Lynn Burkhead — Freeze impacts noted across Texas’ wild landscape

Herald Democrat
It hardly seems possible, but this is what portions of Lake Texoma looked like a week ago as the historic freeze of February 2021 came to an end. Across Texomaland and the rest of Texas, the assessment continues to see what effect the historic cold wave has had on fish and wildlife who couldn't find an escape from subzero temperature readings and a heavy blanket of snow.

A week after some of the coldest weather in decades, there’s little doubt that last week’s arctic air intrusion is the freeze of this century so far.

But while the February 2021 Siberian Express was certainly severe here in Texomaland, there is also little doubt that the February 1899 arctic blast remains the king. That historic event is generally regarded as the worst winter weather event in American history and it certainly was all of that here in Texas.

How bad was it during that fabled winter weather siege? Apparently, about as bad as it can get here according to an old National Weather Service graphic in my files that shows subzero low temperatures plunging deep into the heart of Texas on Sunday, Feb. 12, 1899. On what was undoubtedly the coldest day in Lone Star State history, that map shows low temps bottoming out at -12 in Cooke County, -12 in Bowie, -12 in Paris, -11 in Collin County, -8 in Tyler, and -6 in Palestine.

What about here in Grayson County? Believe it or not, it was even colder as the thermometer plunged to a reported -16 in Denison.

Here’s how noted Texas author Mike Cox — a freelance writer and former communications staffer for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Department of Transportation, and Texas Department of Public Safety — described the frigid day in a “Texas Tales” blog post that I recently discovered.

“On February 11, a huge mass of Arctic air blustered into Texas. The temperature hit 23 degrees below zero in Tulia, which meant it was probably even a few degrees colder than that in Dalhart.

Like a runaway locomotive pulling only refrigerator cars, the cold air swept over the entire state. Moving from northwest to south, on February 12-14 (the dates varying with the progression of the cold front) Abilene dropped to -23; Denison reached -16; Fort Worth-Dallas saw -10 degrees, Waco -5, Austin -1 and San Antonio -4. (Children enjoyed skating on the frozen San Antonio River.) On the border at Laredo the mercury remained above zero, but only by 5 degrees. Corpus Christi dropped to 11 degrees, Brownsville experienced a 12 degree low and Galveston chilled to 8 degrees.

Much of Galveston Bay froze, (as did part of Corpus Christi Bay to the south).”

While the -4 degree reading recorded last week at North Texas Regional Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 will be the “official” all-time low temperature observation for Denison and Sherman, it also seems apparent that it was several degrees colder during the infamous arctic air invasion of 1899.

But that doesn’t mean that the 2021 event wasn’t severe, because it certainly was and ranks near the top of the historical list. That seems apparent after a series of arctic fronts, heavy snow and ice storm events, and widespread power loss that left more than 20 people dead statewide and insured damages reportedly in excess of $18 billion dollars.

If that’s the numerical tally in terms of human misery and property damage, the effect is also profound on the state’s wildlife populations, fisheries, and habitat. Part of that is due to the intense arctic cold and part of it is due to the unusually deep snow cover, a lethal wintertime one-two punch in a southern state that borders Mexico.

While anywhere from 4 to 8-inches of snow fell here in the Texoma area, snowfall rates were even heavier elsewhere. In far northeastern Texas, the National Weather Service indicated that as much as 18-20 inches of snow piled up in two storms that visited the Texarkana area. There was also a record setting 11.2 inch snowfall at Del Rio, more than a foot of snow from two storms blanketing the Tyler/Longview Area, and even 4-8 inches in and around the central Texas metropolitan areas of Austin and San Antonio.

Ok, enough of the meteorology report. What did all of this historic weather do to the Lone Star State’s wild landscape?

Down along the Gulf Coast, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials say that the full impact of the recent freeze event on the state’s coastal fisheries isn’t fully known yet, but it is severe and most of the coastline has been impacted. News video, social media photos, and guide reports indicate lots of saltwater baitfish species died in the cold along with plenty of spotted seatrout, red drum, black drum, sheepshead, grey snapper, snook and even a few tarpon.

