Series: Alaska Park Science - Volume 14 Issue 2: Birds of Alaska's National Parks

By John G. Dennis
misty clouds partly covering a mountain, trees in the foreground
Misty morning

NPS Photo

Introduction

Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in December 1971 to establish a mechanism for resolving land claims of the Native peoples of Alaska and for encouraging the State of Alaska to complete its land claims as provided in the Alaska Statehood Act. The stimulus behind ANCSA was economic pressure to provide a corridor for an oil pipeline that would carry Prudhoe Bay oil to an accessible year-round marine port. One compromise that helped make passage of the act possible was inclusion of two conservation-focused provisions that came to be known as D1 and D2. These provisions authorized federal managers to identify up to 80 million acres (D2) of lands that would be set aside for study as possible additions to national forest, park, wildlife refuge, and wild and scenic river systems plus additional lands (D1) that could be considered in such study.

ANCSA prescribed a formula for determining what lands would be identified for possible selection by the Native corporations. The State had been developing a strategy and conducting analyses of lands in which it had interest for a number of years since passage of the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958. The federal agencies and conservation communities for a number of years had been developing ideas about areas of Alaska that might warrant conservation status. The National Park Service (NPS), for example, had conducted a variety of field surveys and natural and historic theme studies in Alaska from as far back as 1938 and had recommended several national monument proclamations to the Secretary of the Interior that the Secretary recommended to the President. A June 1972 NPS summary of past NPS activities identified 22 reports and a long list of registered, eligible, recommended, and potential Natural Landmarks (National Park Service 1964 and National Park Service 1972a are examples of published discussions about possible additions to the National Park System and Sanchez 1967 and Schmidt 1969 are examples of natural landmark eligibility reports). As a result of these various efforts, the interested parties were able to identify and map a tentative distribution of the then mostly federal lands and waters of Alaska into Native, State, conservation interest, and residual categories, and the federal land management agencies sorted out among themselves which agency would be assigned to study which components of the identified conservation-potential lands. NPS by mid-March 1972 had identified 14 conceptual study areas and several principal values for each of those study areas. The overall time line for this study activity required NPS to establish final study area boundaries by September 1972 and submit final recommended study packages (each containing conceptual master plan, legislative support data, and environmental impact statement) by mid-December 1973.

Through its very active role in this process, NPS thus succeeded in receiving authorizations to study identified areas either for addition to the existing Glacier Bay National Monument, Katmai National Monument, and Mount McKinley National Park or for establishment as additions to the National Park System. These new-addition study areas included what are now Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kobuk Valley National Park, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Noatak National Preserve, Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

The intense state and national pressure for quick action spurred NPS by early 1972 to establish an Alaska Task Force with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the bulk of the work force in a bustling project office based in Anchorage, Alaska, and administrative support provided in part by the regional office in Seattle, Washington. The project office by mid-May had developed five study teams, four four-person teams that each addressed a separate part of the new area field work and a fifth team that explored cultural sites that had been identified as warranting consideration. Each team included a team captain, landscape architect, biologist, and interpretive planner. The biologist’s role was to incorporate natural science thinking into the planning. Headed by a project leader and an administrative officer, the project office also had a cadre that included an engineer, several archeologists, a sociologist, representation for park management, a support data and service center liaison, a photographer, and land and mineral specialists. It developed this work force through reassignments and part-time details of personnel from other areas of the NPS. Having just joined NPS in October, 1971, as the Katmai biologist and being duty stationed in Anchorage, I became one of the five biologists. Being totally green to the ways of NPS, I found my entry into NPS being split between park and task force science to be extremely educational, heady, and rewarding. The following overview highlights elements of this heady science effort.

