photo of a feral hog swimming
A feral hog makes its way across Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, MS, one of at least 57 refuges that saw significant flooding from April to July. (USFWS)

Flooding in the Mississippi, Missouri and Red River watersheds smashed high-water records this year, surpassing the Great Flood of 1937, and took a dramatic toll on human settlements. The floods also inundated much of the Refuge System. At least 57 refuges saw significant flooding from April to late July. At least 37 closed, wholly or partially, for up to two months.

At press time, the Midwest Region was waiting for floodwaters to fully recede so it could assess the financial cost. Floods caused an estimated $83 million in property damage in the Mountain-Prairie Region and $12 million in the Southeast Region, not including the cost of habitat restoration.

It may take several seasons to assess the effects on wildlife and ecosystems.

Floods "are Mother Nature’s broom. They sweep out everything and bring in new sediments and give everything new life," said Sabrina Chandler, deputy project manager at Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex, MS, which includes Panther Swamp Refuge. "We expect it—but not to this extent."

Panther Swamp Refuge, along the Yazoo River, illustrates how human engineering can affect flooding. In April, the Yazoo’s waters met a Mississippi River swollen by snowmelt and spring rains. The Yazoo had no place to go and backed up onto nearby bottomlands, as it has done for centuries. But levees that criss-cross the refuge held the floodwaters in place. On the refuge’s east side, forests disappeared under six to 25 feet of water. On the west side, it was too dry to plant corn for waterfowl. Wildlife thronged the west side, forcing managers to close the refuge from May 6 to July 1.

Animals returned to home ranges once the waters receded. "We’re seeing does with twin fawns on the east side," Chandler said in late July. She was concerned for wild turkeys—ground-nesters that lost their young—and native trees planted in a reforestation project on 3,000 of the refuge’s 41,000 acres. Bottomland hardwood forests are flood-adapted, but young trees can’t endure submersion for weeks. Many look dead, Chandler said, but some are resprouting. "We’ll know the true effects next April."

Vegetation die-off is a common concern, especially where refuges double as spillways, relieving pressure on levees that protect farms and towns. Flood control officials planned to funnel water onto Squaw Creek Refuge, MO, through August; in July refuge staffers were seeing signs of tree die-off.

Invasive Concerns

Some managers worried that flooding would spread invasive plants and crowd out native vegetation, doing short-term harm to waterfowl food sources and long-lasting habitat damage. Other impacts included washouts of native prairie plantings and the spread of invasive carp, trash and contaminants, said Mountain-Prairie Region fire management coordinator Jim Kelton.

On the plus side, revitalized freshwater marshes are a boon to fish, which fill anglers’ creels and supply food for wading birds and other wildlife. And floods can be "nature’s way of reforesting," said Bill Alexander, Bald Knob Refuge manager in Arkansas. After a 2008 flood, native cypress seedlings sprouted in some refuge fields.

Damage to facilities in Arkansas ranged from minor gravel road washouts at Wapanocca Refuge to more than $1 million in lost crops, spoiled grain, damaged roads and a ruined office trailer at Bald Knob Refuge, where the White River crested more than a foot higher than ever recorded.

At DeSoto Refuge, IA, employees packed up a museum collection of 500,000 artifacts from the 1860s steamship Bertrand and relocated them and the refuge office to temporary quarters, where they are expected to stay for months.

In flooded communities, refuge staffers helped fill sandbags, build temporary levees and evacuate homes and businesses. Some joined search-and-rescue operations. Some had to leave their own homes. "One of our law enforcement officers’ house is being bulldozed as we speak," Chandler said.

Nature will rebound, she said, but it won’t be so easy for 30 families near the refuge, most of whom lost their homes. "To see our neighbors lose a lifetime’s worth of hard work and memories, that’s the hardest thing."

Heather Dewar is a writer-editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.