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Life and death in hurricanes

    "There are dead animals everywhere right now. Most of them are in the trash line and the rest have floated up here into higher ground."

    —Jim Sutherland, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife manager

Most reports from the back-to-back punches the Gulf Coast took from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike came back positive: It wasn't as bad as it could have been.

But for the wildlife and marsh along the coast from Galveston, Texas, to Baton Rouge, La., some of the fallout could be permanent.

"Our marshes can't stand the insults," said Jim Sutherland, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife manager regarding the upper Gulf Coast. "When the storm came through, we lost even more soils and more elevation, and we end up with more open water.

"We're going to see a bunch of big open flats that may never be marsh again as a result of this storm."

The wildlife didn't fare much better, according to Sutherland. Parts of the Texas coast saw an extra 14 feet of water — and animals had no where to go, he added.

"Everything that can't fly away gets caught in the seawater," Sutherland said. "And those that can't tolerate salt or can't tolerate swimming in all that turbulence don't make it. It's a pretty sad time for a lot of animals."

How many animals? Nathan Garner, the TPWD's regional wildlife director for East Texas, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that although there can be strong concentrations of dead animals, a hurricane doesn't make too much of a dent on overall populations.

"Most critters try to find an area of safety," Garner said. "Animal populations have survived hundreds of thousands of hurricanes that have hit land since, say, the last ice age. We've never had a storm leave a lot of dead animals in its path."

Will Beaty, owner of Central Flyway Outfitters based out of Tomball, Texas, must have been in one of those concentrated locations.

"There are thousands of dead cattle," Beaty told the Lonestar Outdoor News. "The stench is horrible. Every step, there is a water moccasin, and they strike at everything. I think the saltwater blinded them, making them so aggressive. They strike at a truck going by."

Beyond the immediate: look to the plants

Sutherland said in order to get a good feel for long term effects of the hurricanes on wildlife, you need to look at their habitat. And if that theory holds up, it doesn't look too bad.

"In the plant world — and plants kind of dictate the condition of our habitat here — this storm is going to set back the coastal plant communities to very early successional stages when the freshwater comes back," Sutherland said. "And we'll see a bunch of plants we haven't seen since after Carla in the '60s."

Because if the influx of stagnant saltwater, Sutherland said the plant life will essentially be starting from scratch, opening the door for a group of previously suppressed plants that are better for the animals.

"We should see a lot more early successional seed-producing plants and a lot fewer late successional seed-producing plants," Sutherland said. "For the most part, those early successional plants benefit wildlife more than late successional plants, because they produce more seed and provide more open space."

Garner broke the long-term effects of a hurricane down into three categories: deforestation, flooding and hunting trouble.

He said fallen trees, which can be up to half the trees in a forest if the surge is strong enough, eliminate some of the habitat for birds and block the trails for animals on the ground, making it difficult for them to get to food sources.

But with space comes sunlight, and like Sutherland, Garner said a new set of plant life will sprout, bringing more food and a different look.

"Sometimes it looks like a jungle for six months to a year," he said.

Hunting this season, next season

Both Sutherland and Garner agree that the immediate effect on hunting along the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast is negative. Loss of habitat and fallen trees make it hard for animals and hunters to maneuver, and the flooding thinned out some of their populations.

"It hit right in our teal season — we had a lot of teal here before the storm, but this deep saltwater has pushed them all away," Sutherland said. "They'll move to a part of the coast, or inland, where there is freshwater.

"If there were deer in the marsh, they dealt with the same issues as the cattle and pigs and everything else did. I've seen a couple of photos of the deer swimming out of the surge water. Any big flood is going to hurt your deer herd."

Garner said the fallen trees caused the most trouble for hunters, but assuming the coast doesn't get hit again in the next couple of years, it shouldn't take long to get back to normal.

"After [Hurricane] Rita [in 2005], hunters had a very hard time because of the trees," Garner told the Telegram. "They had less success harvesting deer. This can be bad during the first hunting season, but by the second or third season, it's usually back to normal."

Sutherland said the duck hunting season along the Texas coast this year could get better.

"As far as ducks go, when the water gets back down, they're coming back," he said.

"With the change in the plant community, which will offer more space and more food, the duck hunting may actually improve in the short term."

Todd Merendino, Manager of Conservation Programs in Texas for Ducks Unlimited, described a bleaker scene and future if the government doesn't step in and help.

"The storms damaged many levees and water control structures and other infrastructure that will need to be repaired to provide quality habitat," Merendino said in a DU press release. "The agricultural areas affected by Ike's storm surge in Louisiana and Texas represent some of the most important habitat for wintering waterfowl in North America."

Guiding after the storms