Science Strategy

Early on, the task force recognized that there were great differences of pre-existing knowledge about the different study areas and that the new area proposals that would emerge from the study process would be analyzed in part through procedures of the then new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. Given that these procedures would be undergoing development even as the planning and analysis process progressed, it was observed that the Alaska planning would provide NPS an early opportunity to benefit from environmental impact analysis for planning. For example, an April 1972 memorandum (NPS 1972) pointed out the need to address historic—including archeological and paleontological—resources in NEPA documents and a court decision that was circulated to the task force in August 1972 (Lybecker and Lloyd 1972) discussed the necessity of backing up comments with existing data or with research results from new studies. These factors contributed to the task force setting aside funds to support library and field scientific activities that would inform and complement the new area planning studies that had gotten underway.

man standing near boulders on a hill
Figure 2. NPS biologist A.R. Weisbrod on ridge in Serpentine Hot Springs portion of the Chukchi-Imuruk study area, looking north-west. August 2, 1973.

NPS Photo

In addition to their new area planning work, the individual planning team biologists also served as a science team to help plan the task force science effort. In this role they encouraged acquisition of an annotated bibliography of relevant literature and identified high priority ecological science needs for many of the study areas, developed cost estimates for studies to address those needs, identified possible performers of the studies, and served as technical representatives in the contracting process. In the spring of 1972 they arranged for rapid production of the bibliography and in December 1972 they identified two different pathways for deciding how to allocate the limited funds set aside for conducting scientific work—one focused on short term responses for resolving identified, possible near-term planning and management concerns in the potential new areas, the other focused on the longer-term task of expanding basic knowledge about the natural resources of the study areas with emphasis on the least-known areas. Given the go ahead to structure a biological science program primarily to advance basic knowledge, the team in early 1973 began to establish project plans and identify project personnel for Chukchi-Imuruk (Bering Land Bridge), Gates, Kobuk, Lake Clark, Noatak, Yukon-Charley, and the proposed Katmai and McKinley extensions. Project personnel eventually recruited for these studies included scientists in Alaska and in other areas of the country, some of whom previously had conducted studies in Alaska and others who had not.

By early 1974, the science team had expanded the scope of their deliberations based on a variety of suggestions for scientific studies that came from many sources together with the team’s broader perspective that had evolved once the start-up phase had gotten underway. This broader perspective advocated that studies for additions to existing park areas be incorporated into the existing research plans for those areas while planning for the proposed new areas focus on science needs common to all the areas plus specific needs unique to individual areas. The common needs they recognized encompassed all disciplines—climate, vegetation, fauna, aquatic and marine physical and biological elements, geology, soils, archeology and history, and visitor characteristics and needs. The bibliographic work received the first contract, getting underway in late June 1972 and two months later producing annotated bibliographies for archeology, biology, climatology, geology, hydrology, pedology, and recreation. Contract field work in 1973 included Chukchi-Imuruk (biological survey), Gates (flora and vegetation in an Alatna-Killik transect), and Noatak (biological survey), with the quirk that the Chukchi-Imuruk and Noatak projects were funded across two fiscal years, given that the fiscal year in 1973 ended on June 30.

Because of this two-year funding, both projects were told that, if the fiscal year 1974 funds did not become available, they would have to leave the field as soon after June 30 as possible. Contract field work in 1974 involved Chukchi-Imuruk (plant ecology impact of winter ice road in Cape Espenberg, archeological survey, archeological investigation in the adjacent St. Lawrence Island), Katmai (eagle nesting and brown bear denning surveys), Kobuk (biological survey, subsistence-related activities—the latter jointly funded by the Northwest Alaska Native Association), and Yukon-Charley (biological survey). Contract field work in 1975 included a second summer in Yukon-Charley. Contract field work in 1976 included Katmai (biological survey of proposed western extension), Lake Clark (ecosystem survey), and subsistence studies in a number of areas.

