A Fond Farewell

Greetings CLM interns,

After a wonderful and wild ride as a CLM intern in Fairbanks, I am here to tell you that this will be my last blog post.

I will be moving on from the Bureau of Land Management but will be staying in the Golden Heart City of Fairbanks, Alaska.  Life has taken me across town to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife where I will be the new botany biotech for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As such, this post will be bittersweet.  I’ve immensely enjoyed my year at the BLM, but I am also incredibly excited to botanize and explore in Arctic refuge this summer and beyond.

My last few weeks working at BLM were jam packed.

I first headed to Central, AK to finally set up the little brown bat monitoring project that I had been planning for months and months.  The plan was drive our trusty steed Big Blue (also known as an F250 Dodge Ram) to Central, transition to our other trusty steeds (King Quad 4-wheelers) and ride along the Harrison Creek trail up and over a ridge and down into a creek valley, deploying ultrasonic bat detectors along the way.  Anticipation was high as this was a project and field outing I had planned pretty much entirely by myself.   But alas, we arrived in Central and rode to the top of the ridge only to find the trail still snowed in.  An extremely unfortunate outcome but in Alaska the remoteness of these areas makes field work particularly unpredictable.  Nothing we could do but enact plan B and place the detectors closer to the main road.  Disappointment sat heavy, but in the end the project was passed along to the next intern in what I believe and hope to be a good state.

Immediately after this trip north, I turned around and headed south to spend a few days in Chicken, AK doing raptor surveys.  We flew via helicopter along the narrow river valleys of the Fortymile area and searched the cliffs and tree tops for Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and Common Raven nests.  When spotted, we noted whether there were eggs, chicks and/or adults present and how many of each.  The weather was perfect and it was a gorgeous and productive several days.

I raced back to Fairbanks for my last day on Friday, and there ended my CLM intern adventure.

And now some reflections on the Life and Times of a CLM Intern in Alaska.

Looking back I am in awe of how much I’ve learned and experienced working with the BLM.  At times my experience was different than I expected, at times the same.  So without further ado…


  • Alaska itself. Although I found it extremely exciting to be in the midst of such a pure and wild area, it was still a shock sometimes how remote Alaska is.  From things like grocery prices; to driving on a highway for several hours without seeing store, person, car or sign; to the concept of towns accessible only by plane, it was initially a very odd place indeed. And of course -40 degree winter temperatures were rather extreme.
  • Working for a multiple-use agency. I have immense respect for my colleagues and the agency for striving to make intelligent and informed decisions on land use while considering many different views.  It was interesting to see how this functioned at the office level and how decision making ramped up from there and/or came down from higher levels and affected operations at the local level.  It was also very exciting to have so many different types of folks in the office—it really allowed me to get a broad range of experiences over the course of my internship.

Cherished Opportunities:

  • Meeting and interacting with many wonderful people from all walks of life.
  • Assisting with many types of different tasks/field outings.  I was able to do not only my regular job (which included invasive species inventory and monitoring, herbarium management, GIS, raptor surveys and bat project planning) but also experience the worlds of our hydrologist (through snow surveys), our mining compliance staff (through a combination invasive plant/mining compliance float trip), NPS biologists (through moose surveys) and many more.
  • Living in a wonderful town surrounded by endless outdoor play land.


  • Being able to work under an amazing boss.
  • Witnessing 2 young black bears wrestle right outside our field station.
  • Meeting many remarkable people.
  • Looking at many interesting plants via herbarium preparations and plant ID.
  • Flying over the entirety of Gates of the Arctic National Park for moose surveys.
  • Getting lots of GIS practice.
  • Driving to the Arctic twice—during the summer and the winter—and getting to see the difference.
  • Doing a multi-day float trip down the Fortymile River doing invasive plant inventory.
  • Flying in a helicopter along the Fortymile counting raptors.
  • I could go on all day…

Final Thoughts:

I am a very lucky person to have had this opportunity.  It allowed me to be placed in a community I now love and allowed me to get my foot in the door for federal employment.  I’m not entirely convinced that government work is for me, and graduate school is still a looming possibility, but for now I am going to try another federal agency on for size.  I’m eager to see how things change while working for an agency with a single, more directed mission (vs. multiple use).

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!


Fairbanks, AK


Chiroptera & Ungulates Galore

Greetings from the land where there is still snow!  Fairbanks is still covered with the white stuff so botanizing and wildlife-ing will have to wait until the green emerges.  Temperatures had been on an upward trend but a week of -30 harshly reminded us what Mother Nature is capable of.

