When Jim Gilbert, a naturalist at the Lowry Nature Center 25 miles west of Minneapolis, took a group of schoolchildren out onto a frozen pond in January, he planned to show them hibernating turtles. Instead, he and the children got a look at nature at its crudest. "We cored the ice by hand, each kid taking turns with a chisel," says Gilbert. "We punched a two-foot-wide hole through 14 inches of ice. The kids were really having fun. Then we bent down and looked in, but we didn't see any turtles. The turtles were dead."
Beneath the ice, last summer's insidious drought had extracted its toll. "The pond had vanished—the water under the ice was gone," says Gilbert, who has been bringing groups to this spot for 20 years. "Without the protective covering of unfrozen water, turtles cannot survive the winter."
Last year, more than 1,000 daily record-high temperatures were registered across the U.S. But as fall temperatures cooled, so did the nation's concern with the worst drought in decades. Although rain and snow have alleviated dry conditions in the Upper Great Lakes and portions of the South, as of late February the National Weather Service's Palmer Drought Index revealed that only five states—Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee—were not suffering prolonged drought in at least some areas. The situation in Florida and along parts of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coast had gone from bad to worse. For much of the country's wildlife the drought's legacy of depleted forage and cover has made the winter of '88-89 one of the worst ever.
Duck populations may fall to an all-time low this summer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recently completed survey of birds wintering on the Pacific Flyway shows that the number of ducks is 38% below normal. At the bottom of the count is the beleaguered pintail duck, which is off 64%. Says Phil Million, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, "It's really grim."
What's worse is that unless a lot of places get rain or more snow in a big hurry, ducks and other shorebirds moving north are going to find their rest stops and breeding areas in bad shape or even out of business. At the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Kansas, a crucial 19,850-acre wetlands complex that serves as stopover for 45% of all North American shorebirds in their spring migration, only two of the five pools have water. Time was when one third of a million ducks a day rested and fed at the Bottoms on their way north. This year, manager Karl Grover figures, those two pools will have only about two to three inches of water in them, less than half their normal depth. "The dabbling ducks won't be doing any swimming here," says Grover. "And the diving ducks will have to go someplace else."
Trouble is, for the most part there isn't a somewhere else. The Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, the next stop in Nebraska for birds migrating north, is also hurting. Agriculture has taken away nine out of 10 of the Basin's original 4,000 marshes—once a place of hunting legends. Now the drought has taken most of the ponds that were left. "We're keeping seven ponds filled by pumping water from our 30 wells," says Rainwater's assistant manager Rick Poetter. "That is until the money runs out."
The Platte River itself, which is heavily used for irrigation, is at 10% of its historic width in some places. Each March and April about 80% of North America's sandhill cranes stop along the river on their way north. They normally forage in the wet meadowlands for about six weeks. This year the meadows are dry. Says Ken Strom, manager of the National Audubon Society's Rowe Sanctuary, a 2,200-acre area that borders on the Platte in Nebraska, "What I see year after year are the birds squeezing into a smaller and smaller area. I don't see them moving to another river. Then again, there isn't another river. What I fear is that eventually they're going to leave here in such poor condition they will fly north and fail to breed and raise young."
The continent's traditional duck nurseries, located in the prairie pothole country of North Dakota and southern Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, are also in bad shape. These clay-lined sinks, which were formed by glaciers 10,000 years ago, rely on snowmelt to create the seasonal ponds where millions of ducks nest and raise their young. Although parts of the duck nurseries have received their best snows in several years, the region has been so dry for so long that no one can predict whether the snow will yield pond-producing runoff or simply soak into the parched ground.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed," says Terry Neraasen, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, Canada. "Most places still don't have enough snow to amount to much runoff, but we could get more." Otherwise, says Neraasen, "it's going to be real dicey."
Conditions in much of North Dakota aren't even good enough to be termed dicey. Some portions of the state have had significant snow accumulations, but the net effect can be unpredictable. At the Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the ground was so devoid of water earlier this winter that it didn't freeze solid. Says Mike Rabenberg, a biological technician specializing in water fowl at Long Lake, "At 10° below zero, I could stick a shovel into the ground up to the handle." While it usually takes nine to 10 inches of snow to yield one inch of water, a soil moisture analyst at the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md., recently calculated that one 24-inch snowfall in North Dakota was so cold and dry it would net only 1¼ inches of water.