Summaries of Selected Field Projects

Chukchi-Imuruk: A field survey team of up to 11 people during the period June 20 through August 20, 1973, used eight base camps, six spike camps, and 12.4 hours (covering approximately 1,072 miles {1,725 kilometers}) of large mammal observation flights to conduct field observations regarding flora and vegetation, soils, terrestrial mammals, birds, aquatic ecology and aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, and locations of archeological sites they encountered. Their changes of camps involved a total of 72 hours flight time covering about 8,295 miles (13,350 kilometers) total distance. While in each camp, their walking radius ranged from 3 to 6.2 miles (5 to 10 kilometers).

They were blown out of their Kuzitrin Lake camp after experiencing 95 hours of severe wind and rain, including wind speeds of 30 to 54.6 miles per hour (48 to 88 kilometers per hour), during the course of which they lost a field notebook and the data it contained. They recovered by drying out and warming up in a loft in Deering. At another camp, Serpentine Hot Springs, they arrived on multiple flights later on the same day that a solitary young woman from the area around Taylor arrived after about a 10-mile (16-kilometer) walk over the tundra, seeking to cure a cold by having some time to herself soaking in the hot springs. One of four major sets of soil samples they collected never made it back to the home university—uninformed and humorous speculation at the time opined that the airline that accepted the samples for shipment out of Alaska ended up using them as ballast for flights around the world (the responsible airline eventually reimbursed the NPS contractor a total of $109 for freight charges plus a value of $50 since no excess value had been declared, even though the contractor had filed a claim for a value of $8,304). In their May 1974 final report, the team provided their observations by each study topic.

The botanical team collected specimens of 318 of the estimated 350 vascular plant species, with 20 species representing range extensions into the Seward Peninsula, and about 60 species of foliose and fruticose lichens, 45 of which they found on a single lava flow (the Lost Jim), and one of which was the first record for the species in Alaska. They sampled about 50 vegetation stands, mostly as transects up slopes because they felt that interior upland slopes were the predominant land form in the study area. They observed 30-36-foot-tall (9-11 meters) spruce forest and woodland to the south and east and the same height range for cottonwood forest to the south and west of the study area, as well as four kinds of shrub thickets from 3 to 20 feet tall (1 to 6 meters) in drainages throughout, three types of tussock-shrub tundra, five dwarf shrub tundra types, and seven meadow types.

three people walking across tundra toward a mountain
Figure 3. NPS new area study team members on shore of southeast end of Kurupa Lake, Gates of the Arctic study area. July 27, 1973.

NPS Photo

The soils team conducted studies at six of the base camps. At four of the camps, the studies included landscape transects that ranged from 0.8 to 2.3 miles (1.3 to 3.8 kilometers) in length and involved up to seven different drainage conditions (excessively drained to wet). They observed that, because of slow downslope soil creep, the older surface materials are at the bottoms of slopes, the younger surface materials are near the tops of slopes, and the differences in surface age could be tens of thousands of years, resulting in changes in soil characteristics from tops to bottoms of slopes and soils at slope bottoms having experienced greater and more varied climatic and biotic environments than soils near the tops of slopes. Overall, they recognized eight kinds of soils in the study area and observed that development of soil morphological features was weak due to ongoing frost action.

The terrestrial mammal team found direct evidence for presence of 15 species and indirect evidence for an additional three species of the total of 23 species thought to occur in the study area. The study’s author attributed an absence of sightings of wolves and wolverines and a scarcity of sightings of grizzly bears to the pre-existing predator control program that had been in place on the Seward Peninsula for a number of years to benefit the reindeer industry. The bird team visited 14 sites in the summer and three (two of which were outside the immediate study area, one to the north, the other to the west) during the migratory period in September, resulting in their sampling all of the avian habitats. They observed 108 of the total 170 bird species reported for the Seward Peninsula, but 20 species they saw only once or twice. In terms of their primary affinities, almost two-thirds of the bird species are tundra biome species, 25 species are Aleutican, 8 are old world, 17 are boreal forest, 10 are marine, and 15 are other non-tundra. The study area contains all the tundra habitats and abuts both marine and spruce forest habitats; as a result, it has an unusual variety of bird species. The author found the diversity and quantity of birds on the Cape Espenberg Peninsula to be striking, and observed that the geographic location of the Seward Peninsula makes the area highly interesting because of the two-way movement of breeding migrants between old and new worlds. The aquatic ecology team was unable to spend much study time on physical characteristics of the larger lakes due to the adverse weather.

