Drought also forcing wildlife to adapt


August 22, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

These days the Potomac burbles around boulders and spills over ledges, and the hubbub of tourist traffic in popular Harpers Ferry carries clearly over the river, where in other years only the commotion of passing trains overcame the sounds of fast water moving through Mad Dog Rapids.

But, then, this is not other years.

Flows on the Potomac are at 70-year lows, and its Western Maryland tributaries, normally fast flowing mountain streams, have been reduced by drought to a series of pools connected by trickles working slowly down slope.

On forested land, the understory is dry and crops of acorns, nuts and berries appear to be sparse -- and fish and wildlife are being forced to adapt to unusual habitat conditions.

Juvenile fish on the upper Potomac are being crowded in with predator populations, wild trout are seeking refuge in deeper pools of warming streams and rivers, and increasing numbers of forest species are ranging into farm fields and backyards in search of food and water.

But according to fisheries biologists and game managers, while the extended drought in Maryland is cause for concern, it has yet to become cause to sound a general alarm.

"Wildlife populations fluctuate up and down, one season to another, and these kinds of things are within the rhythms of nature," said Thomas P. Mathews, game program manager for the Department of Natural Resources,

"But as a general rule, it is not healthy for animals to be concentrated in a small area for long periods of time, because it increases the possibility of passing diseases and parasites among them."

To this point, he said, there have been no reports of deer, bears, turkey or squirrels suffering abnormally from the drought, although the possibility of a poor crop of mast may have an impact this fall and winter.

DNR surveys the mast crop each year at this time and early indications, Mathews said, are that the mast has fallen early and the sizes of acorns, nuts and berries are smaller than usual.

And while acorns in particular are a primary food source for bears fattening up for the winter, they are less important for other forest game.

"To a deer, acorns are like a desert, and not a food they must have," said Mathews. "Turkeys are the same way, although they are even more opportunistic, feeding on other plants and insects."

But in general terms, there are fewer food sources available for forest animals and the shortage could impact their general physical condition.

A good mast crop this fall generally will result in better antler growth for deer next year. An abundance of acorns now also would mean good production among gray squirrels and better hunting next year.

A scarcity of mast will tend to concentrate deer, turkey and squirrels near available food sources this fall and could make for better hunting.

For the moment, at least, the drought has forest animals on the move.

"People are seeing more deer than usual, because they are coming into the open and across fields to feed," said Mathews. "One report we received was of deer coming into a backyard to drink from a bird feeder."

Among the problems faced by freshwater fish and fisheries managers are limitations in the state's trout hatcheries, shrinking wild trout habitat and the overcrowding of warm-water game fish.

Howard Stinefelt, cold-water species specialist for DNR's fisheries service, said that while the hatchery program "is far from the edge of disaster, we are slowly moving toward it."

The crux of the problem, he said, is that the trout being raised for state-wide stocking programs next spring could outgrow the capacity of hatcheries operating at low water levels.

As trout grow they eat more, require more dissolved oxygen and produce more waste. Low water levels produce less dissolved oxygen and make it harder to remove waste from the habitat.

In other years an option would be to move the fish out early, into rivers, lakes or reservoirs.

"But this year every place you could take them is too low or the water is too warm," he said. "In a few more weeks [as seasonal temperatures drop] more options will open up."

In the meantime, hatchery trout are being fed less to reduce the growth rate and lessen the waste disposal problem.

"We just keep hoping for a hurricane or a tropical storm that will drop 4 inches of rain," said Stinefelt.

The tailwater trophy trout fisheries across the state -- the Savage and Youghiogheny rivers and the North Branch of the Potomac in Western Maryland and Gunpowder Falls 30 miles north of Baltimore -- all are in good shape.

"We were worried about Gunpowder Falls, but it is holding up well because the water releases coming from Prettyboy Dam are being drawn from the colder parts of the reservoir.

"It is just a long race to see if we can get to fall before we run out of cold water. I think we will make it."

Several heavy rainfalls also would benefit mountain trout streams such as Owens, Friends, Sideling Hill and 15-Mile creeks, which are as low as Stinefelt ever has seen them.

"Streams like these, with no freshwater release like the tailwater areas, have become a series of mostly clear pools, with just a trickle running between them," Stinefelt said. "The pools are filled with spooky fish and it is a tough time for them, but it is not going to wipe them out. I don't see any long-term problems there."

Bass fishing has held up well in the warm waters of the upper Potomac, and low water levels have provided extensive access to shoreline anglers and waders.

But Robert H. Lunsford Jr., director of restoration and enhancement for the Fisheries Service, said recently that juvenile fish have been forced out of their normal habitat in the shaded shallows and are being eaten by larger fish, which also may be taking a bite out of the future.

"We're predicting fish populations may be somewhat depressed after the drought," Lunsford said. "But we also expect they will return to normal in a year or two."

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