Record flooding hurting South Delta wildlife

Historic South Delta flooding is having enormous, negative impact on wildlife populations, as well as residents, agriculture. How and when will it end?

Jeff Terry has many sad stories to tell about this year’s catastrophic backwater flooding in Mississippi’s South Delta and its impact on local residents, farmers and other businesses.

But when he starts talking about how it has hurt wildlife, that’s when his descriptions become horrific and he becomes animated.

And there are so many of those stories, like:

“Having to watch two does come into my yard to drop fawns, and then watching them decide which one to abandon so they could at least try to save one of them,” Terry said. “After they left, I had to go and remove the carcasses of the two young ones left behind and put them in fields for buzzards.”

Or …

“Watching does birthing fawns in water because there was no other safe place,” he said. “Didn’t matter anyway, I guess, because the fawns weren’t likely to survive anyway. There was nothing for the doe to eat, so sustaining fawns wasn’t going to be possible.”

Or …

“You can’t travel any road around here — the ones still out of water — and not see dead deer, rabbits, snakes, gators and basically every kind of animal you can think of,” he said. “The shoulders of the roads are like mass grave sites for wildlife.”

It’s a sickening description of an event lasting nine months, which will likely impact wildlife, most notably deer, for years, if not decades.

Plenty of whitetail fawns didn’t survive the flooding in the South Delta because does couldn’t care for them due to lake of natural foods.

A tragedy for all

Terry has a strong relation to wildlife. A former top guide at Tara Wildlife near Eagle Lake, he operates a farming operation across the road from Eagle Lake on about 900 acres. He had no crops on his land this summer, just a lot of water and a lot of suffering wildlife. 

“I’m not the only one who has seen this kind of sadness happening here,” he said. “This has gone on and on, over 550,000 acres, all covered in several feet of water, for over six months. When I tell you it’s terrible or sad or horrible, none of those words, or the combination of them, covers the scope of this tragedy. And that’s what it is, a tragedy, for us and for wildlife.”

Photos and film of starving wildlife can be found on many social-media websites, but they are too depressing to watch for many people, like Lynette Brown of Jackson, who went to the Aug. 2-4 Wildlife Extravaganza to ask Terry and others there just how bad it was.

What she heard, Brown said, was as disgusting as what she’d seen online.

“I dropped several people and groups from my Facebook because I was getting too emotional from the pictures of the poor wildlife over there,” Brown said. “I can only take so much of looking at deer with their rib cages pushed hard against their frail bodies, or pictures of the remains of animals that starved to death. I wanted to know just how bad it really was because you never really saw or heard much about it on the news. It’s kind of like a flood that was kept under wraps.” 

According to Terry and state agencies, 550,000 acres were flooded at the peak of the high water this summer. As of Aug. 5, about 300,000 acres were still under water. Just because the water was leaving and will eventually be gone, that doesn’t mean wildlife can return to normal.

“No, not by a long shot,” Terry said. “In the first place, I don’t think a lot of the misplaced wildlife will remember where home is. Seriously, think about it. In most years when we flood, it might be a month or two at the most, and deer will go right back from where they came. But this year, it’s been about eight months. This started back during last hunting season in December; that’s when the mass migration started. Remember, they cut the deer season short because of it.

“These deer have never had to deal with floods that long, and a lot of them have been pushed further off their home range than ever before. I doubt seriously that many of them will know where to go. Another problem is that just because the water will be gone doesn’t means the lack of food will no longer be an issue. Remember, this water has been here for eight months in most places and six months everywhere. 

“There are no grain crops. The lower limbs of trees that can normally provide some food aren’t going to offer any relief. Natural grasses, like Johnson grass, will come back first but they are not what deer are needing. I had a vet come out and tell me he looked at a mature buck that had a 6-pound wad of Johnson grass in its stomach, and that’s what killed it. It’s just another sad story, one of so many.”

Rising water forced thousands of deer to seek higher ground and stay in front of the flood.

Opposes season closure

In late July and August, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks began to poll hunters asking their thoughts on the coming season, with options from completely eliminating the season this year (or longer) to reducing the season length by between one and three months. Results of the survey are not yet available.

Terry opposes a ban on deer hunting in the South Delta, in any shape or form. 

“When I saw that, I immediately began reaching out to the wildlife agency and talking to anybody that would listen, to tell them that eliminating the season would be the biggest mistake they could make, and just make the situation over here worse,” Terry said. “I told them that they waited too long to begin feeding the starving deer in the first place. We asked them and told them we wanted to feed deer over here, but they denied it because the CWD ban on supplemental feeding wouldn’t allow it. When the social-media pressure from all the news about wildlife dying of starvation got so bad, they allowed it, but it was too late for a lot of deer.

“I believe that not having a deer season over here would just compound the problem. They will starve to death. There will be little to no natural food sources to sustain wildlife, and without a season, a lot of the deer clubs that remain over here will have no reason to plant food plots. They won’t plant, and they won’t be able to put feeders out due to the CWD ban (which will be back in effect in September).”

