Deer dilemma: Impact of flood extends beyond people
Ray and Jane Bushaw have been cut off from the outside world for more than two weeks since the Red River began creeping up on the ring dike that surrounds their property south of Oslo, Minn.
But that doesn't mean they don't have company.
Almost 50 deer have taken up residence in the Bushaws' yard, and they won't be going away anytime soon. The deer first started showing up March 29, and as news of a dry place with food spread on the whitetail grapevine -- or whatever means wild animals use to communicate -- the numbers grew.
"I don't know where they've been coming from," Ray Bushaw said. "I don't know how far away they can smell food."
Now, the deer, like the Bushaws, are surrounded by water with no place to go.
Bushaw said he contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shortly after the first deer started showing up. In so many words, they told him to do what he wanted.
"They said they couldn't do anything about it," Bushaw said.
And so he feeds the deer corn -- about a sandbag's worth every day -- but that doesn't go far with 46 deer.
"They've been eating on the rose bushes and the lilac bushes and whatever else they can find," Bushaw said of the deer.
There were a couple of days, Bushaw said, when he ran out of corn and couldn't get into Oslo to replenish his supply. A few deer left seeking greener pastures, he said, but when all they could find was water and ice, they soon returned.
Bushaw said farmers storing corn in Oslo have told him to take what he needs during boat trips to town to keep the deer alive and minimize the damage to his trees and shrubs. And on Tuesday, a friend came out with bags of wheat to supplement the feeding effort.
"I could chase them out but where are they going to go?" Bushaw said. "The river is six to seven miles wide by me."
The Bushaws' experience offers a harsh reminder that natural disasters such as the Flood of 2009 interrupt the lives not only of humans but every creature that lives along the river.
"The biggest effect is just the displacement that wildlife experiences in a flood like that," said John Williams, assistant regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.
Whether it's direct impact such as drowning or indirect impact from being stranded and unable to find food, floods definitely take their toll, at least in localized areas, Williams said.
"It's really somewhat the circumstance each animal deals with," he said. "It's not only a disaster for us -- it's a disaster for them."
Reports of deer or other wildlife mortality haven't been widespread on either side of the Red River, according wildlife officials in Minnesota and North Dakota. But there have been localized cases. Bushaw said he's talked with neighbors who reported seeing dead deer floating in the icy floodwaters. And last Sunday, four deer were stranded on an ice jam on the river near Oslo.
That story likely didn't have a happy ending. And so the Bushaws do what they can to take care of the deer that have taken refuge inside their ring dike.
"I don't want to see anything drown," he said.
The deer do provide amusement, Jane Bushaw said. At night, it's not unusual for the deer to be within a few feet of the house. The family has taken a special liking, she said, to a three-legged deer that's part of the group.
"It's just unreal," she said. "It's fun to watch them fight. It's just fun to see them. It gives us something to do."
While less extreme, there have been other reports of deer displaced by flooding. Stuart Bensen, conservation officer for the DNR in Erskine, Minn., said he's gotten calls from a couple of homeowners near East Grand Forks who reported deer were damaging trees and shrubs.
Unlike the deer on the Bushaw property, the deer weren't stranded, but they definitely were doing a number on the homeowners' trees and shrubs.
"You start giving aid to 100 deer plus, it's going to take a toll," Bensen said.
Bensen says he typically refers deer complaints to DNR Wildlife staff. In the case of ongoing problems in which deer or other wildlife threaten crops, for example, Bensen says the DNR can provide assistance with high fences or offer other technical assistance to keep the animals at bay.
But when deer are driven into an area by a relatively short-term problem such as flooding, there's no easy fix, as the Bushaws have found near Oslo.
Williams, the regional DNR assistant manager in Bemidji, said he understands their wanting to feed the deer. But it's an individual choice -- and expense.
"We don't have any funds to pay anyone for that type of thing," Williams said. "This is one of those situations you don't always get a good hand dealt to you, and a flood situation is not a good hand. I don't know how else you can describe it. It's an unfortunate situation, but the department is not in a position to go and provide money for those particular instances."
The policy is no different on the North Dakota side of the river. And so far, at least, Game and Fish officials say they haven't gotten any calls about deer or other wildlife marooned by the flood.
"We just haven't had any real issues," said Marty Egeland, outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Grand Forks. "That's not to say something didn't happen, but it's a small scale."
Most of the time, Egeland said, floodwaters rise slowly enough for animals to escape to higher ground. But if they were to get stranded inside a ring dike, Game and Fish wouldn't offer anything more than technical assistance.
"They're going to be on their own," he said. "We're not going to boat them out of there."
The good news in all of this, the DNR's Williams said, is that deer long have survived -- and thrived -- along river corridors such as the Red.
"The deer have had a lot of history as far as working with that situation," he said. "They do move around, and they are pretty adaptable. If they could be pushed in the right direction, they're going to survive just fine."