We are gearing up for a busy and exciting field season.  In addition to the projects I mentioned in my last post (raptor surveys, bat monitoring, invasive species reconnaissance) I will also be planning and teaching some Invasive Plant Species Identification classes—should be a good chance to practice my public speaking and presentation skills, not to mention wax poetic about botany.

As of late I have mostly been researching, researching, researching for our little brown bat project (Myotis lucifungus).  I am used to monitoring things that don’t move (or don’t move fast) i.e. plants so these batty guys are new to me.  I’ve been reading a lot about bats, wildlife monitoring study design, echolocation, occupancy modeling etc. and chatting with many bat experts.  Hopefully all this information will be put to good use this summer.

There are a few opportunities for field work before “break-up” and one of those is moose surveys.  This Friday I will be taking off to go to Bettles, AK for the week.  There we will be flying transects over Gates of the Arctic National Park looking for moose.  The survey uses what is called the Geospatial Population Estimator (GSPE) method.  Basically, GSPE uses spatial correlation in moose populations to increase precision and flexibility in survey methods.  A certain number of sample grids from a study area are selected and transects are flown over them.  The spatial correlation among these samples is calculated and this relationship is modeled as a function of distance.  This model can them be used to predict moose densities in un-sampled areas.

Usually, less intensive stratification flights are done before the actual survey to identify areas of high and low moose density.  More survey effort is then dedicated to the high moose density stratum.

Here is a dizzying depiction of contour transects flown in mountainous terrain.


In other news, snow in Fairbanks allowed for two delightful winter activities these past weeks.  First, a lovely ski trip to Tolovana Hot Springs with Anchorage friends including CLM counterpart Charlotte and former CLM counterpart Bonnie!  And secondly, the IDITAROD!  Moved to Fairbanks for only the second time in history due to lack of snow in Anchorage.  A few choice pictures of both below.


Fairbanks, AK


Views from the way up–Tolovana Hot Springs trail


Home sweet home


Views from the hot springs–not too shabby


Lance Mackey and the Ninjas


No one would give me a ride to Nome…



“April Come She Will”

With pictures of summer field work adorning my cubicle walls to guide the way, I hunker down in my office planning away for projects to come.

Since returning from Herbarium work in Anchorage, I have been mostly planning for the busy field season ahead.  On our plate we have:

  • Continued surveys of invasive plant species
  • Soil surveys to be conducted at the end of July
  • Raptor surveys
  • A newly funded Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) inventory and monitoring project

Much of my end of preparations for raptor surveys has been completed.  These surveys will involve my supervisor and the other office biologist flying along river corridors in the Fortymile region of the interior, in search of raptor nest sites and raptors themselves (hopefully I will be able to get in on a trip). Raptors in this area include: Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus), Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus), Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).  I spent some time this fall using ArcGIS to identify suitable cliff nesting raptor habitat.  This involved looking at lots of aerial imagery, and creating GIS layers that might be predictive of cliff areas when aerial imagery was poor or missing (ex. slope, extracting ‘bare’ portions of vegetation layers).  Our wildlife biologist is quite experienced at this and gave me some tips on spotting appropriate landmarks from aerial imagery.  The aerial imagery method is very effective but time consuming and requires experience and practice.  Although it is certainly less selective, I developed some GIS layers that can hopefully help when large areas need to be scanned or can be combined with aerial imagery to make better predictions.


Aerial imagery showing a portion of the Fortymile river. Red dots mark habitat of varying potential with that bright white curve in the upper middle being prime cliff habitat.


Layer showing land designated as ‘bare’ in vegetation surveys. Does a decent job at pulling out the barren cliff faces.


Layer showing slope (red is steeper). Identifies steep portions of the landscape which, in junction with the bare layer, can help pinpoint cliffs.


The main project, however, will be bat inventory and monitoring.  I’ll be handling most of the planning/logistics/equipment/study design/field work so although it’s not plant related, it should be a good experience in planning and executing a study.

Little brown bats are the most widespread in North America and one of the only bat species found in the Alaskan interior.  Very little is known about their habitats/distribution/behavior in this area, however, and with rising concerns about white-nose syndrome folks are eager to find out more.