The ponds and lakes they sampled were mostly less than 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) deep, except for Devil Mountain, greater than 36 feet (11 meters) and, as reported in the literature, Kuzitrin, 21.3 feet (6.5 meters). As a result, the lakes were well mixed by wind and had maximum temperatures of less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 10 degrees Celsius) and, for all water bodies examined, dissolved oxygen ranging from 80 to 100 percent saturation and no unusual chemical features. The study found 7 of the expected 24 fish species distributed in 11 families and, during the period July 7 to August 21 collected aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates in 10 study areas and found species representing 16 classes and, within the insect class, species representing 45 families, among which were 15 butterfly species and at least one moth species. The survey team did not include an archeologist, so it limited its archeological work to noting locations of possible sites. It found three historic and two prehistoric sites not previously reported in the literature. NPS built on this beginning by sponsoring a focused, four-person field survey in 1974 that spent six weeks in the study area, mostly in the interior but also some time in coastal areas around Deering. The 1974 team explored 37 sites, many of which had not previously been reported, but did not have time to conduct any detailed excavations. It had somewhat better luck in the Kuzitrin Lake area than did the 1973 team, including being able to conduct a land transect from Imuruk Lake to Kuzitrin Lake, before being weathered out and having to retreat to the coast at Deering. The team found ample evidence that humans in the past had made thorough use of the interior portions of the study area, but could not determine whether that use had been only seasonal or had been year round. Based on reports by other investigators combined with their own survey work, the team concluded that the study area coupled with the broader Seward Peninsula has a rich human prehistory dating back to perhaps 13,000 to 15,000 years before present.

The 1973 survey team’s report suggests 15 future studies that it identified as recommended, highly recommended, or urgent; the urgent studies focus on ecological effects of reindeer herding, ecological effects of tundra fire, observed recent ecosystem change from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, and ecology of fish and their food resources. A follow-up paleontological reconnaissance study in 1974 examined the potential for obtaining cores from a number of the maar lakes and surroundings in the Espenberg area. This study concluded that cores recovered from Whitefish Lake, the Goose Pasture area adjacent to the northeast boundary of the Chukchi-Imuruk study area, and other areas may permit gaining an overview of biological change through time back into the early Pleistocene. Other follow-up studies conducted in 1974, 1976, and 1978 addressed effects of a winter road and drilling operation in the Cape Espenberg area associated with land available both for conservation area study and possible withdrawal under ANCSA as Native Village deficiency land. These studies included vegetation and aquatic ecology analyses of effects of the winter drilling operation and also of off-road vehicle use for reindeer herding activities. Gates: A four person botanical field party visited four base camp areas in the Brooks Range during the period June 18 through August 5, 1973.

man wearing a backpack kneeling in sand
Figure 4. NPS field assistant Sam Bemiss near base of the Buttress Range in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Monument. July 1973.

NPS Photo

The study area included the upper Alatna River on the south slope, the upper Killik River on the North Slope, and the alpine divide between them, thus sampling two climatic regions—subarctic and arctic—and a great amount of variation in landscapes and vegetation related to glacial history, erosion processes, rock types, topographic relief and aspect, and geomorphologies. The lowest latitude camp provided access to both coniferous forest and alpine vegetation, the other three camps gave access to medium and upper elevation arctic vegetation. The field collections documented 313 taxa of vascular plants, with 28 taxa being beyond ranges identified in the literature; at least 99 bryophyte taxa, of which 25 were new records for the Brooks Range; and at least 100 lichen taxa, of which 55 were new for the region. One preliminary observation included a sense that, even though the Brooks Range is an end point of the Rocky Mountains range, the flora is related more to Asian and Alaska-Wrangell-Chugach-St. Elias Range floras than Rocky Mountain Range floras. Another is that the flora of the study area represents the calcareous nature of this section of the Brooks Range and that there would be value in comparing the Alatna-Killik flora with the flora of the nearby, granitic Arrigetch Peaks area and with the Kurupa and Cascade Lakes area, which contains alpine tundra with some ice-wedge polygons, small scale cirque glaciers, and meltwater-irrigated alpine valleys. Finally, the study team’s report also provides ne tundra and down the Alatna River.