The flooding around this Delta farm isn’t unusual. Hundreds of thousands of acres are still underwater, with crops yet to be planted.

Terry said that some clubs, especially the bigger “rich-man clubs” and big farmers might plant, but it won’t be enough to feed all the deer. He said he would plant whatever he could, if he can get enough seed.

“They’ve said they are going to stop the supplemental feeding in September,” Terry said. “When they do that, there will be nothing for the deer to eat, because we won’t have had the time to get any plants in. We can’t grow wheat here until the armyworms have gone, and that’s after the first cold front. That will be a month-and-a-half between when the supplemental feeding is stopped until we can get a crop up.

“I’d much rather be able to plant a field or two in food plots than have a hundred deer all sticking their heads up in the same feeder day after day, so I’m going to plant what I can. I think if farmers like me can get our hands on the seed, we’d all get as many fields planted as we could.” 

At the peak of the migration last winter and early spring, when deer were being pushed to high ground where they spent the spring and summer, Terry said it wasn’t unusual for him to see more than 1,000 deer a day pass across his fields toward the levee.

“I quit shooting does on my property before they closed the season, because I was no longer doing it to manage the deer herd on my land,” he said. “I was killing deer that lived somewhere else that were pushed miles from their home by rising water. Other farmers did the same thing, and it continued into this year for the few farmers in protected areas like behind the main levee. They quit shooting deer on depredation permits because there were so many deer it wasn’t going to save the crops.

“No, believe me, it’s a lot better to have a season and give a lot of clubs the reason to plant food plots. That would help the deer recover.”

Terry believes that about half of the South Delta’s deer herd will survive the flood.

“That’s based on what I’ve seen,” he said. “I think the consensus is that we had about 25,000 deer in this immediate area based on surveys and counts per acre. That’s an estimate. I’d be surprised if we came out of this flood with half that number. Between starvation, low recruitment (abandoned fawns), predation and vehicular impact, I think 50% is a real but very sad estimate.”

Terry said that on the main road leaving Eagle Lake, every Sunday afternoon this year, “I bet 25 or more were getting run over (by) people who were leaving their homes and camps here after a weekend of tending to flood problems. People would leave and hit the road, and anybody driving over 25 miles per hour was going to hit one or two. That’s how thick the deer were along the roads.”

Deer aren’t the only wildlife displaced by the flooding. This bobcat wound up finding a dry spot to rest on someone’s back porch.

Controversy makes news

In early August, as the water was receding yet still covering hundreds of thousands of acres, the backwater flood was just becoming a daily topic on local news — albeit for the wrong reason.

Victims of the flooding brought their case to the 33rd annual Wildlife Extravaganza at the Trade Mart in Jackson Aug. 2-4.

The event is sponsored annually by the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, a private conservation group long on record as an opponent of the installation of a pumping system that many victims, like Terry, feel would alleviate or at least mitigate backwater flooding.

A week before the Extravaganza, when the Federation denied the “Finish the Pumps” group a booth at the show — the Federation said it was not for political reasons — there was an immediate uproar.

Longtime supporters/exhibitors of the Extravaganza, like the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, Pennington Seed, Primos Outdoors, Mississippi Chevrolet Dealers and about 40 to 50 others, withdrew not only from the show but also from being financial supporters or contributors to the Federation.

Andy Gipson, Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, which operates the Trade Mart on the state fairgrounds, stepped in, stated his dismay over the situation, and offered Finish the Pumps space in his agency’s booth. Another sponsor, Mississippi Ag, a statewide farm equipment retailer, gave up most of its massive space to the group.

By then, the show had already lost about a quarter of its exhibitors, who forfeited their booth fees to honor the protest, which included a push in the public to boycott the show. Spread by social media, the boycott worked, with estimates of about an 80% reduction in attendance, which has averaged between 25,000 to 30,000 in recent years.

“We didn’t go there to blast the Wildlife Federation for their opposition to the pump; we wanted a booth so that we could explain our position on why the pumps are necessary,” Terry said. “We simply wanted to state our case and make sure people understood exactly what all is involved. There is so much misinformation out there; we simply wanted to state our side.

“A lot of people do not understand the whole situation and why the pumps are necessary. Most did not know that this flood was not caused by the Mississippi River, nor did they understand that the pumps were to be an integral part of a flood project aimed at keeping the river from flowing up into the South Delta. Levees and control structures were built to keep the river out of the South Delta, and they have done a great job at doing that.

“But those same levees and structures keep flooding caused by rain from leaving the South Delta. That’s what the pumps were for, to remove water. Without the pumps, we have a situation that is man-made that has caused flooding over here seven of the last 10 years. This year is just the worse, but until we get the pumps built, we’re going to continue to have this problem.” 

And, Terry said, “people and wildlife will continue to suffer.”

Bobby Cleveland
About Bobby Cleveland 1203 Articles
Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.