Drought Impacting Georgia’s Wildlife

Concerns will increase if we don't see significant rainfall.

In late June, the drought of 2007 was intensifying across Georgia as temperatures climbed into the 90s, and the only rain around was random thunderstorms. Lake levels are dropping, stream flows are slowing and vegetation is turning brown and drying out. The drought is also having an impact on Georgia’s wildlife and may impact your hunting and fishing this fall.

In northwest Georgia, WRD Fisheries Supervisor Wayne Probst said the primary impact of the drought in his region has been on trout.

“The streams are getting very warm, and flows are reduced,” said Wayne. “We are stocking some fish a little early, and it could get worse if we don’t get substantial rain.

“In northwest Georgia, the bulk of the streams are trout-hatchery supported. We are accelerating the stocking to get the fish out, or in some cases not stocking some creeks if water quality conditions aren’t there.”

Most of the trout stocked in northwest Georgia are grown at the Summerville Fish Hatchery. The hatchery is spring fed, so temperature is not a problem, but Fisheries officials have their fingers crossed that the springs will continue to flow.

At the Lake Burton Trout Hatchery, supervisor Perry Thompson said they have begun implementation of their drought plan.

“We have started an accelerated stocking program and will try to get about 90 percent of each stream’s annual allocation stocked by July 4,” said Perry.

The accelerated stocking pace is a direct response to rising water temperatures and dropping stream flows, said Perry.

“We are already seeing streams that are at their August or September temperature ranges and flows,” he said. “Holly Creek and Mill Creek in northwest Georgia are critically low.”

Normally, about 75 to 80 percent of the trout designated for each stream are stocked by July 4 to target the highest fishing pressure. Later in the summer fishing pressure drops significantly.

Already some streams at lower elevations have had scheduled stockings skipped because of high water temperatures. Technicians take water temperatures before stocking trout, and if the water is too warm to support trout, the fish will not be stocked. The Middle Broad River and Panther Creek in Stephens County have already missed at least one scheduled stocking due to high water temperatures.

Despite the early summer heat and drought, the state’s trout hatchery program has had an excellent year, said Perry.

The Buford Trout Hatchery is currently at the high range of the carrying capacity for the facility, said hatchery manager Bill Couch.

“Honestly, the drought helps the Buford hatchery,” he said. “We have an abundant source of cold water coming from Lake Lanier. If it doesn’t rain, then we don’t have rain events that muddy the water and raise the temperature of the water coming into the hatchery.”

The Buford hatchery is on pace to have a record production year. The 800,000 trout currently at the facility include trout from 2-inch-long fingerlings to 23-inch-long trout destined for delayed-harvest streams.

In Waycross, WRD Fisheries Region Supervisor Bert Deener said no measurable rain fell at his home between March and June. River levels are at late-summer levels already and may impact fish populations, he said.

“The impact of an extended drought is river dependent,” said Bert. “A big river like the Altamaha is not as dependent on flooding, and there is a lot of in-river food production. The Altamaha is less affected than a smaller, black-water stream like the Satilla, which depends on high water getting out in the flood plain.”

When the water drops, the fish are forced into the deeper holes to wait out the drought, and if the drought is extended, fish populations can crash. The river populations are also resilient, said Bert, and can bounce back with one or two good winter wet seasons.

Some parts of the state have been impacted by the drought more so than other parts. In southwest Georgia, the drought has altered dove-field planting schedules.

WRD Game Management Region Supervisor Steve Ruckel in Albany said the impact of the drought varies almost from county to county.

“Some places have received a significant amount of rain recently,” he said. “From Albany east, and north to Lee County there has been some pretty heavy rains recently — as much as 6 inches. But at the same time, Chickasawhatchee WMA received less than an inch.”

Planting for dove fields has been a gamble, said Steve, and it’s too early to see how they will produce.

“It was so dry that we held off planting some fields hoping for rain,” he said. “Other fields we planted in dust hoping for rain.

“At Elmodel WMA, the contract farmer held off, and the millet is likely to be late. There’s not much you can do about it because there’s not a water spigot in the sky that you can turn on and off.”

Some dove shoots could be delayed, depending on how late — or whether — seed crops mature.
Steve expected the turkeys to weather the drought ok.

“The hatch may have been a little better this spring because of the dry weather, but if it stays too dry then insect production that the poults depend on drops.”

The deer in southwest Georgia generally have access to irrigated crops and aren’t expected to suffer much from an extended drought.

“Deer will navigate to an irrigated field,” said Steve. “The number of requests for crop-depredation permits increases during drought years.”

In northwest Georgia, Berry College WMA Area Manager Daniel Booke got lucky when planting the dove fields.

“When it was time to plant, I thought it was going to be a waste of time because the ground was powder dry,” said Daniel. “I went ahead and planted, and within a week I had sunflowers up. We got rain yesterday (June 20), and the sunflowers are knee deep, and it’s one of the best stands I’ve ever planted.”

