Humans aren’t the only ones affected by a hot, dry summer.
The recent uptick in temperatures and downtick in rainfall have people worried about utility bills, farm crops and gardens. In addition to affecting humans, hot temperatures and drought conditions also impact the wildlife around us. While some of these impacts are more noticeable than others and the severity of the effects of heat and drought will vary from one area to the next, here are some ways this summer — if it continues on its current hot and dry course — could affect local wildlife.
• Less water generally equates to reduced productivity for all species of wildlife, including waterfowl, deer and black bear.
• Small, shallow ponds could dry up, affecting aquatic wildlife and reducing habitat for waterfowl.
• Expanding muddy shorelines of ponds and streams during summer droughts are habitat for emerging midge flies. These biting flies can spread the virus that causes epizootic hemorrhagic disease in white-tailed deer.
• Dry conditions reduce wildlife forage for deer and black bears. This sometimes pushes animals closer to humans and increases the potential for wildlife-human conflicts. Those conflicts include an increase in damage claims by agricultural producers because of wildlife’s foraging on irrigated crops and, in extreme circumstances, a threat to public safety.
To be fair, it also should be pointed out that some wildlife actually can benefit from dry conditions. A brood of bobwhite quail that spends its summers looking for insects and seed under the cover of vegetation more easily can find these food sources on dry, bare soil between the bunchy grass structure of native plant communities.
There are steps communities, homeowners and rural residents can take to benefit wildlife and, at the same time, reduce conflicts with wildlife during drought conditions. Learning how to create wildlife-friendly gardens, initiating practices to reduce unnatural wildlife attractants and learning techniques to overcome wildlife challenges can help to bring a healthy and sustainable balance to both rural and urban landscapes.
Let’s start with plant choices. Think native plant species. Native plants are the best choice for landscaping. Symbiotic relationships have formed between native plants and native wildlife. These interconnected relationships have developed throughout thousands of years. This proven interdependence offers the most sustainable habitat. A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without human introduction.
There are a number of reasons non-native plants aren’t often the ideal choices. Non-native (also called exotic) plants that developed in other parts of the planet usually cause problems. Many of these plants from other regions were cultivated by humans into forms that don’t have symbiotic relationships with native wildlife. Many of these exotic plants don’t “stay put,” but expand or invade native plant communities resulting in negative impacts to natural habitat and therefore do not support native wildlife populations.
When you’re planning what native plants to use, also think about where you’ll put them. When planted in places that match their growing requirements, native plants benefit the environment in several ways. Native plants are adapted to the conditions of the region. Therefore, they assist in maintaining healthy soil as their root systems grow deeper and in turn keep soil from being compacted and manage rain water runoff. Because of these factors, they are better choices for preventing soil loss from erosion.
It should be remembered that native plants thrive in the soils, moisture and weather conditions typically experienced in our local areas. This means a more drought-resistant plant community that provides better wildlife habitat needs. It also means less supplemental watering, which can be wasteful, and pest problems that require toxic chemical applications.
Learning the native plants where you live also can demonstrate the unique heritage for your garden, landscaping and your property’s wildlife habitat while conserving the natural history of the flora and fauna of your region.
In addition to managing your plants and creating habitat, you also need to think about all the reasons wildlife are coming close to your home and causing problems. Often, these troubles don’t stem from habitat you’ve intentionally provided but problems you overlooked. While good habitat conservation can invite certain species of wildlife, some practices might need to be managed in a way that doesn’t attract some species that can become a nuisance or develop a dependence on human activity.
It should be remembered that wild animals possess incredible senses of sight, hearing and smell to help them survive. Their sense of smell helps them locate sources of food. Bears, for example, have a sense of smell that far exceeds that of the famous bloodhound breed of dog. Bears tend to follow their noses and make decisions with their stomachs. This can be the greatest cause of conflicts between bears and humans.
Any type of plant or animal substance that gives off a strong odor can entice the sense of smell of a black bear. Garbage, pet food, livestock feed, fruit trees and succulent fruit from a garden all give off their own unique odor. Properly storing garbage until it is disposed, keeping pet food inside and securing livestock feed are all necessary when living in bear country. Orchards, gardens and even beehives might need special electric fencing to exclude deer, skunks, raccoons and black bear from feeding and damaging these properties.
The need for food only is heightened in times of drought when more natural sources are impacted from the lack of moisture. Preventive measures only become more important during these times when food might become scarce. Here are some tips:
• Garbage: Utilize bear-resistant garbage cans. Secure your garbage in a stored area until the morning of pickup.
• Compost: Keep decomposing vegetable matter stored in a shed or install an electric fence around it.
• Fruit trees: Pick ripened fruit as soon as possible and remove dropped fruit from the ground. Install solar-powered electric fencing around the tree to deter bears.
• Chicken coops: Protect poultry from predators by installing electric fencing around the coop.
• Bird feeders: Only put out during the winter months when bears are inactive. Make sure the feeders are 10 feet high and 4 feet from the hanging source.
Through balanced conservation practices, rural and urban communities alike can help to enhance and restore wildlife habitat across Missouri. In doing so, residents are connecting to existing efforts in wildlife management, community resiliency and water conservation.
Tim Russell, substituting for Francis Skalicky this week, is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Regional Wildlife Division supervisor. Conservation information can be found at mdc.mo.gov.