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Resurfacing after Historic Flooding

Article By 
Ron Wilson

Dalton DeLange, a Game and Fish Department seasonal employee, builds fence on a wildlife management area south of Bismarck. Miles and miles of fence was impacted by flooding on state-owned and managed lands along the course of the Missouri in 2011.

Work to regain footing on more than 20 wildlife management areas along the Missouri River damaged by historic high water in 2011 is ongoing.

And if there is an end in sight for North Dakota Game and Fish Department staff tasked with the rejuvenation efforts, they’re not seeing it just yet.

“We’re finishing putting in food plots, spraying for leafy spurge, working on grass and tree plantings, rebuilding fence … And that’s just what we are doing today,” said Bill Haase, Game and Fish Department wildlife resource management supervisor, Bismarck. Haase manages Oahe WMA, located south of Bismarck and Mandan, and other lands in the area. “It seems like we have been doing this work for five years, but it’s only been two.”

Of the 200,000-plus acres of state-owned and managed WMAs across North Dakota, about 72,000 are located along the Missouri River System from Williston to south of Bismarck-Mandan.

“Even if you give them 10-20 years, some of the wildlife management areas along the Missouri River System will never look the same,” said Scott Peterson, Department wildlife resource management section leader, Harvey.

The 2011 flood along the course of the Missouri was prolonged, hanging around for an unprecedented five months. While the damage wasn’t comprehensive, it was devastating in places. Trees, grasses and other wildlife habitat were lost, while miles of roads and fences were washed away or buried under feet of sand and silt. Agricultural fields that produced crops for years may never be planted again.


“Once the water receded, our priority was to provide access and make the WMAs safe for users because we didn’t want someone driving on a trail, or creating their own trail, and going off an embankment into the river,” Peterson said. “The Department’s WMA system is certainly useable today from a public use standpoint. People can enjoy them and enjoy them safely.”

Haase said all the roads on Bismarck-Mandan area WMAs were damaged to some degree. “Some roads had deep washouts from 5 to 50 yards long,” he said. “The road at Schmidt Bottoms on the Mandan side was totally washed out. There is 30 feet of water where the road used to be.”

Upstream Damage

Starting in Williston and working downstream to south of Bismarck, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department manages 20-plus wildlife management areas along the Missouri River System. Acres and acres of wildlife habitat and infrastructure were influenced by flooding in 2011. Efforts to remedy losses to flooding started shortly after waters receded and will continue for some time to come.

The disconnection between Bismarck-Mandan and the Williston area is simply river miles. Damage downstream from water that muscled its way overland is similar to the damage upstream.


“Roads were washed out and inundated for months, debris and logs floated everywhere, silt was deposited up to 5 feet in places, fences were buried, rusted …” said Kent Luttschwager, Department wildlife resource management supervisor, Williston, who oversees management on Lewis and Clark WMA and others. “But the worst was the impact to vegetation, which mostly was drowned out. We work with several local farmers on crop and hay rotations and all of those fields were lost. We are working to get many fields seeded back to a grass/alfalfa mix or prepping them for reseeding. Exposed areas are now ripe for an invasion of Canada thistle. Certainly, we have our hands full.”

Two years removed from flooding, Luttschwager said the agency remains in recovery mode, repairing roads, building fences, the list goes on. In terms of wildlife chased away by flood waters, some have returned, but populations are not the same.

“Moose didn’t seem to be bothered much and moved to higher ground and islands, and deer moved to adjacent breaks and drainages,” Luttschwager said. “The number of ground-nesting birds is way down. In 2012, there wasn’t much cover, just exposed mud flats, and pheasants and turkey numbers reflect that.”

White-tailed deer numbers are down in the area, too, but recovering, Luttschwager said, yet that has more to do with tough winters and disease than flooding.

Unlike downstream on Riverdale, Oahe, Apple Creek and other WMAs, energy development is part of life on Lewis and Clark, high water or not.

“Most of the oil companies in 2011 drained their saltwater and crude oil tanks and refilled them with fresh water to prevent them from floating away,” Luttschwager said. “However, some tanks tipped and ripped off lines and there was some spills directly into the Missouri River. The infrastructure of oil wells was certainly impacted by the flood. Some access roads to oil wells were covered with several feet of silt once flood waters subsided.”

Leaving the Missouri

A historic 500 year flood in 2011 slowly muscled its way overland, inundating wildlife habitat and flooding trees for months on state-owned and managed lands along the Missouri River System in North Dakota.

On other state-owned and managed lands across the state, Peterson said much of the damage caused by abundant water in 2011 has been repaired.

“Some of the repairs on our WMAs are made on an annual basis, such as washed out roads and dam blow outs,” Peterson said. “When you get a year like 2011, however, it forces you to make some decisions, to come up with more permanent solutions so you aren’t making repairs year after year.”

