As local officials, agricultural producers and residents prepare for the potential opening of the Morganza Spillway in June, conservationists and scientists are voicing concerns about how the wildlife population of the Atchafalaya Basin and surrounding regions will fare in the inevitable flooding.
Devastating though the high-water impact may be to crops and camps, for winged, finned and four-legged Louisiana creatures, the future is unpredictable. Still, experts agree, the spillway's opening will disrupt the animal population of south Louisiana, no matter the species.
Randy Myers, assistant secretary for wildlife with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said terrestrial animals such as white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, feral hogs, rabbits, raccoons and possums will face the greatest stress in a high-water event as they flee to higher ground.
It appears likely that the Morganza Spillway will be opened next month, which could impact wildlife in some areas, according to the Louisiana …
As these animals are displaced, Myers said, his agency's biggest concern is the potential risk that wildlife may wander out onto highways or levees, interacting with people and cars as they escape to unfamiliar territory.
“We encourage people to stay away from the levee, stay off the roads,” Wildlife Division administrator Kenny Ribbeck said, “When they see critters, recognize they are trying to find a safe place. Back off and let them be.”
Sometimes animals will even run back into high water to avoid people, Ribbeck said.
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Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, explained that these evacuating animals are vulnerable.
“There will be very few places for the animals to go when the spillway opens,” Wilson said. The creatures that don't find their way to safe places are likely to perish, he said.
Another concern, said Rebecca Triche, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, is that the water will drive wildlife into areas that could make them vulnerable to poaching. She emphasized that if people spot a fledgling animal that seems lost and alone, do not try to rescue it — you will be doing more harm than good.
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While land-bound mammals will categorically need to vacate the area as the water rises, the effect on aquatic life may vary.
For marine fisheries, such as oysters, the outlook is grim. LDWF reports that as the water warms and salinity lowers, oyster populations in the Atchafalaya and Terrebonne Basins will likely be negatively affected.
Harry Blanchet, marine fisheries director of LDWF, said that oxygen-depleted water could cause fish kills. Other resources, such as crabs, red fish, black drum and speckled trout may also be displaced, though he said it is difficult to predict the economic impact on the fishing industry at this time.
Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association West and a professional wild crawfisherman who makes his living crawfishing in the Atchafalaya Basin, said the spillway opening could be disastrous for Louisiana’s most famous crustacean.
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Meche explained stagnant water standing near Highway 190 at the spillway has the potential to disrupt the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Basin.
“When they open the structure, it pushes all that old black, rotten, dead, stagnant water to all of our fishing areas and kills everything,” Meche said. “The fish die a lot of places. The crawfish die in the traps. I anticipate it’s going to completely devastate the productive crawfishing we have going on right now in the Basin.”
Meche spends summer through winter in the Atchafalaya and has witnessed firsthand the nuances of the habitat, how it survives and works through constant fluctuations. He remembers in 2011 that the “abrupt” opening of the spillway “crippled crawfish production for the rest of the season.”
“I hope they don’t open it,” he added. “But if they open it, it’s going to be a bad situation.”
Birds, on the other hand, may have the best odds of surviving this rare, high-water event.
“At first glance, you would think, birds have wings, so they can get out of the way. And for a lot of species that will be the case,” said Katie Percy, an avian biologist with Audubon Louisiana. “For a lot of them, at least the adults will be able to escape into the canopy, or just vacate the area if they need to.”
Other species, though, nest closer to the ground, and may have young that can’t fly. If their nests are inundated, Percy said, the fledglings won’t make it. Later, depending on whether the water recedes quickly enough, these species may nest again or simply not have a productive nesting year.
Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana, however, added that because the spillway has only been opened twice before, determining how bird populations will be impacted is pure speculation.
The data points are limited, he said, so the influence on different bird species all depends on how the habitat is affected — how much water is released, or how long and high the flood waters remain.
“There is something like 150 different species of birds that nest in the Atchafalaya swamp — some in the canopy, some on the ground, some at the edge of delta,” Johnson said. “They are each going to have a unique response. It’s really hard to say overall if it’s a net good or net negative.”
The complexity of the Basin as a system, Johnson said, makes it “resilient,” but also makes it difficult to predict how a rare high-water event will transform the environment — and those animals living in it. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to open the spillway, he said, the experts will have to work together to assess the outcomes.
“We’re going to have to rely on each other’s expertise,” Johnson said. “All the scientists, in sort of understanding, looking at and explaining what happened.”