The wheat he planted is in great shape too, he said.

“The wheat is golden brown with big seed heads. I’ll start mowing strips in a week to start attracting doves,” he said, and he has already seen some doves hanging around the field.

The only negative is the millet, which germinated only in patches.

“It looks poor,” said Daniel, “but with the rain yesterday (June 19) maybe it will come on.”

As a footnote, Daniel said he had also had good luck planting at the Arrowhead WMA ponds where the youth waterfowl hunts are held. He said he planted 2 acres of sorghum and 6 acres of millet in the row of 14 ponds that measure about 2 acres each. The seed went into areas where water seeps in from higher ponds so the crops look good. If you have a kid under 17 who would like to get in on a good duck hunt, keep this area in mind. You have to apply by letter by October 15. Check the regs for details. Only 30 kids get to hunt (only the kid gets to shoot), and Daniel said he has never had to turn anyone down.

North Georgia hunters may be under the influence of a double whammy from a late freeze when many mast-producing trees were in bloom, and the impact of the drought.

WRD Game Management Biologist Adam Hammond said there is concern about acorn production, particularly at lower elevations after flowering trees were hit with a prolonged spell below freezing during the first weekend in April.

“What I have seen at Cohutta is that the trees above 3,000 feet may be ok because they were not flowering when the late frost hit,” said Adam. “But trees at lower elevations may have been affected. It is too early to tell the impact, but the impact seems to be spotty. It is not likely to be a good year for acorns, but how poor it may be is still questionable.”

In the mountains of northeast Georgia, bears are on the move and the number of nuisance bear complaints may be linked to the drought.

“It has been a busy year for bear complaints,” said WRD Game Management Region Supervisor Ken Riddleberger. “We had 119 bear complaints in May and had to relocate about 25 percent of the bears. There could be a relation between the drought and the bears out looking for food.”

One overly aggressive bear had to be removed after it learned to solicit food from passing cars on Hwy 75 between Andrews Cove and Unicoi Gap. The 150-lb. male was sticking its head into vehicles to take food, said Ken.

Overall, the mast crop in northeast Georgia may not be as bad as was thought after the late frost.

“Overall, we lost a lot of the white oaks, but it is not going to be a complete mast-crop failure,” said Ken. “The early indication is that we will have some red-oak acorns, and there are some white oaks making at the upper elevations and in protected areas. That’s really not bad news for hunters if they can find the spots where acorns are falling.”

The soft mast has rebounded better than expected, too, after being burned back by the frost.

“We have lost the blueberry crop,” said Ken, “but the blackberry crop has come back like gang-busters.”

East-central Georgia also felt the impact of the late freeze, said WRD Game Management Region Supervisor Vic VanSant. Dove fields planted to wheat may have lower production this year.

“The late frost damaged some wheat fields,” he said. “In most cases it didn’t wipe out the entire seed crop, but in places the loss may have been in the 40 to 60 percent range.”

The freezing weather affected the seed heads, damaging the developing wheat kernel.

“At Redlands WMA’s dove field there was some frost damage to the usually outstanding wheat field, but overall the field should be fine,” said Vic.

“Di-Lane WMA received some scattered rain, and there was some soil moisture,” said Vic. “The wheat and millet there should be okay, but the sunflower production is likely to be less than usual. It was extremely dry right after they were planted, and they aren’t doing very well.”

Vic thought that most of the food plots planted on WMAs might not be optimal, but they should still produce some forage for the deer.

“Most of the food plots are perennials,” he said. “We have been planting Durana or Patriot white clover in our food plots so we don’t have to replant. We just do a little weed treatment and mowing to keep them going. The clover has been suppressed by the dry weather, but I think they will produce some forage this summer.”

As for acorns, Vic is expecting some damage from the late frost, but it’s too early to quantify.

The soft mast in east-central Georgia may produce better than originally thought.

“Some of the persimmons were blooming when the frost hit, but the blossoms seemed to still be intact and they are making fruit.”

Vic said soft mast in the area, particularly blackberries had come back strong after the frost.
An extended drought can have a direct impact on the health of the deer herd, said Vic, and particularly on nursing does and fawns.

“When the browse hardens off, it is of poorer nutritional quality,” said Vic. “The nursing doe’s body weight and the fawn’s body weight can be pulled down, and if it is an extended drought followed by a severe winter there may be less survival.”

If you know an effective rain dance, now might be a good time to get out your dancing shoes. In the meantime, until the rain returns, for the hunter who lives in an area where acorn production is spotty some late-summer scouting would be a great idea. If you can locate the few trees on your land that produced acorns, you can bet the deer will also locate those trees.

Too, if you get lucky with thundershowers in August and September or can irrigate and successfully grow a high-quality food plot, it is likely to be a deer magnet.”

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