WATERLOO, Iowa --- Drought conditions, now rated extreme in portions of Northeast Iowa, are putting stress on more than just crops and rivers. Add wildlife to the list.
"The species that are in Iowa are adapted to Iowa's average climate --- and this isn't it," says Tom Litchfield, a deer biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
Waterloo is nearly 4 inches shy of its precipitation average for July alone. At the same time, the average high temperature for the month so far is 92.3 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Other parts of the state have been even hotter and drier.
Dr. Glenda Dvorak, a veterinarian at Iowa State University, says wild animals face challenges not unlike a human.
"It is very much like everyone else: dehydration and heat stress," she says. "... It's very similar to risks that we have."
Animals, though, can't escape to an air-conditioned mall, and many depend on plants under assault right now.
And vegetation, in some cases, is up to two months ahead of a typical growing schedule, according to Litchfield. Other plants are taking measures to ensure survival.
"I've heard reports of oak trees dropping acorns early and they are not developed," he says. "The trees can't support them, so they're getting rid of them."
Fewer acorns, a staple for deer, turkeys, squirrels and other species, could mean leaner animals heading into winter.
A harsh season would compound a potentially widespread nutritional problem.
The complete story is not yet written, though.
"It's hard to measure the impact at this time," Litchfield adds.
The limited rainfall is producing predictable affects on Iowa's streams. The Cedar River, for instance, continues to flow at near record low levels. Slightly less than 500 cubic feet per second is moving through Waterloo. Last year, the rate was 7,700 cubic feet per second.
Consequences of low river levels include higher water temperatures, lower oxygen levels and additional vegetation and algae. None are good for fish, according to Theresa Shay, a technician at the Decorah Fish Hatchery.
"The Upper Iowa last week was running 82 to 85 degrees, which is really pretty warm for the Upper Iowa," Shay says. "It's kind of like bath water. It's pretty yucky."
As a result, the DNR last week suspended its trout stocking program on Turtle and Spring creeks in Mitchell County; on Bohemian Creek in Winneshiek County; on Twin Bridges in Delaware County; and on Upper Swiss Valley in Dubuque County.
Several reports of fish kills also surfaced in recent weeks. One of the largest happened on the Des Moines River in Wapello County. According to the DNR, 58,000 fish died along 42 miles of the stream. The water temperature at the time was 97 degrees.
Stocking will resume once water temperatures allow, according to Shay.
"And for that we need more water or cooler nights," she says.
Water quality can also be a factor for animals, according to Dvorak. Ponds and lakes in the state can host a specific type of blue-green algae that contains a poisonous substance, mycrocystin toxin.
When the plants die, the toxin is released. Symptoms include lethargy, convulsions and diarrhea. Death can follow in as few as four hours.
"I know they're watching for it in cattle," Dvorak says. " ... I suspect if deer come across a pond, it would affect them in the same way."
Drought conditions also raise concerns for the spread of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer, according to Litchfield. Biting flies, specifically midges, spread the virus.
"The drier it is the more concentrated deer will be around water sources. They might visit daily," Litchfield says.
Meaning a midge could conveniently move from one animal to others, infecting each along the way.
Depending on the form, epizootic hemorrhagic disease might give a deer a fever, put the animal into respiratory distress, cause its tongue to swell and produce bleeding ulcers. Though not always fatal, death could follow in as few as eight hours.
Months ahead of schedule, officials have already investigated several suspected cases this year in Iowa.
"The tests were negative, though," Litchfield says.
Despite weather conditions, or rather because of them, Jason Auel, a wildlife biologist with the DNR, believes some of Iowa's wild species are doing slightly better.
"If anything, the dry weather has really benefited out upland nesting birds," he says.
Those include wild turkeys and pheasants, which struggle to protect eggs and hatch chicks in cold, wet spring weather.
Surveys are under way to determine what's going on with populations, Auel says.
"We'll have a better idea when those counts are done," he adds. " ... In general, though, we have noticed a small recovery in our pheasants."
Auel helps maintain the Sweet Marsh Wildlife Management Area near Tripoli. One of his responsibilities is making sure shallow basins along the Wapsipinicon River hold water to attract ducks in the fall.
Normally, the man-made flooding process covering 800 acres begins in mid-August and takes no more than three weeks.
"With the current flow that we're having, its going to take us close to two months," Auel says. " ... We have stop logs in to hold as much water as we can right now."