By Robin Mayo
On Friday January 15th, Kate Morse of Copper River Watershed Project shared a long term project to better understand the impact of culverts on salmon habitat in the Copper River Watershed and implement on-the-ground projects to improve fish passage. Over 50 people from across the country tuned into the Web-based lecture to learn about the projects.
The CRWP convened a Copper River Fish Passage Partnership in 2007, which includes Alaska Department of Transportation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Bureau of Land Management, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and U. S. Forest Service. The groups goal was to address issues found in a 2002 study of culverts in the Copper River Valley which found 64% were inadequate, 32% required additional information, and only 4% were considered adequate for fish passage.
The partnership took on the daunting task of filling in missing information about hundreds of culverts and their associated habitat, and setting priorities for which ones needed attention the most. A system for measuring, ranking, and ultimately replacing the offenders has been undertaken, with some amazing success stories. Because of the way they restrict streams and change the dynamics, culverts can become a “bottleneck” which affects large areas of natural habitat. As an example, Kate showed a map of the Little Tonsina watershed, upstream from the culvert on the “Burma Pit Road” near mile 74 Richardson Highway. A web of red lines on the map estimated over 70 miles of streams which funnel down into that one crossing. The original culverts were blown out in a high water event in 2006 and the temporary replacements have a multitude of issues.
Why do culverts have such a dramatic effect on fish passage? The first thing we are likely to think of is spawning salmon migrating upstream, but it is important to remember that our stream systems are also home to large numbers of juvenile fish. For several years between hatching and heading for the ocean, they travel widely looking for good sources of food.
Culverts often constrict the stream flow, causing it to speed up, which leads to deep scour pools downstream. “Perched” culverts have a drop at the lower end creating another obstacle. Unlike natural waterfalls and rapids, there often is no pool upstream of the culvert to allow fish to rest. During normal or low water, the stream may be too shallow in the culvert for fish to traverse, and during high water the stream becomes too fast and turbulent. Poorly designed culverts which are not in line with the steam flow can create all kinds of unintended consequences, including erosion of the roadbed.
Kate noted that there are big differences between the unnatural obstacle created by a culvert, and natural features such as beaver dams or fallen trees. Natural obstacles usually spread out and slow the current, and are important because they create shelter for juvenile fish. In contrast, culverts often constrict water to one fast channel. Natural obstacles are part of the ecosystem where the salmon have evolved and thrived, while culverts are a recent addition.
The first step in the project is filling in the data gaps. Culverts are assessed for their fish passage qualities, and also the potential for upstream habitat. With hundreds of culverts throughout our road system, this itself has been a massive multi-year effort. They are scored and prioritized, and the partnership works to choose which culverts to move forward on repairing. High priority goes to culverts with poor fish passage, but promising habitat upstream. All data on culverts on fish-bearing streams in the watershed can be viewed at https://copperriver.org/wp-content/uploads/CRWP_CulMapper/.
Kate summarized several successful projects, including Goose Meadows on the Copper River Delta, Little Tulsona on the Tok Cutoff, and Chokosna Pond on the McCarthy Road. Design goals for the projects include matching slope and elevation of the stream, aligning with the natural flow direction, completely spanning the stream to avoid constriction, and putting natural substrate in the pipe itself. In before and after photos, the difference is dramatic. The traditional small, round pipes are replaced with huge, flat bottomed culverts which are assembled on site. The unusual shape provides the widest possible stream bed with efficient use of materials and reduced need for excavation.
The Little Tonsina project is currently in the design phase, and a two-lane bridge is being planned to replace the culverts. The partnership hopes to complete the design, relocate utilities, and obtain construction bids in 2021, with a goal of constructing the project in the summer of 2022. One of the biggest challenges is lining up funding. For this project, it will come from Alaska Department of Transportation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, US Bureau of Land Management, and the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, reflecting the diverse group of resource managers and stakeholders in the project.
This article only skims the surface of what Kate covered in her talk. If you missed it, a recording can be viewed at www.wise-edu.org, and more information on the fish passage projects can be found at the Copper River Watershed Project website, www.copperriver.org.
In February, the WISE Science Lectures will feature a two-lecture series titled “Archaeology on the Shores of Ancient Lake Atna.” On Friday February 5 at 5pm, Lee Reininghaus, Archaeologist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, will give an overview of recent discoveries in the park along the shoreline of Lake Atna, a glacier dammed lake that filled the Copper River Valley thousands of years ago. A week later on Friday, February 12 at 5pm, John T. White, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, will share “The Excavation of Site NAB-0053,” one of the most interesting sites so far.
