The Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 will not only affect humans in the Missouri Valley. It is also going to have a potentially catastrophic influence on untold numbers of birds and mammals. However, the residents of Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri can take a number of simple steps to reduce the chance of substantial wildlife losses in the weeks ahead.
Since the mid-1950s, the bulk of wildlife habitat in the Missouri Valley has either been drowned under massive reservoirs in the upstream states or developed for agriculture in the downstream states. Consider that in western Iowa alone, 150 square miles of habitat have been lost since the completion of the navigation channel and its supporting dams. Nonetheless, there still exist pockets of wildlife habitat adjacent to the river. Shrunken wildlife sanctuaries lie along river reaches between the reservoirs, such as downstream from Garrison Dam in North Dakota or within LaFramboise Island below the towering Oahe Dam at Pierre, South Dakota. Wildlife habitat can also be found in the 59-mile unchannelized reach from Yankton, South Dakota, to Ponca, Nebraska. Additional habitat areas sit within the lower river’s former floodplain or adjacent to oxbow lakes. For instance, south of Sioux City, Iowa, wildlife refuges are located at Snyder Bend and DeSoto Bend in western Iowa. The Army predicts that between now and July these habitat areas, and many others not named here, will be flooded by up to ten feet of water. As a result, some of the last, best habitat in the Missouri Valley will sink beneath the waves.
Whitetail deer, ring-necked pheasants, turkeys, coyotes, raccoons, badgers, bobcats, and possibly even mountain lions are just some of the species that will be ejected from their Missouri Valley sanctuaries. These animals will flee the rising water by traveling along their traditional migratory routes. Those routes, or game trails, follow the tributary valleys that empty into the Missouri. The dispossessed creatures are going to be stressed, hungry, and disoriented as they trek to the drier edges of the valley or the uplands beyond. The young, born just in the past three months, will be particularly hard-pressed during the journey to higher ground. This parade of animals will be crossing the region’s gravel roads, secondary highways, and interstate highways, especially where the road’s intersect with the Missouri’s tributary creeks and river valleys.
Automobile drivers need to be aware of this mammalian and avian exodus. People need to be on the look-out for migrating animals. They also need to take special care on the roads at dawn and dusk, when the animals are most apt to be on the move. Finally, and most importantly, drivers need to slow down. Speed kills both animals and humans alike. These simple actions may prevent the unnecessary loss of life during the approaching flood crisis.
It is also vitally important for people to recognize that the displaced animals have few places to go after they lose their refuges next to the river. Most of the valley fringe and uplands are without suitable habitat. Thus, the creatures will struggle to locate food and nightly shelter during the months that the valley will be under water. Consequently, people need to let animals pass through farmland and urban residential areas without harassment. Also, dogs need to be kept on leashes or within fenced yards. Finally, people should not approach any animal, especially a mother with young. Because we know well in advance that a historic flood is moving down the Missouri Valley, we have the time to prepare for the eventualities that will result from it. Taking steps to assist displaced species needs to be part of the overall effort to lessen the destructive effects of the flood.