Katmai

A study in 1974 assessed the distributions and densities of brown bear denning and bald eagle nests. Two people spent nine days in mid-August 1976 conducting a quick survey of flora, vegetation, and some mammal species in an area to the west and southwest of the existing Katmai National Monument. Their purpose was to determine whether the ecology of the area differed from the ecology within the existing monument. A separate study conducted in 1976 assessed human subsistence and resource uses in the general vicinity.

Kobuk

A year-long, in-residence subsistence-use study of the valley involved a total of 13 people, mostly visiting researchers together with some residents of several of the five communities situated along the Kobuk River. The four-person biological study involved three separate visits to learn about flora, vegetation, and vertebrates—September 15-20, 1973, July and August 1974, and March 11-15, 1975. The biological final report also includes information about physiography, climate, and fire. Subsequent to the field work, one of the authors worked with a colleague to author a report discussing the flora and vegetation of the Quaternary environment of the Kobuk valley.

lake tinged pink by setting sun
Figure 5. Noatak study team conducting late night lake study at Camp VII, Anuk Lake, near Cutler River. August 3, 1973.

NPS Photo

Lake Clark

A four-person team occupied eight base camps to develop a preliminary assessment of the ecosystems in the study area during the period July 10 through August 13, 1976. Although this study focused on flora, vegetation (including a vegetation map), and west slope treeline conditions, it also reported observations about some of the area’s mammals, birds, and a few freshwater fishes. A separate study conducted in 1976 assessed resident resource use in the vicinity.

Denali

This study focused on the large mammals in the area north of the then-existing Mt. McKinley National Park (later renamed Denali) in an effort to understand better the relationship of park animals to the habitat north of the park. Observations the study made during winter and early spring of use of areas north of the park by sheep, moose, grizzly bears, and wolves coupled with its synthesis of existing information led the study’s authors to conclude that large mammal species depend on areas to the north of the park for winter and early spring range, especially during winters having heavy snowfall in the park. The study also observed that the park’s caribou herd was declining and that land to the west and north of the then west end of the park provided valuable caribou habitat. Finally, the study worked on mapping vegetation types that could be related to caribou range quality criteria.

Noatak

The Noatak study sampled a 12,000-square-mile (31,080-square-kilometer) watershed containing a 435 mile-long (700-kilometer-long) central river and engaged 11 people representing seven disciplines: flora and vegetation, soils, mammals, birds, insects, aquatic ecology, and archeology. In occupying nine different field camps during the period June 13 through August 24, 1973, these scientists used 15,000 miles (24,140 kilometers) of aircraft flight involving six to ten flights per camp relocation, 3,000 total miles (4,828 kilometers) of foot travel, and 200 miles (322 kilometers) of boat travel. Their aircraft support came from Kotzebue and their boat support came from Noatak Village. One perhaps apocryphal story that emerged from the aircraft use was an experience in the upper reaches of the watershed on a hot day with trying to take off from too small a lake—the solution allegedly was to power around in a circle on the lake surface twice to gain enough ground speed to be able to then shoot straight across the lake and lift off the lake near the far shore with enough elevation for the floats to clear the tundra margin at the lake’s edge. Overall, in their 1974 report, the survey team confirmed existing knowledge in a number of areas and added new information.

