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Rains breathe life into wildlife refuge

WICHITA MOUNTAINS WILDLIFE REFUGE, Okla._The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge has green grasslands and full lakes after receiving nearly nine inches of rain since May 1.

Wildlife officers say it has been two years since they have seen the refuge like this. All 22 of the man-made and more than 100 smaller lakes and ponds are now full of water. As an example of the impact, biologists expect most bird populations on the refuge to increase by 50 percent and some may even double.

Refuge visitor Steven Hunter says when he was at Quanah Parker Lake three weeks ago, it looked completely different.

"Very surprised! I thought when I came in yesterday, I was looking at the lake from a distance and I thought wow,” Hunter recalled.

In that three weeks, the lake has risen six feet and now has runoff on the dam.

"Everything is green and the flowers are beautiful, so it's just a remarkable time here on the Wichita Mountains," said Ralph Bryant, deputy refuge manager.

Bryant says the drought has been negatively affecting almost all of the wildlife populations on the refuge.

"We noticed our nesting birds, grassland species and the species that nest in the trees; a lot of those numbers were steadily going down through those years of drought and this year we are starting to see a tremendous increase already," said Bryant.

The black-capped viero is an endangered species. During the drought, their numbers dropped from 5,000 bird pairs to 3,500 bird pairs. Biologists on the refuge expect those numbers to rebound with the change in rainfall. Also, the refuge currently has about 500 head of bison.

"It was real difficult managing our roundups and moving our animals for our sales and different stuff like that; quite a bit of extra work trying to keep them watered up," said Bryant.

As drought conditions improve, they can allow an increase in the heard by 50 to 100 bison. Refuge employees and visitors say these recent rains are breathing life back into the Wichita Mountains.

"It's very uplifting to the spirit. A drought gets to be kind of depressing after a while to see everything dry up and the animals kind of suffer from it, and so this is very uplifting to the spirits," said Hunter.

Right now, there are no flooded areas on the refuge that impact drivers or visitors. Two low water crossings had been closed temporarily last Friday and Saturday, but they are now open.

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