All of the lectures are being held online, and pre-registration is required. More information and the links to register can be found at www.wise-edu.org.
WISE is grateful to partners Prince William Sound College, US Bureau of Land Management, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and Copper Country Alliance for assisting with our lecture series. Funding comes from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and many generous WISE donors.
Photo Credit, Copper River Watershed Project
The Little Tonsina culverts at mile 74 Richardson Highway which are scheduled to be replaced with a bridge in 2022. This picture shows how the constriction causes turbulence at high water.
By Robin Mayo
On December 18 WISE and our partners held our first Science Lecture of the season, a talk by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Wildlife Biologist Heidi Hatcher on the Nelchina Caribou Herd. The talk was held online, which opened it up to people from out of the local area. Interest was huge, with well over 100 people registering, and 96 households logging in to listen.
We started the evening with a look back at the long history between humans and the members of the deer family known as caribou in North America, and reindeer in Europe and Asia. As well as being an important game species for thousands of years, they have been domesticated and used for a wide variety of purposes including dairy production and beasts of burden, a tradition that still continues. They also held a strong place in mythology, which help explain how we ended up with reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. Even Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has an explanation in biology, as their noses have increased blood flow in the winter to keep warm.
In Alaska there are 32 caribou herds, generally named based on their calving areas. The Nelchina Herd is fairly unique in that it usually spends spring, summer, and fall in relatively accessible areas. The herd is in high demand for hunting, and since the 1990’s has been what Heidi described as “a notorious experiment in Caribou management.”
As she reviewed the history and current status, Heidi wryly observed “One thing that’s certain with caribou is that if you try to generalize them they will inevitably find a way to defy the rules that you outline.” There is a basic understanding of the status of the herd since the 1860’s based on oral history and observations. The first scientific census was in 1948, when there were roughly 10,000 caribou. Regular counts began in the 1950’s and continue to this day. Throughout that time there have been drastic fluctuations in the population, range, and average distances travelled. Count estimates range from 10,000 to over 70,000 animals, and the herd has travelled as far as Dawson City, Yukon Territory.
The current management objectives for the herd are to keep it large enough to provide for hunting, but below the carrying capacity of the range. This is challenging for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of getting an accurate count every year, changes in range, switching between herds, and the challenges of “managing” the herd of humans who are hunting.
In the early 80’s an objective of 20,000 adult animals was set, and that number was adjusted over the years. Currently the population goal is 35,000 to 45,000 total animals. Factors including herd size, productivity, and harvestable surplus are used to determine the harvest goals for the next year’s hunting season.
ADF&G uses several methods to gather information on the herd. Every October they put VHS radio collars on 20 female calves. When the animals are captured and drugged for collaring they also collect measurements and biological samples. Weighing the calves helps determine the general status of the nutrition available on the range , which affects the health of the herd. They also have 40-60 GPS satellite collars on animals in the herd which can be tracked more easily from the office. These collars help them determine location and mortality for the herd.
Population counts are also undertaken every summer, but conditions don’t always cooperate. Teams of counters fly a grid of the area in Super Cubs, and depending on the concentration of animals, they are also sometimes able to use special planes equipped with GPS linked high resolution cameras. Heidi shared an excellent video, Counting Caribou, on the annual counts which can be seen at: https://vimeo.com/471257951
The researchers also conduct surveys to estimate the number of males, females, and calves in the herd to determine the composition. All of these numbers are combined to come up with population estimates for the year. This information is used by ADF&G to determine hunt quotas to try and achieve a harvest that reaches their objectives. They use these quotas, as well as hunt extensions, emergency closures, and winter openings to help reach the desired harvest rate and gender ratios.
Estimating that a hunter gets 60 to 100 pounds of meat from an animal, each year the Nelchina Caribou Herd produces about 240,000 pounds of food for Alaskans while maintaining a fairly stable population.
It is a challenge to summarize the huge amounts of information Heidi shared in her talk and the question and answer session which followed. The full recording of the December 18th talk can be accessed at the WISE website: www.wise-edu.org.
WISE has more Science Lectures scheduled for January and February, including learning about Copper River Watershed Project’s Salmon Habitat Restoration Projects with Kate Morse (Noon on Friday, January 15) and two lectures exploring Archaeology on the Shorelines of Ancient Lake Atna on February 5th and 12th. To register for any of these online events, you can find registration links on the WISE website. They will also be recorded if you’d like to watch them at a latertime.
A huge Thank You to Prince William Sound College for providing technical assistance for these lectures, and to our funding partner Alyeska Pipeline Service Company for financial support. Copper Country Alliance and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve are also program partners.
