – could possibly survive such a flood, LaCour says he’s actually expecting a limited number of deer deaths. “Animals in that region, even before we built spillways … their life cycle was based on floods,” LaCour says. For example, does in that region of the country don’t drop their fawns until later in the spring, typically after flood season is over. There’s no way a newborn fawn would be able to out swim the rising waters, but adult deer stand a pretty good chance.
One of the major casualties from the flood will be turkey poults. Adult birds can easily escape the rising waters, but the poults usually aren’t as lucky. LaCour said there will probably be a low recruitment of turkeys in flood zones this year, but one bad year typically doesn’t hurt the overall population too severely.
LaCour and his team have conducted several rescues tranquilizing deer and trapping and relocating bears when they get into spots where they could hurt people or themselves. But for the most part, the strategy is to leave the animals alone. Trying to rescue an animal is usually just as dangerous (for the animal), as letting it fend for itself.
The biggest problems arise when civilians try to intervene. LaCour’s advice: never try to rescue a wild animal on your own. If an animal is in danger call the authorities.
The flood waters have pushed wildlife into areas where people aren’t use to seeing it, like the suburbs. LaCour said he’s received distress calls from panicked suburbanites: “There are deer in my yard!”
People have also caused problems by trying to get close to the wildlife in hopes of taking photos. Around the state deer are stranded on levees with water on each side, like the one pictured here. When people try to sneak onto the levee and get close to deer for photo ops, the deer jump back in the water and sometimes drown.
This deer is swimming for land, but got caught up in a barbwire fence.
It looks like it’s going to get tangled in the fence and debris but …
She makes it through.
For now, there’s nothing to do but wait for the water to recede. When engineers first opened the spillway they estimated that about 3,000 square miles (an area about the size of Delaware) could be immersed by up to 25 feet of water. The river crested in Vicksburg, MS late last week at 57.1 feet, which was an all-time record.
As the water recedes, it will leave debris and garbage in its wake, an ugly reminder of one of the worst floods in decades. “We’ve never seen anything quite like this,” LaCour says.
To save New Orleans, engineers intentionally flooded thousands of acres in Louisiana. Now the wildlife has to fight to survive.