Our first study area will be the Steese National Conservation Area about 70 miles NE of Fairbanks.  It is an interesting study area for bats because 1) it is northerly: bats are nocturnal and the latitude of this location means it gets VERY little darkness during the summer months—civil twilight persists for the majority of the summer with no true darkness and near the solstice there are only about 1-1.5 hours of darkness a night AND 2) it is cold: some research has predicted that 5 degrees Celsius might be the lower limit for some bat activity—nightly summer temperatures in this area could easily dip below this.  Scandinavian studies have found bats at latitudes up to 69N (above the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t set for some stretches of summer) with observations that bats will operate when ambient light levels are lowest (even though prey availability is lower at these hours).

For this first season of the study we are mainly testing field schedule/equipment/methodology and trying to see if we can even find bats in this area at all.  The plan is to procure 10 acoustic bat detectors and place them in strategic areas (likely bat habitat) in the SNCA, returning every 3 weeks or so to switch out batteries/download data and move detectors.  We are hoping to capture information on bat arrival and departure, seasonal changes in bat activity, nightly changes in bat activity and preferred bat habitat.  With smart placement of detectors we will hopefully be able to find some bats and pilot study designs that later down the road will provide more robust data on bat habitat preferences.


A typical acoustic monitoring set-up from a partner agency’s bat monitoring protocol. The detector itself is strapped to the tree in the foreground and the microphone can be seen mounted to a tall pole in the background.

Right now my computer screen is an explosion of tabs for 12V battery brands, PVC pipe, bat detector prices, occupancy modeling studies, battery physics tutorials etc.  Working out lots of logistics for deploying these expensive pieces of equipment in remote areas.


Fairbanks, AK

Fairbanks, AK

After a lovely trip home and (partial) reprieve from the cold, I settled back into Fairbanks…for two days.  Monday morning found me on a plane to Anchorage where I was to help BLM and Alaska Natural Heritage Program folks with projects down there.  While ‘down south’ I worked in the University of Alaska-Anchorage Herbarium identifying, mounting, labeling and accessioning specimens collected under BLM projects.  As I’ve probably mentioned before, I find mounting plants to be a terrific creative outlet.  These little Botrychium alaskense were my favorite.


Although most of the plants I was working with were from my subject region (interior), I also processed some plants from the Aleutian Islands, which was a fascinating experience as these islands are such a unique ecosystem and certainly have different flora from what I have encountered in my mostly land locked forays up in Fairbanks.

In the office I am getting geared up for the summer field season, even though it is many frigid months away.  The exciting happenings here are a bat project that was funded for this year.  We are going to be doing acoustic monitoring of Little Brown Bats in the interior and I am working away ordering and gathering equipment, developing methodology and study design and learning as much about these little guys as I can.

I’ll leave you with some nature eye candy from a personal hiking and ice climbing trip.

DSCN6915 DSCN6925 DSCN6940 DSCN6949 DSCN6873

Home for the Holidays

Hello CLMi,

I must admit I don’t have much to report, as shortly after the happenings in my last post, I headed home for the holidays.  NISIMS, AKEPIC, herbarium specimens and ArcGIS have sunk into a winter hibernation while I enjoy the holidays with family and friends and warmth–oh–well–maybe not that.  But the sun comes out here which is great.

I leave you with some delightful poetry from one of our AKEPIC coordinators:

‘Twas a day before Christmas, and the ListServ was quiet
no EDRR to stir up a riot.
Our data was snug, tucked into their (spread)sheets
ready for upload and the server to meet.

Their formatting was perfect, their codes had been checked
records of infestations, through which we had trekked.
So, thanks to the weed warriors who continue to fight;
Weed-free Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Happy holidays!


Fairbanks, AK

Glaciers and Caribou

Hello fellow interns,

Winter has arrived, albeit rather mildly.  I’ve yet to experience a true Fairbanks chill as the November temperatures have been rather uncharacteristically warm (daytime temperatures usually in the teens) with the exception of one -7ºF day.  Warmer yet in the hills as they are above the infamous temperature inversion that traps cold air (and air pollution) in the valley.  ‘Freeze up’ is in progress on the Chena River in town and trees are coated with ice and frost, reflecting light magnificently and resembling gravity-defying chandeliers.  ‘Termination dust’ has fallen and although Fairbanksians curse it for halting summer activities, they soon change their tune and curse Mother Nature for not providing enough for winter activities like skiing.

Mid-November freeze up in progress along Chena River.

Mid-November freeze up in progress along Chena River.

In the office, I’ve been working on tracking down lots of past invasive plant species data, cleaning it up, and getting it ready to submit to AKEPIC (The Alaska Exotic Plants Information Clearinghouse).

