The Last Vestiges of Winter

Greetings from Fairbanks, AK!  The weather has turned on a dime and most of our snow blanket has melted away.  The willows are starting to bud and newly bare lawns reveal surprises for homeowners—many household items lost long ago under layers of winter snow.  I am happy to report that I was able to bike in just a light sweater the other day, with no concerns about frostbite.

Harkening back, however, to when it was quite chilly… moose surveys over Gates of the Arctic National Park (GAAR).

Gates of the Arctic National Park is a mind boggling expanse of 8.5 million acres of wilderness—larger than the country of Belgium—that straddles the Brooks Range in the far north of Alaska.  The park is completely devoid of trails—a beautifully untrammeled natural area.  In a land where human development has touched nearly every corner of the nation, Gates of the Arctic is a rare glimpse into an intact ecosystem that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.  The park is a mosaic of winding rivers, dramatic valleys, glaciers, mountain peaks, spruce and tundra carpet of moss, lichen, the white blooms of Labrador tea, the beautiful purple and yellow of pasqueflowers, the variegated green leaves of bearberry and many, many others.  Caribou, moose, brown and black bears, lynx, dall sheep, ptarmagin, wolverines, wolves and foxes beat tracks into fresh snow under the glow of the aurora borealis or bend brush under the light of the midnight sun.  Driving up to the Gates is not an option and the thus the park remains pristine, attracting only the most experienced outdoorspeople.

I participated in this project as a BLM collaborator for a National Park Service survey.  The object was to get an estimate of GAAR’s moose population using a Geospatial Population Estimator (GSPE) method.  To accomplish this, six pilots (with six planes) and eight observers met in Bettles and took over the NPS bunkhouse, plastering the walls and floors with all manner of topographic maps.  I was part of the stratification plane crew.  This plane flies first, conducting less intense surveys to identify areas of high and low potential moose density.  It surveys every sample unit from the study area.  For us this meant that we spent an absolutely amazing several days flying over pretty much all of Gates of the Arctic.  After stratification has been done for a sample unit, a survey plane flies tighter transects over it, obtaining an exact count of moose present at the time.  These numbers are summarized for each sampled unit and used to estimate moose density in un-sampled units.  Then, of course, total GAAR moose population can be estimated.

Tucked into the Super Cub

Tucked into the Super Cub

Our stratifications took us up and down the Wild River, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, the Alatna River and the Kobuk river; over the Alatna Hills near Bettles; and most spectacularly, in and out of the breathtaking Arrigetch Peaks.

Arrigetch being beautiful

Arrigetch being beautiful

From the air we kept our eyes peeled for moose tracks and moose themselves.  These number of these signs spotted in each sample unit allowed us to assign it a ‘high’ or ‘low’ designation.

Of course, we saw many other animal tracks as well—each with its own character as seen from the sky.  These animal tracks dissect the plains of snow into geometric shapes.  The trails created tell the stories of each critter’s life like lines from an autobiography.  Moose plunge through the snow dragging their feet and creating two distinct lines as seen from an airplane.  Caribou pick through the snow more delicately than moose—their tracks appear as single lines with frequent craters where the ungulates have stopped to paw the ground in search of tasty lichen morsels. Ptarmagin trace chaotic scribbles through space as they dash from bush to bush.  Wolverines shuffle low to the ground, dragging their bellies and creating small valleys in which their paw prints fall.  Wolves leave alarmingly large circular tracks as they prowl in search of a meal.

On one of the most exciting passes of the trip we experienced first-hand the efficacy of wolf hunting methods.  As we flew over a river corridor several lines of wolf tracks converged on a single point.  At that point lie a moose carcass, an awful lot of blood, and the hunters themselves enjoying a filling meal.  We circled a few times to observe the spectacle and the wolves, hearing the drone of our engine, attempted to flee the scene, encumbered by distended stomachs dragging in fresh snow.

Wolf kill of moose on the frozen river

Wolf kill of moose on the frozen river

All in all, the weather was gorgeous and the surveys were completed in no time at all.

Bonus Aurora!  (Bettles)

Bonus Aurora! (Bettles)

The information we gathered will be used by NPS to make important management decisions.  One of the main aspects of this management is subsistence hunting.  Native Alaskans of three main cultures (Koyukon Athapaskan Indians, Kuuvanmiit Eskimos, and Nunamiut Eskimos) have inhabited Gates of the Arctic for nearly 13,000 years, subsisting on caribou, moose and other game animals.

Across the years other non-native rural Alaskans have established homesteads in the park and also depend on caribou and moose for food.  In Alaska, these types of situation are unique in that there are often no other food options for people living this far out in the wilderness—the nearest grocery store is many, many miles away.  With this in mind the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed in 1980 to preserve wilderness, protect subsistence hunting, and honor the intimate man-land relationship formed by years of peaceful coexistence. It set aside many acres of national parks and preserves for these purposes. Now, NPS biologists collect data in the hopes of making informed wildlife management decisions that balance these subsistence uses with myriad other considerations.

The other field outing I have participated in recently was snow surveys along the Dalton Highway.  The Dalton runs straight north, linking Fairbanks to Deadhorse, a small town (with a lot of oil) perched right on the Arctic Ocean.  Snow surveys entailed us snow shoeing to our sites, measuring depth of snow, taking snow cores with a metal tube, measuring height of settled snow cores, weighing snow cores, and using formulas to determine water content of snow.  Our hydrologists keep track of this snow data which allows them to predict how much snow melt will feed nearby rivers.  We measured snow in the Yukon River and Koyukuk River drainages.

Measuring snow depth

Measuring snow depth

Trips up the Dalton are never a dull moment—in addition to the scheduled field work we investigated two oil tanker turn-over sights (yikes!), one Bettles “ice” road in poor shape, a frozen debris lobe (slow moving landslides that occur in permafrost and carry rocks, sediment, trees and ice downslope) threatening to wipe out a section of the highway, and masses of truckers stuck in Coldfoot due to road closure further north.

Tanker roll-over scar

Tanker roll-over scar

Through Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway

Through Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway

Sukakpak Mountain, Dalton  Highway

Sukakpak Mountain, Dalton Highway

Fox visitor, Dalton Highway

Fox visitor, Dalton Highway

Back in the office, I have been continuing to work on our little brown bat monitoring project and I am creating a first draft of an invasive species management strategic plan for our field office.

Happy spring everyone!

Katie

Fairbanks, AK

 

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