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SEARING HEAT: 90s then triple digits again; heat effects on fish, wildlife long term?

July 1, 2012

The drought gripping Whitley County and Indiana has parched lawns and stunted crops, but its effects on fish and wildlife might not be seen for years, biologists say.

Whitley County is in the midst of an unprecedented heat cycle, spanning to March of this year. With temperatures stuck in the mid- to upper-90s – and a 104 reading last Thursday – the searing temps are projected for days to come. In fact, forecasters predict the current spate of 90+ degree readings will escalate to triple digits – that's right, 100+ degrees – later this coming week.

Nearly a quarter of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor.

Biologist Dan Carnahan, who supervises fisheries in southern Indiana's Sugar Ridge Fish and Wildlife Area, said the impact on nature could be significant if conditions don't improve.

"The main problem we're going to see is in people's ponds. When the water goes down, we're going to see more fish kills," he told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.

Heat and poor water circulation combine to cause algae blooms, which deplete the water of what little oxygen is left given lower levels, he said. Homeowners with ponds can try to help the situation by agitating water with a pump, creating a fountain or finding some other way to keep air moving through it.

"But that's about all you can do," he said. "Once your fish are dying, it's too late to do anything."

Rusty Gonser, professor of ecology and biology at Indiana State University, said the drought's impact could extend well into the future where fish and wildlife are concerned.

"There are short-term and long-term effects with a drought like this," he said.

"You might not see the effect on the population for two to five years," he said, noting that shifts in reproductive cycles occur at all levels of the ecosystem. "And in three years, it might be raining a lot and people won't realize a drought caused the issues seen then."

But anglers hoping for a summer on state waters need not worry, said both Carnahan and Brian Schoenung, the state's South Region Fisheries supervisor.

Schoenung said an unseasonably warm spring caused fish to spawn earlier than expected. Overall, he said, Indiana reservoirs should remain well-stocked this season.

"The problems that we'll run into are primarily in the smaller ponds, people's ponds and ponds on private property," he said.

Gonser said fish aren't the only species affected by the drought. Low moisture levels are reducing populations of inspects that bats, birds and amphibians feed on. A lack of resources also could cause nocturnal creatures such as raccoons and opossums to venture out during the day to look for water in bird baths, garden hoses and garbage cans.

Purdue University climatologists say most of July will bring above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

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