At Lonetree WMA, located near Harvey, for instance, Peterson said a number of Texas crossings have been constructed on trails that seemingly flood every year.

“Now these trails can go under water for weeks, but we still have useable trails because the rock beds in the Texas crossings are not washed away,” Peterson said.


The footprint left behind by flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 wasn't as significant in places as some might have guessed. Some stateowned and managed lands, like this chunk of photographed habitat on Oahe Wildlife Management Area south of Mandan, rebounded nicely from flooding.

Brian Kietzman, Department wildlife resource management supervisor, Jamestown, said the agency is currently dealing with high water issues, associated with James River flooding, on Hyatt Slough WMA in Dickey County.

“The high water years of 2009-11 set us back and we will be working through these fields for the next few years to get back to where we want to be, habitat-wise,” Kietzman said. “The high water years poured water into Hyatt Slough and flooded much of our upland habitat.”

Kietzman reported that 7-8 inches of rain June 20 in the Oakes and LaMoure areas could push water to levels rivaling those of 2011.

High water, Kietzman added, influences more than management practices on public lands. “In 2011, I was unable to complete a pheasant crowing count route I run from Hyatt Slough to south of Ellendale due to water over the road,” he said. “So, in this instance, flooding also affected our ability to collect biological data. Other staff in southeastern North Dakota had difficulty completing their routes for the same reasons.”


Fighting Weeds, Building Roads

There were a number of unknowns concerning flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 because the event was unparalleled.

One of the uncertainties was the fallout of invasive species once the Missouri River retreated inside its banks.

The Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with Burleigh County, tackled major road repairs earlier this summer on Oahe WMA south of Bismarck. The project included reshaping and graveling about 8 miles of access roads at MacLean Bottoms and Apple Creek.

“Noxious weeds have always been an issue and the Department has spent a lot of time and money to control weeds on WMAs,” Haase said. “Two years after the flood, we are seeing large patches of leafy spurge and Canada thistle where it wasn’t before. While we hoped that the sand and silt deposits would be good for cottonwood regeneration, it has turned out to be good for the weeds, too.”

Haase said Department staff can battle the weeds in open areas, but those that have taken root in the woods are safe because chemicals used to combat the invaders would kill trees, shrubs and other wildlife habitat. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to navigate sprayer equipment in the woods.

In late June, the Game and Fish Department was continuing work with Burleigh County to complete major road repairs on Oahe WMA south of Bismarck. The project, totaling nearly $500,000, included reshaping and graveling nearly 8 miles of access roads at MacLean Bottoms and Apple Creek.

Haase said road projects are extremely costly and a project of this size would not have been possible without the cooperation of Burleigh County Highway Department and Park Board.


“These areas are very popular recreation areas and receive year-round use due to the close proximity of Bismarck and Mandan,” Haase said. “Therefore, this was a high priority project for the Game and Fish Department to complete following the flood.”

On the Bright Side

Some Department land managers aren’t too quick to answer when asked if there are any positives from flooding in 2011, while others do see some silver lining.

“When you deal with something like the flood of 2011, you are spending all your time fixing infrastructure – fencing, roads, signage and so on – and not managing for wildlife,” Peterson said. “Plus, with most of our resources being spent on infrastructure, there is less to spend on planting trees, grasses, food plots, things for wildlife.”

Haase said that while a lot of money has been spent on road work on WMAs, the end result is a plus for the public and wildlife.

“When we are done, the roads on the WMAs will be better than they were before the flood,” Haase said. Plus, a number of undesignated roads created by motorists over the years have been closed to traffic.

Closing some two-tracks to vehicles has also meant an increase in walk-in acreage that many hunters prefer.

Haase said flooding has also prompted the Department to improve the popular MacLean Bottoms gun range at Oahe WMA. The Schmidt Bottoms range on the Mandan side of the river received a major facelift in 2012.

“After the flood we did a bunch of work to make the MacLean Bottoms gun range useable, but now we have plans to make it safer, make it better,” Haase said. “If everything goes according to plan, which includes adding a 200-yard range, we’re looking at the work being done by the end of September.”

Luttschwager said historic flooding in 2011 served as a reminder. “One thing we already knew, but was definitely reaffirmed, is that we can’t fight the significant power and influence of the Missouri River and Yellowstone River in a floodplain,” he said. “We need to limit our infrastructure and let the river be a river, and let the floodplain be a floodplain. The silt load deposited a flush of nutrients and the bottomlands are recovering. Cottonwood seedlings are regenerating, vegetation is reappearing and the cycle of periodic flooding and all of its positives go on.”

All along the course of the Missouri River, flooding in 2011 left its mark. Like a number of wildlife management areas, Lewis and Clark WMA near Williston (pictured) was influenced by high water that stuck around for weeks, depositing silt and killing habitat that harbored upland game birds, big game animals and other creatures.