I’ve also been still working away at identifying plant specimens from our office and over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of going to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to compare our specimens with those in their herbarium.  This has been a really fun and valuable process for me as I’ve been able to see a larger scale herbarium in action and be around and get advice and identification help from some very talented botanists.   We thought we might have a rare plant Arnica lonchophylla amongst our specimens, but alas it turned out to be the more common Arnica angustifolia ssp. tomentosa. Although an admittedly intermediate specimen, as verified by one of the herbarium’s very talented pseudo-retired botanists.  I’ve also really enjoyed this experience as it has allowed me a glimpse into the academia side of things.  It has been very interesting and enlightening to be able to compare and contrast these two very different worlds.

The biggest recent happenings, however, occurred in late October when I was able to go to Anchorage for the annual Invasive Plant Conference!  The conference was a really amazing opportunity to witness and experience the full scope of the invasive species management community across Alaska.  I was able to meet, talk with, get advice from, share management successes/failures with, strategize and laugh with people from all over the state who work for all different types of organizations and agencies.  Not to mention learn a lot from many great lectures, presentations and workshops.

I was also able to visit with my Anchorage CLM counterparts Bonnie and Charlotte, complete with some time on the Matanuska Glacier!

All in all, a great week in Anchorage.

mat mat2 mat3

December has brought even milder temperatures in the 20s (what the heck Fairbanks?!) and more AKEPIC and plant ID work.

I also had the opportunity to drive north to Central, AK to monitor the winter caribou hunt along with some peers from Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  After a nasty drive across Eagle Summit in nearly white-out conditions we arrived at a very cold Central field station.  One heater malfunction, one rented ‘hotel’ room and several greasy meals later we were able to comfortably sleep in the field station. The next few days were spent driving along the Steese Highway checking hunters’ permits and licenses as they emerged from the surrounding hills on snow machines towing caribou.  The hunt was remarkably civil with no citations written and no fist fights or shots fired between hunters (apparently this civil-ness is quite a rarity).  The scenery was breath-taking as usual: rolling hills of snow dotted with the black silhouettes of spruce trees.  Certain portions of the road looked like a moonscape of pure white snow with no vegetation in site.  Something you would see in Antarctica (or Mann’s planet from Interstellar).  Mornings before sunrise (i.e. before 9:15 AM) and evenings after sunset (i.e. after 3:45 PM) were spent at the Steese Roadhouse for more greasy fare.  It is the sole restaurant, general store, and gas station in Central.  After one day of hunt monitoring weather forecasts started predicting some ominous snow storms, and thus, with the hunt slowing down and weather on the way we left on the second (and last) day of the hunt and headed back to Fairbanks for fear of being snowed in.


Us monitoring the caribou hunt along the Steese Highway.

Hope all you CLM interns still on board are having a great winter!


Fairbanks, AK




‘Almost’ Winter

Snow has descended upon the interior of Alaska, effectively halting all botany related field work. Flowers have long gone, rose hips shrivel on branches, and the kaleidoscopic fall leaves have browned and fallen and been covered in white.


Sad rose hip

For me this means I am now huddled up in my office getting cozy with ArcMap, my microscope, and Holy Hultén (the Alaska botanists bible).

Holy Hulten.  'Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories.'  Decorated by my predecessor.

Holy Hulten. ‘Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories.’ Decorated by my predecessor.

Since we last spoke I have helped service waysides on the Elliott Highway in the snow, attended a Fire Science Workshop, participated in a two day field office NEPA training and paid a fall visit to Denali.  NEPA training was an excellent opportunity to learn more about NEPA (obviously), but also to learn about how the process actually occurs on the ground and how field offices organize their leadership structure and communicate with one another.  An unexpectedly awesome crash course in communication.

Fred Blixt Cabin along the Elliott Highway

Fred Blixt Cabin along the Elliott Highway

Denali fall scenery

Denali fall scenery

Denali grizzly up close and personal

Denali grizzly up close and personal

Currently I am working on wrapping up field work and data from this summer, and planning for next summer. I am organizing and analyzing NISIMS data collected this summer, working on a Strategic Plan for invasive plant management in the Fortymile area, scouting locations for Boreal Owl and Tree Swallow nest boxes for a project, gathering data on raptor nest locations along the Fortymile River to plan for raptor monitoring next summer and keying lots of grasses.  Although I am sad that field work has ceased, I am excited to get to learn more about the entire process that takes place at the office: from data collection, to analysis, to resource management planning and execution.  My plant ID skills have improved considerably after working through a large stack of un-keyed specimens. I’m also really digging into ArcMap for many of these projects and sharpening my GIS skills immensely.  Participating in the Strategic Plan and NEPA discussions has given me an appreciation of what all goes into making informed decisions in a multiple-use agency.