The botanical work, for example, found 413 of a total expected vascular plant flora of 435-440 species, documented range extensions or infilling of distribution gaps for collected specimens of more than 100 miles for 46 species, and discovered one species thought to be previously undescribed. The analysis showed these species to be distributed among three types of tundra, three of tundra brush, four of fell field and barrens, one of coastal marsh, and two of forest. The survey also singled out rare species distributions in the serpentine barrens north of Feniak and Desperation lakes and the habitat diversity and key migration route between coastal and interior Alaska present in the Noatak Canyon area as topics worth further botanical exploration. Finally, the botanical work also identified 47 bryophyte species.

The soils work involved 126 soil profiles and determined that, because of the variety of ecosystems in the watershed, there is greater diversity of soil types in the Noatak compared to valleys on the north side of the Brooks Range or to coastal areas of Arctic Alaska. The study of the mammals of the area found that the rodent population densities were too small to permit random sampling methods, collected 297 specimens representing 14 species, used 22 specimens from seven species for chromosome analyses, found one more species than the anticipated 28 non-marine species but did not observe any evidence of two of the new total of 29 species, and concluded that heavier than normal 1972-73 winter snow coupled with a cold spring reduced the population sizes of small mammal species. The small number of small mammals was associated with low numbers of weasel, fox, raptor, and other predator species that depend on small mammals. In addition to all these other factors impinging on the study, Arctic ground squirrels were an “irritatingly persistent” problem because they triggered snap traps and partially ate mice caught in the traps.

The bird studies were hampered by heavy rain at one camp and by the fact that bird singing decreased rapidly after the third week in June, making it harder to locate nesting birds.

Seasonal migrants started appearing by mid-July. Overall, the work observed 111 species of the 120 species recorded for the Noatak watershed. Although raptor sightings were few, assumed due to the low rodent population density, suitable raptor habitat with old nests was locally abundant in parts of the headwaters region. Finally, despite the sampling problems, the study made an effort to estimate relative abundances of some species by habitat type.

Although the cool and rainy weather at many of the camps reduced insect activity, the survey of insects found expected Arctic conditions—large numbers of some species, overall low species diversity, and a number of range extensions from across Alaska. The study also observed an expected shift of species roles, such as greater pollination by flies than by bees; a segregation of some spruce bark beetles by vertical position on the boles of trees; and a preference by those bark beetle species for laying eggs on southeast and southwest facing quadrants of tree boles. Finally, the study observed 29 butterfly species representing six families. The study of aquatic ecology not only sampled an extensive array of 49 lakes and ponds and nine river and stream segments, it also conducted experimental analyses involving phytoplankton primary production and limiting nutrients. Because it sampled in different areas through the season, it missed the late emerging adults at the early sample sites. Overall, the study involved 10 different specialists to help identify collected species and, above all, the investigators thanked their wives, “…who tried very hard to understand why we wanted to do the project…” The archeologist who participated in the study previously had worked a number of years in the Noatak watershed and so not only served as a major logistician for the team but also followed up on promising leads from his previous work. He focused his archeological work on finding new sites for future study, evaluating the research potential of known sites, and completing a previously initiated excavation of one site. He also took advantage of the soil scientist on the team to consult about what information soil characteristics of sites could help to reveal about the sites. The ongoing studies in the watershed reveal that several places in the watershed may have been used by humans as long as 5,000 years before the present, that Arctic Small Tool tradition peoples may have used the upper portion of the watershed for both small summer camps and more established winter villages, and that there is evidence for people of a coastal culture having used areas in interior Alaska as well as the coast.

