High water impacts refuge once again

UPHAM – The J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge was constructed following the early drought conditions of the “Dirty ’30s.” Its primary mission was to provide nesting and resting habitat for migratory waterfowl, but the refuge boasts a wide range of habitat that is home to a variety of wildlife other than waterfowl.

While more than 300 species of birds have been identified on the refuge, areas such as the refuge’s rolling sandhills remain some of the most unique wildlife habitat in the state. Large meadows and riparian habitat along the Souris River are attractive to wildlife, too. A scenic Auto Tour Route snakes through key areas of the refuge, giving visitors an excellent look at natural habitat and the wildlife it contains.

This year though, J. Clark Salyer has once again been impacted by high flows in the Souris River. The refuge relies upon the Souris to supply water for a series of holding ponds that were constructed to create nesting areas for waterfowl and shorebirds. However, too much water creates problems within the refuge.

The Auto Tour Route has been closed since last winter due to high water flowing rapidly over Texas crossings and elsewhere. Erosion has occurred. How much won’t be known until the water recedes. Meadows that are hayed in normal years remain inundated.

“Our hay meadows have been flooded since winter,” said Frank Durbian, Souris River Basin Complex manager. “Essentially, we’ve had all our gates open because we knew we’d have a lot of water around here.”

This year, the water came early. So early that heaters were used to help free icy control gates so that water could flow more naturally through the refuge. The Souris rose at J. Clark Salyer earlier this year during the snowmelt. Now it is on the rise again. Triggered by heavy rainfall, particularly on the upper reaches of the Souris within North Dakota, the refuge is expecting their highest water levels of the year in the coming days.

“The spring rain events actually will result in higher water levels than what occurred from snowmelt, at least in this part of the world,” said Durbian. “This area has the least amount of slope in the Souris Basin at just four inches to the mile. We’re trying to get rid of water. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing the last three months. It’ll be a few weeks yet.”

If major rain events stay away and the water does return to a manageable level, other issues are likely to arise due to prolonged high water. Durbian says he expects some weed problems in meadows, a situation that was evident following major flooding in 2011. In addition, high water has taken a toll on bushes and trees.”

“We’ll continue to see mortality to trees in the riparian areas,” said Durbian.