If I were to make a list of other career paths my life might have followed — which I’ve never done — wildlife management biologist would be on it. Or at least it’s a profession that would be on it except in years like 2015.
This past year would have been a tough one for biologists all across Missouri, even if their duties didn’t include dealing with public-inspired queries put to them by outdoor journalists like me. But their jobs do include defending the habitat techniques they employ — or don’t employ — and the condition of the public lands they manage in terms of usability by both wildlife and people. Fortunately, with only rare exceptions, the Missouri Department of Conservation personnel I’ve dealt with over the past 30 years have been more than willing to provide me with candid information regarding the areas they manage.
Gary Talbert is a textbook case in point. In addition to what he sometimes must feel are countless “other duties as assigned,” Talbert’s responsible for the habitat management at one upland and two wetland Conservation Areas in northeast Missouri.
I hunted the upland area, the White Memorial CA, recently and was, as I told Talbert, disappointed to find so much of the area covered by large blocks of head-high weeds. He readily acknowledged my concern — versions of which he had already heard a bevy of times since the first of September — but in his defense, he noted that 2015’s weather and proper habitat management were mutually exclusive. (A relatively dry winter was followed by abnormally high rainfall from April through early July. Then hot dry weather predominated from August through October.)
It wasn’t hard to commiserate with him, because central Missouri’s seasonal weather patterns were very similar. Seemingly endless rounds of short term flooding plagued attempts to establish crop stands in normally dry bottom lands and made planting food and cover crops in wetlands impossible. But there were just enough windows of opportunity to allow alert area managers in our part of the state to make at least some progress on a variety of management goals in both upland crop fields and prairies.
There were practically no breaks in the weather in northeastern Missouri. Those of us fortunate enough to live south of the Missouri River only thought we had too much rain last spring. According to Talbert, the White Memorial CA received 20 inches of rain in June alone. By way of comparison, it took my backyard electronic rain gauge from April 1 through July 8 to reach the 24.28-inch mark.
The long term goal at White Memorial CA is to return its plant community to the mixture of domestic crops and early succession grasses and forbs with timber limited to major drainages that had characterized the area several decades ago. Carefully planned and executed use of fire and herbicides to remove exotic plant species and late succession native forbs are an important management tool here, as is the judicious use of domestic crop fields and food plots to provide additional food for wildlife and improved access for hunters.
These techniques were rarely practical in 2015. Some of the dense vegetation I encountered in December 2015 included albeit over watered early succession plants to be sure, but most of the nearly mono-species weed fields had been intended to be crop fields or multi-species plant communities.
Meanwhile down in the lowlands, water poured into pools on Conservation Areas normally managed for the benefit of waterfowl and waterfowl hunters faster than it could be removed. In fact, flooding was such a problem that it severely limited production of the wild and domestic plants managers depend upon to provide food for migrating waterfowl and cover for hunters.
Problems with properly managing wetlands occurred statewide, not just in the northeastern part of the state. As a result, while the number of ducks overflying Missouri is the highest its been in many years, hunter success rates are down significantly. Although hope springs eternal, I honestly can’t see that situation changing very much as the season progresses.
No, this hasn’t been a good year to be a wildlife biologist. May 2016 be a much better year not only for them but for those of us who enjoy spending time on Missouri’s public land. In the meantime, I hope Santa brings each and every MDC biologist a package of patience and a roll of thick skin.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]