Yukon-Charley

A total of 15 field participants served short- to long-term roles during one or two summers of the two-year study. The study team gathered inventory and in some cases process information about weather patterns; flora and vegetation, including characteristics of white spruce forest in the forest-tundra ecotone and observations about the Arctic steppe biome; paleontology and paleobotany; mammals including mountain sheep; birds; insects associated with spruce forest and possible relict Arctic steppe vegetation, butterflies, and bark beetle host selection behavior; lake and stream limnology; and a synthesis of pre-existing knowledge about aboriginal sites and their peoples. The study team’s workhorse mode of transportation was the riverboat—an estimated 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of travel in 1974 and another 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) in 1975, mostly on the Yukon River. The team also used a canoe on the Charley River, a horse pack-string to gain access to higher elevations, a float plane to reach several lakes, and a helicopter to reach the highest elevations. Although most transportation modes worked well, the team did experience a near disaster due to the helicopter at one point trying to reach an upper elevation while overloaded and short of fuel, resulting in the field crew becoming separated, with one person being left with almost all of the food and gear and the other three about five miles away having to survive on limited rations. The vegetation and flora studies mapped seven vegetation types consolidated from three forest, three woodland, three scrub, bog, marsh, alpine tundra, and rockland and fellfield types. It reported observing 402 of the expected 445 species of vascular plants. Its white spruce treeline study in the Twin Mountain area revealed an absence of wind training of the trees, presence of tree vegetative reproduction through layering, and absence of fire, all of which led the authors to conclude that the treeline is not yet in stable equilibrium with the physical environment. Finally, the authors observed that vegetation on Kathul Mountain and similar areas appears to be Arctic-steppe that is a relict from the late Quaternary, a conclusion that is suggested by presence of several narrowly endemic species in the same community. Future study of this relict vegetation could advance knowledge of biogeography and a nearly vanished biome.

The study area contains fossil and more recent deposits that provide great potential for studies of Earth’s history over the past billion years, missing only the Pennsylvanian Period. The team found two sites that they report to be extremely intriguing for paleobotanical study. Some of the fossil resources are so close to the Yukon River that they may be at risk of over collecting. Some of the recent, especially Quaternary, deposits may be at risk of loss due to permafrost thawing and stream bank erosion. Terrestrial vertebrate observations focused on mammals and birds. The study reported 21 mammal species observed in 1975 out of a total of 39 species expected or probably occurring in the study area and 101 bird species of the 160 expected to occur. Thirty-three of the observed bird species are considered to breed and another 44 possibly to breed in the study area.

The insect study collected at least 77 different species, with a number of the collections not yet identified at the time of the report. Of these, 32 species were collected on white spruce and 15 species were Lepidopterans, with two Lepidopteran species rare to Alaska being collected in the Arctic steppe vegetation. The two-week-long aquatic ecology study sampled nine different small ponds together with rivers and streams at 21 locations, all but three of which were in the Charley River drainage. It found eight orders of macroinvertebrates in the streams and rivers and 10 orders in lakes and ponds, 10 fish species, 26 phytoplankton species in three lakes, and 16 zooplankton species in nine lakes and ponds. The team’s report includes a literature review of the aboriginal occupation of the study area and the observation that the team’s efforts to find historic and prehistoric sites yielded very little information. The literature review suggests that the study area might contain sites spanning 27,000 years of human residence.

Outcomes

This spurt of scientific activity gave experienced Alaska investigators additional access to remote field study sites and introduced investigators new to Alaska to exciting and challenging opportunities for conducting field study in remote places. The interim and final reports the investigators wrote provided NPS planners with recent scientific information about their planning areas, although in many cases the information arrived after much of the initial planning work had been completed, given that the Draft Environmental Statements were released in December 1973 and the Final Environmental Statements were released in October 1974. Most of the study reports include literature surveys that reveal a much greater level of past scientific activity in the study areas than might have been expected, given the remoteness of the areas.

NPS reported on various aspects of these studies together with other NPS-sponsored studies in Alaska at an all-day session in Corvallis, Oregon, at the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) August 1975 annual meeting. The session—Research in Alaska’s Present and Proposed National Parks—involved 21 different talks. The talks introduced the NPS role in Alaska, identified the current NPS research program, provided information about the major physiographic provinces and ecosystems present in Alaska, discussed how adaptation of the Native peoples to their environments can be considered integral to the ecosystems, addressed the relationship of proposed new national parks to the existing state wildlife management situation, and ended with disciplinary presentations regarding marine, fresh water, vegetation, wildlife management, ornithology, entomology, and anthropology information and management applications.

