Drought Impacts on Wildlife and Recreation

By:
Shane Reynolds, Outdoor Recreation Director and Outfitter

In my 16-plus years living in the Hill Country, I have never seen it this dry. The majority of Texas lakes are extremely low and the upper Guadalupe River that flows through Cordillera Ranch has had no flow since late June. I’ve seen the gauges at zero cubic feet per second before, but never in June! Yes, the drought in 2011 was severe, but the 2022 drought is now surpassing 2011 unfortunately.

For myself, who spends a lot of time in and around water in our rivers, creeks and lakes, the drought is psychologically challenging for me to stay positive on a daily basis without the water-based recreation activities of kayaking and fishing available in and around the Ranch. For our members who enjoy spending time kayaking and toobing the upper Guadalupe, it was a long summer of dry weather with no opportunities other than traveling north to the Comal River in New Braunfels and the San Marcos River in San Marcos. 

The drought will most immediately cause fish to die and such kills have already happened in parts of the state, including the upper Guadalupe River. Over the winter and spring, the upper Guadalupe at Cordillera Ranch was a really good fishing stretch of river, with us routinely catching double digit numbers of Guadalupe Bass, the Texas State Freshwater Fish, on the stretch from Cordillera Ranch to Bergheim Campground at FM3351. We can only hope and pray that some of the fish find deep pools to survive. 

Without water, animals struggle with thirst. Few plants grow. Without plants, there are fewer insects. No insects result in low seed production. The animals that rely on seeds and plants for nutrition — from birds to deer — have low reproduction. Predators that rely on those animals as a food source remain hungry as well, and they reproduce less.

The dried-up lakes and rivers are having a significant impact on the aquatic habitats and wildlife of Texas. The lakes that usually supply food and water to the birds on their migration paths are severely reduced, which has created a serious problem. Birds now have to find new migratory routes that include food and water sources and some birds do not have the energy to find new sources. Birds that migrate south in the winter will find little food and water this year in Texas so they will have to fly even farther south and expend more energy. As a result, they could reproduce less. Some of those birds, such as the colorful painted bunting, often fly to Central America for part of the year where there has been a lot of rain and more insects than usual. But because of the drought in Texas and the Plains, there may not be enough birds to consume the insects.

The decreased flows in rivers and streams and depleted major reservoirs across Texas are changing the fish population and even threatening the survival of some rare fish. Low or no stream flows cause a loss of habitat, degraded water quality and increased saltwater intruding into fresh water. Marine fish are moving into Texas rivers with increased salinity. Texas ranks among the most biologically diverse states in the country. According to Water Resources Board, “approximately 40% of Texas fishes are now already extinct or risk regional or even global extinction.” As of right now, Texas ranks in the top five states for the number of endangered aquatic species and if the drought persists, the situation could worsen.

The impact on species also could last for years after the drought officially ends. For example, quail normally nest in grass grown a year earlier, but because of the drought, there has been almost no grass growth this year. That means many quail won’t be able to nest next year and the impact of the drought on the birds won’t be seen until 2023. With deer, the true impact may not be revealed for six years when the low reproduction rates caused by the drought will leave an age gap between older bucks and younger deer. Drought also impacts the quality and quantity of antler production, so this hunting season will probably see fewer trophy bucks harvested in areas that are experiencing drought conditions. 

Dove hunters across the state may have varying levels of success due to drought conditions this season. While Texas hunters should see plenty of dove this year, the birds’ access to food and water will impact parts of the state.

According to AgriLife Extension, dove typically adjust well during periods of drought, moving from one area to another in search of food and water. But this movement will affect hunter success in various parts of Texas. Dove are not as impacted by drought as quail, which depend on insects and native forbs to survive. Dove can get by on agricultural crops, such as sesame, sunflowers and sorghum. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, there was excellent production of mourning doves very early in the spring despite dry conditions this summer. A mild winter and good rains resulted in a lot of birds, so dove hunters still have some hope of a good season ahead. 

John Baccus, a wildlife biologist at Texas State University in San Marcos, said he is most immediately concerned with bats and song birds, both of which rely on insects for food. Baccus believes that some females will not have any offspring this year due to a poor diet. Whatever babies are born will likely have a low survival rate because they are entering a world with a scarce food supply. Already, Baccus said, he has noticed white-tailed deer looking skinnier than usual, their ribs jutting out. As a result, the mothers are producing less milk and the newest crop of fawns will be weaned at sub-par weight.

Let’s all continue to pray for some much-needed rain in our near future!

Shane Reynolds is the Outdoor Recreation Director and Outfitter at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at outfitter@cordilleraranch.com and 210.616.6051, or at the Cordillera Ranch Outfitter Center at 830.336.4823.

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