This article appeared in the Great Bend Tribune on Sunday, July 15 as part of the monthly KWEC column, Wetland Explorer.
Although we call it the dog days of summer, many other animals are suffering too. As we watch the pools of water at Cheyenne Bottoms dry up with each hot windy day, we are also watching how wildlife are coping with the drought. In general, anytime an individual’s habitat changes, it has 3 choices: die, adapt, or move. Even though they are an exotic species and often called “trash fish”, no one likes to see dead carp piled up on the banks of dried pools. Crayfish burrow down into the mud to find water, making a mud chimney above the ground. Red-eared sliders are mobile enough to leave the drying Bottoms in search of a new water hole. It is often an interesting process, but often sad. However wildlife handle it, we must realize it is a cycle, and Mother Nature can be very cruel in both wet and dry times.
Cheyenne Bottoms has dried up many times throughout history. I remember doing research at the Bottoms during the summer of 2006 with not much more than a drop of water anywhere in the basin, a condition we are approaching quickly this summer. Conversely, we all remember seeing the Bottoms at its fullest one year later in 2007, when we had the highest water levels in most of our lives. It will happen again.
The high water events can be just as cruel to wildlife as the low water. During the high water in 2007, I remember finding several drowned rats (literally) in the flooded pools of Cheyenne Bottoms that did not make it to dry land. You also may remember the incredible hatch of baby frogs and toads in 2007 that seemingly covered roads in the evenings; a consequence of the abundant breeding pools available to the amphibians. Trying to dodge the swarm of frogs and toads on the road was difficult and dangerous.
Human-animal interactions of this type can be dangerous. I saw an article this week explaining a lady rolled her vehicle after hitting a large snapping turtle on the road near Inman, KS.
Ultimately, I think people do have an inherent soft heart for wildlife. Over the past couple weeks, we have seen many attempts by motorists to help turtles cross the road. For some reason, the stretch of K-156 highway in front of the Kansas Wetlands Education Center has been a preferred crossing point for hundreds of painted turtles and red-eared sliders as they try to find a new home. Unfortunately, many turtles have been run over during their attempts at greener pastures. However, we have seen many turtles spared because of a human friend. Almost every day this week, I have seen someone stopped along the highway, trying to safely help a turtle off the well-traveled road. I even found a Facebook group called Saving Turtles in the Road that has over 28,000 fans. Turtles are popular.
Thank you to those of you who stop or brake for turtles and other wildlife. It is always a good idea to simply slow down when you see concentrations of wildlife along the road. If you choose to help out our “shelled” friends, please do so SAFELY. 1. Be sure to fully and safely pull your vehicle off the road and out of traffic, and watch for other vehicles before walking onto the road. Put your hazard lights on so other motorists see you. 2. Take care picking up any turtle. All turtles, not just snapping turtles, have very strong jaws and can give a painful bite. 3. Be careful to not drop the turtle. Turtles are surprisingly strong and have large claws and can easily push out of your grip. Smaller turtles can be held on the sides of the shell behind the front legs. 4. Move the turtle in the direction they were heading. You may even want to watch the turtle for a few minutes to make sure it does not head back onto the road.
Even though it is hot and dry, make plans to visit the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, located just 10 miles northeast of Great Bend. You can beat the heat by checking out the great exhibits and live animals that are enjoying the climate-controlled comfort of the Center.