12-Headache torture device, er, microscope
13-Grass waiting to be keyed. Curse you grasses
14-Plant mounted on paper for the herbarium. Cerastium maximum (hopefully)
*(excerpt from office tour)

This weekend I will be travelling to Anchorage to attend an Invasive Species Conference and meet up with my Anchorage CLM counterparts Bonnie and Charlotte!


aurora aurora2


All the best from Alaska,



A saga for all you CLM interns out there:

At approximately 8:30 AM the challenge was accepted. The players: two Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, two Alaska State Wildlife Troopers, one safety officer, one BLM wildlife biologist and two interns. The stage: Chicken Ridge and surrounding area. The foes: careless and conniving hunters, egregious crimes against sportsmanship, testicle-less caribou. The departure time: 10:00 AM. YIKES. FRANTIC PACKING. TRIP PLAN. STOP FOR BREATH. FOOD ACQUISITION. Six hours later our heroes arrive to the Chicken Field Station. They rest their weary heads and prepare for several days of sore legs, thumb cramps, tight backs, caribou blood and hunter’s tales. Day 1: Teams assembled and assignments handed out. ADF&G (Jeff, Bob) along with BLM (Ruth) will patrol the road from Dead Man’s Corner (where last year a hunter took his last breaths in his truck parked on the side of the road—breaking character to tell you that this is actually a true story, troopers drove past this guy several times before becoming suspicious enough to check it out…inside the found, you guessed it, a dead guy) to the Y and everywhere in between. Male Trooper (Russ) and Intern #1 (Steve) will head to the border. Female Trooper (Maggie), safety officer (Leo) and Intern #2 (Katie) will take on Chicken Ridge Trail. All teams mount their trusty 4-wheeled steeds and speed off into the wilderness. Dawn breaks above Chicken (ok, it was actually 9:30 AM, this part exaggerated for effect). Our story follows team 3. Thumbs primed, hand warmers engaged, spines sturdy, team 3 tears up Chicken Ridge Trail in search of transgressing hunters. Quad wheels grip dirt and gravel, splash through puddles, climb treacherous hills, tilt sideways against mountain sides and traverse ridges. In past years chaos has reigned—antlers abound, tattling sportsmen, echoing gunshots, a blood bath, a meat market. This year however, all is quiet. Merely the grumbling of whiny hunters and the groan of four-wheeler engines giving up on the hunt after only a few hours. Skies are blue and views are gorgeous as the crew progresses along the ridge, branching out to investigate side paths, cruising up and down streams (as intern #2’s environmentalist soul cries for the gas and other chemicals leaked into the clear water). With no crimes to avenge, the group merely investigates camped hunters and chats with them about weather and lack of caribou. As the day progresses, weather takes a turn for the cold along the highest ridgeline. Hail strikes the enforcement team and nearly puts holes through their exposed noses. Views remain beautiful. The weary and unfulfilled team crawls to the farthest extent of the trail then and turns around, pounding pavement back to the field station. End of day: 10 PM. Day 2: Teams prepare for another uneventful day. The only intel: caribou between Chicken and Birch Creek, up to 80 miles away. Our crew again speeds off towards Chicken Ridge. Today the sights are similar: whining hunters and a parade of ATVs giving up after mere hours of effort. “Where are the caribou?!” demand the hunters. “How could Fish and Game do this to us? We took off work for this!” exclaim the whiners. The team forges on and is rewarded for their perseverance: two sets of caribou antlers float towards us atop mounds of camping and hunting supplies. Their owners slow their ATVs and prepare to be inspected by State Trooper #2. Conversation ensues, meat is unpacked and inspected, antlers are measured and… what’s this?! A testicle-less caribou is presented. Under state law failure to provide proof of sex (both male and female caribou have antlers) is grounds for a fine and confiscation of the animal. Trooper #2 explains this to hunter #2 while hunter #1 rudely sidesteps questions and barks at us to hurry up. Hunter #2 immediately turns sour and explains that he is on probation and will surely go to jail if ticketed. Trooper #2 holds strong and writes the citation. The hunters pack up and ride, grumbling, away. Later in the evening the plot thickens. Other hunters tell of a fellow sportsman who has had his fishing and hunting guiding licenses suspended numerous times for foul play (baiting animals, running business under wife’s name while suspended etc.). Said sportsman is currently on probation. Said sportsman just rode off with caribou antlers on his wheeler and an accomplice. Said