ADF&G Photo. Heidi working with a sedated caribou
By Robin Mayo
WISE is taking our Science Lecture series online, with web-based presentations from a wide variety of experts. Although we will miss the camaraderie and personal experience of live lectures, there are some cool advantages to online events which we plan to enjoy.
First, we are not limited to presenters who are willing and able to make the trip to the Copper River Valley in winter. This has opened up a whole new set of people we can tap into, and it is exciting. Potential speakers do need to be willing to master the technology, but in 2020 everyone seems to be embracing this.
Similarly, our audience is no longer limited to those within driving distance. There is no such thing as a “central” location, no matter where a live lecture is held, it will too far for some. With online lectures, we can even invite participants from other areas. Because of this, we are scheduling most talks for 5pm to make them accessible for those in earlier time zones.
Here is what we have planned so far!
Friday, December 18 at 5pm--the Nelchina Caribou Herd with Heidi Hatcher. Heidi is the Glennallen Area Wildlife Biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and has a wealth of knowledge of this important subsistence resource. She’ll also explore some of the history of our relationship with caribou and reindeer, including their appearance in holiday traditions.
Friday, January 8 at 5pm—Bird Research in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, with Carol McIntyre and Jeremy Mizel. These two National Park Service researchers will share their research on Golden Eagles and songbirds.
Friday, January 15 at NOON—Fish Passage and Culvert Projects with Kate Morse. The Copper River Watershed Project has a variety of projects in the area, including a major culvert replacement at 74 mile Richardson Highway. Learn about their system for evaluating culverts, the dynamics of culvert replacement projects, and the significant impact on fish habitat.
Friday, February 5 at 5pm—Archaeology Discoveries on the shores of Ancient Lake Atna with NPS Archaeologist Lee Reininghaus. This is the first of a two-part series on recent archaeological discoveries in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, including some cool collaboration with geologists to identify likely sites.
Friday, February 12 at 5pm—The Excavation of NAB-533 with John White, Texas A&M University. This talk will zoom in on one of the most interesting recent sites found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
To attend any of these talks, please email email@example.com to request a link. We will be using a platform called Cisco WebEx, which is very similar to Zoom. You will need to download an app if you want to join by smartphone, and it is recommended that you log in a few minutes early, especially if it is your first WebEx meeting.
We are working on more lectures for the rest of the winter, and welcome suggestions for topics and speakers. Looking forward to seeing you on the screen and learning together!
Wolves and Bats and Passerines, Oh My! WISE Science Lectures focus on scientific research in Alaska’s National Parks
By Robin Mayo
When we think of our national parks, we tend to think of hiking and camping, beautiful vistas, and historic sites. But the National Park Service is also very involved in scientific research, with a dedication to learning about the areas they are charged with protecting.
In the next two months, WISE is excited to be hosting 3 visiting scientists from the National Park Service for our Science Lecture series. They will present research on Mesocarnivores, Bats, and Migratory Songbirds in our Alaska parks.
Kaija Klauder is a graduate student at Washington State University, and crew leader for the Mesocarnivore Research Project at Denali National Park and Preserve. On Friday, February 17th, at 7pm at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center, Kaija will give an illustrated talk on her research titled “Gifts of An Enemy: Scavenging Dynamics in the Presence of Wolves.” Mesocarnivores are mid-size animals such as coyotes and fox, which often scavenge on the kills of larger predators. The research centers on the complex interrelationships that exist among carnivores. Who scavenges, when and why? What implications does this have for the overall ecological relationship between carnivores?
A few weeks later, Paul Burger from the National Park Service Alaska Regional Office will give a talk on the fascinating subject of bats. This will be on Friday, March 3rd, at 7pm at Prince William Sound College Copper Basin Campus. Very little is known about Alaska’s bats, their abundance, distribution, and habitat. This talk will include general information about bats and their role in the landscape, and will describe efforts of researchers in Alaska’s national parks. Knowing their range is vital for determining how susceptible they may be to disease and changes in habitat.
The third lecture will explore “Critical Connections, Conservation of Migratory Birds in Alaska’s National Parks” on Friday, March 10th, at 7pm at the Frances Kibble Kenny Lake Public Library at mile 5 Edgerton Highway. Presenter Laura Phillips is an Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve, and leads a project which includes surveying migratory songbirds in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Migratory birds are influenced by conditions and events in more than one part of the world, including on their wintering areas that are often thousands of miles away from their protected breeding grounds.
Everyone is welcome to join us for these talks, which are always geared towards the interests of the general public, and family friendly. WISE is grateful to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which has provided funds to help support our Science Lecture Series for many years.
Kaija Klauder at a research site
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.