NPS also reported on the possible Alaska new areas by presenting an exhibit at the November 1976 AIBS co-sponsored First Conference on Scientific Research in National Parks. This exhibit included a recycling slide show, movie, and reprints and other information about the new area scientific studies. Alaska during the period 1972-76. In addition to reporting on studies in two existing park units, this summary included highlights from field studies in Chukchi-Imuruk, Kobuk, Noatak, and Yukon-Charley study areas. As a member of the Lake Clark, Katmai, and Aniakchak study team, I expressed great interest in having Katmai represent the complete ecological transect from the Shelikoff Straits to the Bering Sea. This concept led to the study of the vegetation to the west and southwest of the existing monument. Much of the study area became incorporated into a conservation unit, but not Katmai. It now is part of the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. In a different vein, the Noatak valley studied by NPS contractors in 1973 became proposed in the 1974 final environmental statement as a national wildlife refuge but later ended up being included in the National Park System, first as a national monument then as a national preserve.

As early as May 1973, word came down that input from the biological study groups would be needed for Secretarial consideration by early to mid-August of that year. The demonstrated richness of the science related to the study areas helped show that the areas have scientific value, a result that in turn helped with decision-making to proclaim the study areas as national monuments, proclamations that I think in turn helped Congress finally take action to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Finally, the baseline plant ecology data for the Nimrod Hill slope reported in the Chukchi-Imuruk report serendipitously became the “before data” for a long-term study of response of tundra to wild fire when Nimrod Hill burned in a 1977 fire. The plant ecologist for the Chukchi-Imuruk study was able to visit Nimrod Hill in 1978 (Racine 1979) and again in 1979 to establish permanent plots and then to conduct follow-up visits sporadically through the next 30 years, with his last visit being in 2009. His study builds on a David Hopkins observation (Hopkins 1973) that tundra fires are likely to increase. The hope is that NPS will incorporate these plots into a long term monitoring program. Dennis (1978) summarized NPS-sponsored research in Alaska during the period 1972-76. In addition to reporting on studies in two existing park units, this summary included highlights from field studies in Chukchi-Imuruk, Kobuk, Noatak, and Yukon-Charley study areas. As a member of the Lake Clark, Katmai, and Aniakchak study team, I expressed great interest in having Katmai represent the complete ecological transect from the Shelikoff Straits to the Bering Sea. This concept led to the study of the vegetation to the west and southwest of the existing monument. Much of the study area became incorporated into a conservation unit, but not Katmai. It now is part of the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. In a different vein, the Noatak valley studied by NPS contractors in 1973 became proposed in the 1974 final environmental statement as a national wildlife refuge but later ended up being included in the National Park System, first as a national monument then as a national preserve. As early as May 1973, word came down that input from the biological study groups would be needed for Secretarial consideration by early to mid-August of that year. The demonstrated richness of the science related to the study areas helped show that the areas have scientific value, a result that in turn helped with decision-making to proclaim the study areas as national monuments, proclamations that I think in turn helped Congress finally take action to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Finally, the baseline plant ecology data for the Nimrod Hill slope reported in the Chukchi-Imuruk report serendipitously became the “before data” for a long-term study of response of tundra to wild fire when Nimrod Hill burned in a 1977 fire. The plant ecologist for the Chukchi-Imuruk study was able to visit Nimrod Hill in 1978 (Racine 1979) and again in 1979 to establish permanent plots and then to conduct follow-up visits sporadically through the next 30 years, with his last visit being in 2009. His study builds on a David Hopkins observation (Hopkins 1973) that tundra fires are likely to increase. The hope is that NPS will incorporate these plots into a long term monitoring program.

Last updated: March 15, 2016