Flooding and Chronic Waste Disease

Top the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Concerns
for the 2019 Hunting Season 
 
By Mark H. Stowers
Mother Nature has not been too kind to some farmers this past year and with the Mississippi River and South Delta area flooding, the impact to wildlife has been significant. Inside the levee (known as the Batture), wildlife habitat has been disturbed, disrupted and destroyed as well as the 550,000 acres of the south Delta. The deer population across the Magnolia State was estimated to be 1.5 million to 2 million animals prior to the flooding according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.
Inside the Levee
Hunting clubs up and down the Mississippi River always have to pay close attention to flood stages. This year the record setting flood stage levels wreaked havoc on clubs and wildlife. Russ Walsh, Wildlife Chief of Staff, explained the impacts to wildlife are still being assessed. “That is something we are still assessing. We conducted surveys back in the summer when flood waters were still up on the main line Mississippi River levee,” says Walsh. “We do know that there may have been some impact on fawn recruitment. In some areas there will be no fawn crop and other areas with a very low fawn crop.”
In addition, “there was direct adult deer mortality, and cause of death could be for multiple reasons, but was certainly brought on by the flood. But we won’t know the full impact for a couple of years.”
In cooperation with Mississippi State University, the MDWFP is analyzing data received about the impact of seasonal flooding on wildlife inside the levee. According to wildlife officials, the data collected from flood studies has revealed there may be a negative impact during the flood but will have a compensatory effect the following year.
“This is about thirty years’ worth of data and in a nutshell what we found is that seasonal flooding had some benefit the next year,” MDWFP Deer Program Coordinator William McKinley says. “The deer herd may be down in year one with a reduced fawn crop. We’re expecting that and we’re expecting a decrease in antler size along the Mississippi River from Greenville up.” But there is a silver lining as the data collected has shown that the sedimentation load dumped after a flood typically helps increase everything related to wildlife The actual forage quality is higher because of the silt load works as a fertilization of the entire area inside the levee. If it is not another flood year, antlers and body size could be well above average next year. The study didn’t support numbers and data for other wildlife but McKinley notes it should have the same positive effect as well.
South Delta Area
The area hardest hit for all species wildlife is the South Delta that flooded due to the backup of rainwater from area rivers. The Steele Bayou Gates were closed to keep the Mississippi River from backing up into the South Delta but the rainwater had no place to drain and flooded the area. This is due to the absence of pumps that were vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency more than a decade ago. This flood covered 1.5 million acres of land, including the entire Delta National Forest. The water has been receding, but farmers were left without crops and the businesses that rely on farming—from crop dusters to seed and fertilizer distributors and implement dealers—have all felt the hard financial hit to their bottom lines. But the wildlife in the area have been hit the hardest.
“We’ll do a camera survey on both private and public land all through the month of October,” Walsh says. MDWFP will be working in unison with Mississippi State University to conduct the non-baited, grid camera survey. The camera surveys are not only for the deer population but will help in documenting turkey, bear and other wildlife.
McKinley stated, “What we’re hoping to create is a gradient map showing deer density across this area if we have enough cameras running,” McKinley says. “We’re also going to look at antler quality, fawn crop and look at a sheer index of deer photos per camera. That’s going to tell us a lot. It’s going to give us a pretty good gauge to map the south Delta from the top of the flood zone to the bottom.” The camera survey will be conducted on hunting clubs, MDWFP Wildlife Management Areas, Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and Delta National Forest—all of those are cooperating to better determine the impact the south Delta flood has had. McKinley stated, “It will be a couple of months before we get the actual data in hand. We could speculate but I’d rather have the data in hand first.”
North Delta Area
Deer in the north Delta have fared much better according to McKinley. “Outside of the flood zone, deer in this area have experienced great growing conditions this year,” McKinley says. “Our hottest month has been September near the end of the antler growth cycle and I’m hearing a lot of reports at this point of above average antlers, above average fawn crops, deer are healthy and look good. We have a lot of deer outside of the flood areas that are in very good shape.”
CWD Update 
The MDWFP has been keeping a close eye on Chronic Wasting Disease that has been found in deer in the Magnolia State and across the country. Walsh noted the first Delta case was in Issaquena County. “At this date, we’ve only had two positive animals from the Delta. Those two positives were about six miles apart,” he says. “Through our collection efforts we did find more cases in North Mississippi. We ended the last hunting season with nineteen positive animals. As we go into this hunting season, we’ll be ramping up our sampling efforts. “The 2018 goal was 5,000 samples and the MDWFP has its sights set on doing a lot more for 2019 (primarily hunter-harvested samples). “This year our goal is 10,000 samples across the state,” Walsh says. “In Tennessee, they had 189 positives. Certainly, some of our North Mississippi positives are a spillover. It’s something that’s going to take more samples and more engagement from hunters to figure out where it is geographically and what the prevalence is.”
Deer hunters will be relied upon to use the 36 drop-off freezers around the state to submit samples for testing.  At these locations, hunters can place a deer head in a garbage bag, fill out a sample card, and leave the sample for processing.
There is more up to date information on freezer locations on the CWD page of the MDWFP website. McKinley added that “no human has ever been diagnosed with the disease. The CDC recommends you have it tested and that you don’t eat it if it tested positive.” McKinley attended a CWD Conference in East Lansing, Michigan in mid-September to learn from those in the industry across the country.
“I was honored to be able to attend along with Dr. Steve Demarais from Mississippi State. There were some of the leading CWD researchers in the world at this conference,” McKinley says.
Walsh says there are precautions to take when handling a suspected deer with CWD including using gloves and dispose of those animals in proper fashion. To learn more about all things MDWFP such as any changes to hunting season, check out their website.