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Badlands wildlife taking drought well, for now

A bison relaxes in the South Unit of Theodore National Park outside of Medora in this June photo. The water level of the Little Missouri River, which runs through the park, is quite low. Any lower, officials said, and it could be cause for wildlife to wander outside of their territory for a drink.

Wildlife survival in the Badlands during this year's drought is not as rough as it may seem, even as the Little Missouri River's level continues to decline to 1 foot.

"There are certain big game animals that might need to find water daily who are finding it hard to locate, but wildlife is better able to adapt to dry conditions than most people think," said Brett Wiedmann, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson. "Animals know how to find water sources close to them, so vast movement far from their normal sources is not that prevalent. Now, if the drought persists and all their (water) sources dry up, they will go searching further than normal for water."

Water is receding near the weather station of John Heiser, a co-op weather observer for the National Weather Service northeast of Grassy Butte and a Badlands naturalist who operates a ranch with a creek that is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, where he has recorded around 10 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1.

Normal precipitation levels between January and August are around 11-1/2 inches, he said.

Total average precipitation levels at Heiser's weather station are a little more than 15 inches.

"In my experience here, the record benchmark for dryness is 1988," he said. "That year, the river ceased flow for a month and there were a lot of big fires in the Badlands. The beavers even dammed the Little Missouri River that year, which they don't usually do because it is too high and too fast."

Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the river flows through, did not return calls Thursday.

According to the National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, the Little Missouri River in Medora was at 1.83 feet at 3 p.m. Thursday. Flood stage is 15 feet.

"Last year was the record wettest year at my weather station," Heiser said. "A year ago, by May 21, 2011, I had as much precipitation at the weather station as I've had this year through August. This year is not the driest year by any extent, although it is probably in the Top 5 of my 25 years of weather records."

Heiser may feel the drought conditions, but Jeff Hendrickson, Southwest Fisheries District supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish in Dickinson, said it hasn't trickled down to the fish -- yet.

"Our lakes are a foot or two low, but the fish are still doing good," he said. "A prolonged drought would be bad. If the lakes go down 4 or 5 feet more, there could be winter and summer kills. We'd just have to pray for rain if that happens."

Even as the drought persists in the Badlands, wildlife is resourceful in ways humans aren't, Wiedmann said.

"You're not going to find wildlife that has fallen over dead because of a lack of water," he said. "There is still standing water in places like the creek bottoms, or they can go to little rivers and streams that are around if they can't find the water sources they need in the Badlands. The animals know right where they can find water."

Travel outside of an animal's typical habitat can provide a new set of problems, Heiser said.

"When wildlife has to go farther to find water sources, that can cause them more hardship," he said. "The further they have to walk, the more calories they burn and the more energy they use up. That's energy they would normally use to provide their protection. There's a better chance that as water does dry up and animals have to go further for their water sources, they could be caught by predators, like mountain lions."

Even if they don't feel it now, the drought may impact wildlife next spring, Wiedmann said.

"Where they may run into problems is next spring if a lack of precipitation continues," he said. "That could mean the grasses won't be as high and they aren't able to hide from predators as easily."