Big Lake drawdown to enhance waterfowl and shorebird habitat
The recent drawdown of Big Lake on the National Wildlife Refuge is a project to benefit waterfowl and shorebird habitat and delay migration to the southern oil-impacted coastal areas.
According to Jeremy Bennett, Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager, many people think drawing down the lake is negative but once they have the whole picture, they understand the purpose of the project.
Normally people think more water, more ducks, but this is not always the case.
"We had to drain the lake to grow food and the food will bring in the ducks," Bennett said. "Basically, after the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill there is damage and once the oil reaches the shoreline of the coastal marshes in Louisiana it can have a negative impact on waterfowl. Our objective is to delay migration and "short stop" shorebirds and waterfowl."
Big Lake is a major stop along the Mississippi Flyway and if the Big Lake habitat is improved, hopefully the waterfowl will remain longer.
"Food availability and weather have a huge impact on how long migrating birds remain in the area," Bennett said. "We can't control the weather but we can make the habitat better and offer more food. Drawing down the lake made the food more available on 6,000 acres. The drawdown exposed the mud flats. The shorebirds need the exposed mud flats to feed."
In addition to the mud flats for feed, Bright's Flying Service was contracted to plant 3,200 acres with Japanese Millet by aerial seeding.
The refuge has shown the potential to hold and over-winter large numbers of migratory birds with a recorded peak count of 1 million. That number has not been realized since the last lake drawdown in 1987.
Other benefits from the project include the purchase of an amphibious excavator. The equipment will be used to dredge the silt and sediment blocking many of the areas. This will promote more public access areas. There is a lot of woody debris left from the ice storm. With the equipment Bennett and his staff will have the capability to get the Middle Ditch back to being boat accessible all the way to the north end water control structure.
"Timing was important," Bennett said. "The first stage was getting the Japanese millet planted. We also will be cutting back the America Lotus (lily pads) which covers large portions of he lake. It will be good for the fish."
"We are setting the table with more food and we hope birds show up and stay longer," Bennett said.
Hunting is closed to Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge but it could put more ducks on the WMA which is open to waterfowl hunting.
"This is a project not just for the duck hunter but for the ducks," Bennett said. "I do think the lake will be improved as a result of the overall project. With the equipment we will be able to deal with the silt and sediment issues and vegetation issues which will improve fishing."
Big Lake will be filled again starting in late October. As usual, the lake will be closed to fishing from Nov. 1 through February. It should be ready to reopen for fishing on March 1.
"During the drawdown fishermen caught a tremendous amount of fish in July," Bennett said. "We have received a considerable amount of criticism from the public but usually after they become aware of the reason, many realize the overall benefits from the project."
Big Lake Refuge has a yearly average of 100,000 ducks over the last five years during the winter months. During the peak migration an excess of 200,000 to 250,000 have been recorded.
"We will know in January if we exceed the numbers," he said. "Our goal is to offset the impact from the oil spill by keeping the waterfowl here longer. Our ultimate goal is the wildlife and our public use is secondary. If it is successful, a short term negative will have a long time positive."
Bennett said he welcomes anyone who would like to talk to him about the project or any subject concerning Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. His number is (870) 564-2429.
"We always have a place for volunteers," Bennett said.