Rising tide floats new hopes at Ted Shanks CA
Planning for the future is more productive and more fun than wishing for the past at this once and future duck hunting hot spot.
HANNIBAL, Mo. - Steve Hoepf's memories of Ted Shanks Conservation Area go back to 1979, when he first hunted ducks in the area's flooded timber. Back then, it was a waterfowl hunter's paradise. Today, when he castes his gaze across the Flag Lake tract near the middle of the area, he sees dead trees and lost opportunities. Resource Forester Kristen Goodrich is more apt to see history in the making. She also sees a bright future for the next generation of hunters. Both visions are accurate, as far as they go.
Hoepf began visiting the 6,700-acre area adjacent to the Mississippi River in Pike County soon after the Missouri Department of Conservation bought it. He remembers standing among towering oak, ash, pecan and sycamore trees, watching mallards pour into the flooded timber by the hundreds.
"There was always plenty of ducks," Hoepf recalls. "We always had forty or fifty thousand. At the peak of the migration, there would be 119,000 birds on the area."
The ducks were drawn by the sheltering bur oaks, swamp white oaks, pin oaks and their acorns, a staple food for ducks. Now the trees are gone, replaced by hundreds of acres of reed canary grass, cattails, sedges, buttonbush and willows. "We went from a heavily timbered area with lots of flooded timber, where the birds were extremely close, to hunting open marsh, where you can see a bird half a mile away. When you look at it now, you almost want to cry."
The first hint of change at Ted Shanks came from a comparison of aerial photos of the area taken in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. The later photos showed many more dead trees. Area managers assumed the tree deaths were the result of their manipulation of water levels.
Then they compared two other sets of photos. One was taken in 1941, the other in 1956. Flag Lake doesn't appear on the earliest pictures, but it is clearly visible in the 1956 photos. They wondered where the extra water came from.
Ted Shanks' bottomland hardwood forest originally occupied land that stood a few inches or feet above the normal water level in the adjacent Mississippi River. Floods rose among the timber, but for most of the year, the forest floor was above water. That allowed the trees to thrive and enabled seedlings to survive, guaranteeing the future of the bottomland hardwood forest.
In 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its navigation system on the upper Mississippi River. Locks and dams turned the river into a series of lakes. At Ted Shanks, the water level rose nearly seven feet.
No one realized what effect the navigation project would have on the Shanks area's forest. It turns out the soil of the flood plain acted like an enormous sponge, soaking up water from the river/lake. Eventually, water beneath the soil rose to the river's new level.
The effects of the extra moisture were subtle and slow to appear. Few trees died outright. Instead, the increased moisture reduced trees' vigor and cut into survival of seedlings. Lower-lying areas, including Flag Lake, were affected first.
Then the slow decline took a catastrophic turn. The Great Flood of 1993 breached levees at Ted Shanks' north end, covering most of the area in several feet of water from June through October. Already stressed by decades of what amounted to low-level flooding, tens of thousands of trees died within a year.
This made the problem worse. Trees are constantly drawing water out of the soil and evaporating it through their leaves. A healthy forest removes nearly 10 inches of water from the soil annually. Dead trees don't remove any water. The death of 90 percent of the trees in some parts of Ted Shanks has had the same effect as an extra 9 inches of rainfall annually.
Goodrich, who has worked for the Conservation Department full-time for two years, never saw Ted Shanks in its heyday, but as a forester, she can see another heyday on the horizon. Although much of the area is too low and moist to support the forests of yesteryear, other parts of the area are more suitable than ever for growing trees.
"When the Department bought this area, most of it was being farmed," said Goodrich. "We have continued to grow corn and soybeans on 800 acres of the area to provide food for wildlife. Some of that land is at the right elevation relative to the water table for bottomland hardwood forest."
After carefully evaluating the suitability of various sites, Goodrich, Shanks Area Manager Keith Jackson and the rest of the Conservation Department's multidisciplinary management team in northeastern Missouri identified pilot sites for active forest restoration. So far, they have planted more than 10,000 5-foot oak, sycamore and pecan seedlings in the Cabin, Perry, Central and Nose Slough management units.
The Conservation Department also is pursuing natural restoration of forest in sites where trees have managed to survive on their own. In some of these areas, natural regeneration is being suppressed by a tangle of exotic reed canary grass and other plants that took hold in the wake of flooding. The debris from fallen dead trees will complicate tree planting and regeneration work, but the Conservation Department hopes to encourage forest to re-establish itself on 900 acres in the Nose Slough and Horseshoe units.
In areas that no longer are suitable for forest, the Conservation Department will work to develop marshes with vegetation that benefits wildlife. Wildlife Management Biologist Keith Jackson says he would like to try growing rice on part of the area's remaining agricultural land to further enhance its attractiveness to waterfowl.
Dale Humburg, a waterfowl research biologist recently named to head the Conservation Department's new Science Division, said the importance of forest restoration at Shanks extends far beyond the substantial recreational benefits it promises to hunters and birdwatchers.
"When you get up in the air and fly over the Mississippi River valley, it's striking how little wildlife habitat is left in the flood plain," said Humburg. "Ninety-five percent of the historic wetland acreage has been converted to agriculture, highways, industrial parks and other developed uses. Every spring and fall, millions of waterfowl and other migratory birds fly up and down this corridor. Their survival depends on finding places to eat and rest."
"Twenty years from now, Ted Shanks is going to be an incredible spot," Humburg predicts.
Interestingly, although the number of ducks that visit Ted Shanks CA today is far smaller than it used to be, the success rate of waterfowl hunters there has remained essentially unchanged. This is because the number of hunters using the area has declined along with duck numbers.
Ted Shanks CA is one of the few areas in Missouri where hooded mergansers, pied-billed grebes and least bitterns nest each year. Three-quarters of the money used to purchase the original area came from the Pittman-Robertson Act, the federal law that hunters urged legislators to pass in 1937. The act provides for an 11-percent excise tax on hunting equipment and ammunition.
- Jim Low -
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Dum spiramus tuebimur
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