While there are fish kill reports in the Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay areas, the fish kill reports increase dramatically as you move south towards Matagorda Bay, San Antonio Bay, Aransas Bay, the Upper Laguna Madre and the Lower Laguna Madre.

Unfortunately, it will be some time before TPWD biologists know the full severity of the February 2021 freeze and whether it will rival the catastrophic fish kill events in December 1983 and December 1989 when much of the coastal region’s game fish stocks were all but wiped out.

Equally concerning is the effect of the cold on wildlife across Texas. Certainly, the freeze was lethal for many birds and small mammals that found no escape from the intense cold. I personally saw some dead songbirds huddled into a corner next to the back porch of my father-in-law’s house this past weekend and I’ve heard similar reports from other homeowners.

TPWD noted in a news release that it has received reports of freeze killed bats, coots, and even blue-winged teal at the Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be much indication right now that the freeze killed any significant numbers of white-tailed deer, mule deer, wild turkeys, and quail. But the agency does note that some mortality is possible, especially in older age class animals.

With reports of vital habitat and vegetation being burned or killed by the freeze, there could be problems looming in a few weeks when fawns and other wild babies start hitting the ground. The habitat issues could also surface later this summer when heat and dry conditions send certain wild critters scurrying for shady cover and some thermal relief.

If the effect is limited on native wildlife, the same can not be said for exotic game animals like axis deer, blackbuck antelope, and nilgai in central and southern areas of the state. In fact, news photos spread virally earlier in the week as the carcasses of dozens of dead exotics were loaded up into the back of pickup trucks and on the back of trailers as land managers surveyed the damage on their properties.

Closer to home, the freeze damage is also a bit of an unknown right now with the biggest local concern centering around any potential shad kills at Lake Texoma and Lake Ray Roberts.

At Ray Bob, site of this summer’s 51st Bassmaster Classic, ice coverage was extensive on the upper arms and coves around the lake.

The story was the same at Lake Texoma last week where several miles of the Big Mineral Arm were frozen and snow-covered to the north of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. Marina basins were also locked up tight and I saw a Facebook video made by a local pilot flying over wide swaths of ice covering Texoma’s upper ends.

The winter weather siege caused Texoma’s water temps to plummet well below the 43-degree threshold where shad mortality starts to accelerate. In fact, one guide I know reported a 35 degree water temp reading last week while TPWD’s Dan Bennett says his crew observed a 36-degree reading at the height of the freeze. Even this week, the lake is anything but balmy with a 44-degree reading according to TPWD.

Does such frigid lake water mean a big shad kill has occurred?

“We haven’t seen any major concentrations of dead shad so far, just a few reports of seeing one or two shad struggling,” said Dan Bennett, the lead inland fisheries biologist for TPWD’s Lake Texoma Fisheries Station. “We’re actually getting a few reports of bait still being abundant on sonar. And one cast net video I’ve seen showed a net full of live shad on the Texoma Fishing Forum Facebook page.”

Bennett did note that he would be surprised — given the water temperatures observed late last week — if the shad that have been reported alive this week were threadfins.

“They may all be small gizzard shad, which would be ok in those temps,” he said. “We saw surface temps in the mid-30s, dropping about a degree and a half at the bottom.”

When I spoke with Bennett on Thursday, he was actually modifying a cast net to try and get it down deeper so he could try and catch some shad and see what kind they were. But while he admits that he’s not fully certain about the impact of last week’s icy and cold conditions on baitfish, he’s optimistic about Texoma’s striped bass, largemouths, smallmouths and other game fish species.

“Ice coverage was mostly in the arms of the lake where it was shallower,” he said. “The shallower the water is, the faster the water is impacted by atmospheric temperature. (But game fish don’t mind a little ice cover) and I have not heard of any lethal impacts to our game fish. In fact, we’ve been out netting all week, and we’re are seeing record catches of stripers for the third straight year.”

Which might be a silver lining in a late February period of historically bad weather across our local backyard and beyond.