AUSTIN, Texas — Wildlife and fisheries
biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department say the full
impacts on natural resources from Hurricane Rita may not be realized
for some time, but assessments in East Texas and along the upper coast
in recent weeks indicate substantial damage to some ecosystems.

– Lake Mohave

“The implication of that extensive an inundation of saltwater into
freshwater wetlands will depend upon the resiliency those marshes,”
said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., TPWD coastal fisheries director. “If we see
any significant losses then we will have to deal with that, including
erosion issues and perhaps an expanded low oxygen ‘dead zone’ out in
the Gulf of Mexico that could eventually reach the Texas coast.”

Nearly all of the major rivers and their tributaries in Southeast
Texas experienced substantial fish kills as a result of Hurricane Rita.
These include most streams east of the Trinity River and several
tributaries to the Trinity River. TPWD regional director for inland
fisheries Dave Terre in Tyler said he does not believe the storm
crippled fish populations.

The old Jasper State Fish Hatchery sustained damage to some of the
infrastructure, but the facility itself is still intact and
functioning. “We don’t think we lost anything in the way of fish,”
reported Dr. Gary Saul, hatcheries chief with TPWD’s Inland Fisheries
Division. “We have a big mess to clean up, but that’s it so we were
lucky. It shouldn’t impact us as far as production. We have catfish
coming out of there the end of the month for some of our community
fishing areas and they should be trucked out as planned.”

Winds topping 100 mph wreaked havoc on Pineywoods forests, felling
numerous precious mature hardwood trees. “We do not know the extent yet
of tree damage to forested interior areas on our WMAs and public
hunting units and the U.S. Forest Service Lands or the Big Thicket
National Preserve,” said Nathan Garner, TPWD regional director for
wildlife in Tyler.

Wildlife biologist Bobby Eichler noted that deer have had easy
access to acorns this fall as a result, but that staple food source for
whitetails and squirrels will be reduced for many years to come.

The debris is also causing problems for hunters preparing for the
upcoming deer season. Instead of making last-minute preparations to
camps, stands and feeders, many hunters have to start from scratch. As
hunters begin piecing back together deer camps, the U.S. Forest Service
is urging caution against wildfire due to a lack of rain during the
storm combined with the additional fuel source from debris.

Waterfowl biologists are concerned that storm damage to marshlands
in Louisiana and Texas could pose problems for wintering ducks and
geese that rely on those food sources. “There’s still a seed source out
there, but a lot of the submerged stuff is unavailable,” said Dave
Morrison, TPWD waterfowl program leader. “Mottled ducks are a big
concern. Did they get out of there or did they stay and get hammered?
We just don’t know yet.”

Reports from primary waterfowl wintering areas like the Anahuac
National Wildlife Refuge and the J.D. Murphree WMA indicate the
presence of “black water” in parts of the marshes where submerged
vegetation and invertebrates were wiped out, while other parts are
showing some positive initial results. “Some of the marsh had millet
washed in from the rain, which should attract and hold some ducks,”
offered Len Polasek, TPWD regional director for wildlife along the
upper coast. “We’ve found some damage and erosion on some of the levees
at the Murphree area from the storm surge and around the water control
structures at Salt Bayou on the Intracoastal.”

Polasek said public waterfowl hunting will take part as scheduled on
area WMAs, but due to irreparable damage to the check station at Salt
Bayou, hunts for that unit and the Big Hill Unit will be conducted from
the Murphree area.

Scientists say hurricanes, droughts and other environmental extremes
are a natural part of the processes that have shaped Gulf estuaries,
ecologically important areas where freshwater from rivers enters
saltwater bays. Estuarine ecosystems historically have normally
rebounded fairly quickly from such events. Scientists say what
complicates the picture now are human influences.

“In the last hundred years, we have lost about half of our Texas
coastal wetlands, diverted freshwater inflows into bays and diminished
water quality in coastal waters to the point that hurricane recovery
may be prolonged in some areas,” McKinney said.

“Our estuaries are remarkably resilient and productive so they will
come back but there are limits and Rita and Katrina remind us of those
limits on both an ecological and human scale.”

– Lake Mohave