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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The flood that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the midwest this spring also displaced some non-human inhabitants. Scores of animals were marooned on islands or stranded in treetops. But for most wildlife, the flood was not catastrophic since many species are well adapted to survive natural disasters. Mary Losure reports from Minnesota's Red River Valley.


CURWOOD: The flood that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the Midwest this spring also displaced some non-human inhabitants. Many animals were marooned on islands or stranded in treetops. Fortunately for most wildlife, the flood was not catastrophic. Many species are well-adapted to survive natural disasters. But human-related changes are another matter. Mary Losure reports from Minnesota's Red River Valley.

(A boat motors)

LOSURE: On the Red River at Grand Forks, University of North Dakota biologist Steve Kelsh and 2 of his students head their boat upstream into the muddy current. Logs and debris rest high up in the branches of the big cottonwoods along the bank. Their bark is deeply gauged form ice floes driven by flood waters this spring.

KELSH: We've seen ice scars up in a lot of the trees, and some of them have broken. See these up here? That looks like a healed ice scar, and maybe just above it is a fresher one.

LOSURE: Smaller trees along the bank all lean downstream, their branches still muddy and leafless from being submerged for so long. But all this disturbance hasn't necessarily been bad for wildlife. Swallows swoop through the air, building their mud nests on bridge pilings that a few weeks ago were underwater. Kelsh slows the boat at a downed tree to check for channel catfish, a species that, unlike humans, may have benefitted from the flood.

(Motor is cut, knocking sounds)

LOSURE: Catfish like to feed in the deep pools created by submerged logs. Kelsh says the flood created new snags for catfish. The high waters may also have helped them swim over dams that normally block the expansion of their breeding grounds. It's not clear how many catfish may have died in the flood, but Kelsh says in any case the population can bounce back.

KELSH: Certainly, water is good for fish and there's plenty of that. Long as the water's down, now, I think they should be able to recover, and they can recover very rapidly, even if the population numbers had declined because of the flood. They have -- they lay so many eggs that they can come back in numbers pretty fast. So yeah, I think it will be a pretty good year.

(Bird calls)

LOSURE: Fifty miles northeast of Grand Forks, the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge supports a vast array of bird species.

(Bird calls continue)

LOSURE: This spring, when flooding threatened cities along the Red River, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to hold back and temporarily store hundreds of millions of gallons of water in the refuge's shallow pools and marshlands. Refuge biologist Gary Huschle says water levels in the refuge did not return to normal till early June, a month later than usual.

HUSCHLE: Most of our water fowl species and these marsh and water birds start initiating nests some time during the month of May. Well, this year, you know, we were still up 3 feet too high. You see a lot of these cattails that are out here in front of us now, just the very tops of those cattails would have been sticking out of the water.

LOSURE: Birds that normally would have nested in the cattail marshes moved to higher ground where the water wasn't so deep. When the waters receded, the nests were stranded on dry ground. But Huschle doesn't expect to see long-term damage to bird populations in the refuge. He says the birds are well-adapted to survive floods and droughts and other natural occurrences.

HUSCHLE: Fortunately, most of these birds are fairly resilient and they do just like people. They get displaced, and then they rebuild or re-nest.

LOSURE: But Huschle points out the key to the birds' ability to rebound from natural disasters is having enough habitat to choose from.

HUSCHLE: If you're out in an isolated wetland that's, say, surrounded by agricultural fields, and they get -- if that wetland fills up and so all their nesting cover in that wetland is not usable, those birds can't just shift over to higher ground and then find a suitable cover, you know, that's newly flooded. They're surrounded by the farm fields.

LOSURE: Many scientists say loss of habitat, not a natural occurrence like flooding, is the real threat to wildlife. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager Ross Heir says the Red River Valley was once home to vast numbers of prairie and wetland species that now are gone from the valley floor. He points to a stuffed specimen of a handsome, long-legged prairie bird.

HEIR: That's a marbled Godwit on our one bookshelf there. Well, that's a species that has certainly suffered from grassland loss. And if you go out in the Red River Valley proper, I guarantee you won't see many of those now standing, because they just can't do it there any more.

LOSURE: Heir says adaptable species like deer and beaver still thrive in the thin line of cover along the rivers and streams of the Red River Valley, where they have been surviving floods and droughts for decades. The species facing an uncertain future are those hanging on in small prairie and wetland remnants on the far edges of the valley. Species like the bobolink, which still lives in places like a state refuge southeast of Grand Forks. Heir points out the bird in a field guide.

HEIR: This is the male right here.


HEIR: So if you walk out there you'll certainly see him. If you see a male on the ground, just walk toward him and that will trigger him to go into his little flight display. And they move their wings very shallowly and rapidly and then eventually they kind of close them almost tip to tip as they kind of just descend onto the ground. Meanwhile doing this little bubbly song that they do.

(Bobolink calls)

LOSURE: The refuge is wet and rocky, a patch of prairie surrounded by potato and beet fields. Bobolinks in their yellow and black suits perch on the swaying grass tops and rise singing into the air. Prairie wildflowers, blue-eyed grass, Indian paintbrush and prairie smoke, still grow in this refuge. It's like a little Noah's Ark, its plants and animals safe not from the devastation of this spring's flooding, but from the sea of civilization all around. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Losure.



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