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Wildlife struggle to survive Texas drought

CANADIAN, Texas -- In a muddy pile of sand where a pond once flowed in the Texas Panhandle, dead fish, their flesh decayed and feasted on by maggots, lie with their mouths open. Nearby, deer munch on the equivalent of vegetative junk food and wild turkeys nibble on red harvester ants -- certainly not their first choice for lunch.

As the state struggles with the worst one-year drought in its history, entire ecosystems, from the smallest insects to the largest predators, are struggling for survival. The foundations of their habitats -- rivers, springs, creeks, streams and lakes -- have turned into dry sand, wet mud, trickling springs or, in the best case, large puddles.

"It has a compound effect on a multitude of species and organisms and habitat types because of the way that it's chained and linked together," said Jeff Bonner, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Since January, Texas has gotten only about 6 inches of rain, compared with a norm of 13 inches in the most severe one-year drought on record. Last week, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center said the La Niña weather pattern blamed for the lack of rain might be back soon, and if that happens, the dry spell would almost certainly extend into 2012.

The extreme dry conditions have extended into parts of the Plains including Oklahoma and Kansas and week after week of triple-digit temperatures have caused reservoirs to evaporate, crops to wither and animals and fish to die.

Already, some rivers and lakes are at lows not seen since the 1950s -- the decade when Texas suffered its worst drought in recorded history. The drought will most immediately cause fish to die and such kills have already happened in parts of the state, including not far from the Canadian River, a normally flowing river in the Panhandle that in some places is barely a puddle fed by a drought-taxed spring.

Without water, animals struggle with thirst. Few plants grow. Without plants, there are fewer insects. No insects results in low seed production. The animals that rely on seeds and plants for nutrition, from birds to deer and antelope, have low reproduction.

Birds that migrate in the winter will find little food and water this year in Texas so they will have to fly even farther south and expend more energy. As a result, they could reproduce less.