Despite cooler temperatures and more frequent rains, Kansas wildlife and health officials say it is too early to tell if the more favorable weather conditions will translate into a better spring and summer for state lakes and wildlife populations after years of severe drought.
The impact has stressed Kansas wildlife while reducing recreational opportunities through frequently high levels of blue-green algae at lakes and reservoirs.
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“This is going to be a different year entirely, again,” said Tom Langer, director of the Kansas Bureau of Environmental Health. “It's difficult to say what will happen. There are a lot of different scenarios.”
Blue-green algae create toxic conditions that are harmful to humans and animals, causing a variety of ailments including intestinal illness, respiratory problems and skin irritations.
Langer said the cooler temperatures in March and April suggest that May water temperatures won't be in the 80s and 90s as has been the case in recent years, which caused algae blooms to peak earlier than the normal peak in late July and August.
“It will be here, no doubt, but I would like to see one of those seasons where it doesn't bother us until late August,” Langer said.
Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said algae blooms were a problem nationwide in their size and frequency. Increased runoff of nutrients such as fertilizers and other chemicals from farm fields and residential property feed the algae.
“We know that people are concerned about it because of the questions we are getting,” he said.
Low water levels at lakes are slowly improving in the eastern third of Kansas following recent rains. But officials said it would be several months before normal levels return. Many lakes are more than 5 feet below normal, leaving boat docks far from the water's edge.
Conditions are also affecting the deer population, especially in the eastern Kansas whitetail herds. Lloyd Fox, coordinator of the state's big game program, said there were about 1,200 reports in 2012 of deer either becoming sick or dying of a hemorrhagic disease spread by the biting midges.
Deer are forced during droughts to congregate at scarce water supplies. Fox said the cracked, muddy flats were breeding grounds for the midges.
There are more than 600,000 whitetail deer in Kansas and Fox doesn't think the outbreak has hurt the population. He said such periodic events can help herds build immunity to diseases.
“There's so much that we don't know,” Fox said. “Deer are a large animal and they can withstand weather like drought and heat probably better than the smaller animals. They are so adaptable.”
Doug Nygren, chief of the fisheries program, said recharge from rains help, but the rates vary by region. For example, lakes in eastern Kansas can get 10 inches of water per acre per year in runoff while western areas see only one-tenth of an inch per acre a year.
“We're not out of the woods yet. It's a least a two-year process to refill and restock those that have gone dry,” Nygren said.