sportsman left much of his caribou meat at the kill site (another citation, hunters are required to harvest as much meat as possible—leaving neck and rib meat is not acceptable). After writing a sad, albeit lessened, citation to a young Guatemalan woman who shot her first caribou while possessing the wrong hunting permit (an honest mistake) the team splits up. Intern #2 heads back to the field station around 7:00 PM. Trooper #2 and safety officer prepare for another 5 hours of work. They ride off further along the trail, return to the kill site, inspect the left behind meat, finish cleaning the animal and haul all the wasted meat out, returning to the field station at midnight. The meat is weighed and it appears justice will be served to the shady huntsman. Day 3: Mission called to lack of activity. End Scene In all seriousness, hunt monitoring was an extremely interesting experience. Most of the hunters we talked to were very nice and had admirable goals of shooting caribou honestly, harvesting the meat correctly and enjoying the prize with friends and family. Some were less friendly. All though, had an irritating sense of entitlement about hunting. This specific caribou hunt takes place in and around Chicken in September. It opens on a certain day and closes whenever a set quota of caribou is met. Often the hunt only lasts a few days and sometimes it is over in a day. This is because hunters swarm the area and pick off caribou from the trail as they migrate through in a large herd. In past years it has been absolute chaos with gun shots ricocheting everywhere, caribou falling all over the place, and arguments abound among hunters. Altogether way too easy of a hunt agree the staff from Fish and Game, BLM and Law Enforcement. F&G, who organize the hunt, say it is a wonder no one has been shot. Because of this precedent, hunters are used to coming in at 8 AM, setting up a small camp and having a caribou shot and cleaned in time to have lunch and head out—easy. This year, when that didn’t happen, all hell broke loose in a different way—a cacophony of complaints. They feel entitled to a caribou rather than privileged to be able to take part in the hunt. I certainly don’t pretend to know much about hunting but this attitude seemed wrong to me. Hunting is a sport that should require skill and patience. In other news, I spent this past week teaching wildlife ecology to 7th graders at the Lost Lake Outdoor Camp.  It was an absolutely wonderful, exhausting and rewarding experience.  I loved getting to know, impart knowledge to and have meaningful conversations with the middle schoolers and they constantly surprised me with their passion and creativity—especially since I was expecting lots of apathy and attitude.  The camp taught me lots about how to translate my knowledge so that it can be shared in a fun and meaningful way to others.  Having never been to camp myself, I was excited to finally have this experience and help make it magical for the kiddos. Back in the office I am slowly working my way through a leaning tower of unidentified pressed plant specimens dating as far back as 2006.  Lots of hours spent with me, myself, my tunes and my scope.  In all honesty though, I enjoy the challenge and puzzle of plant ID—although I will admit the pile of grasses and sedges remains largely untouched…  After identifying plants, I am mounting them for filing in our office’s small herbarium.  This part of the process is a wonderful creative outlet. Peace, Love and Botany Katie O. Fairbanks

Our steeds for the week.

Our steeds for the week.

Hunt monitoring=long hours.  Dusk along Chicken Ridge Trail.

Hunt monitoring=long hours. Dusk along Chicken Ridge Trail.

Stopping two of the very few successful hunters to inspect their kills.

Stopping two of the very few successful hunters to inspect their kills.

View from along Chicken Ridge Trail

View from along Chicken Ridge Trail

Life and Times of an Alaska CLM Intern (in August)

Life up north has been progressing quite wonderfully.  After a week getting friendly with the gold miners on the Fortymile river and a June and July full of record breaking rain (http://www.alaskapublic.org/2014/07/11/fairbanks-rains-approach-record-levels/), August has arrived bringing with it some dryness (hallelujah!) and color.  While the lower 48 is still solidly in summer, leaves are beginning to change up here: aspen leaves turning bright yellow, fireweed red and dwarf birch an alarming shade of highlighter orange.


Fall is coming…

In my last post I mentioned starting on a post-fire community monitoring project in Nome Creek.  This plan was put to action a few weeks ago by myself, Jim (wildlife biologist) and a fellow intern, Emily.  Jim, Emily and I drove to Nome Creek, arriving too late to complete a site that night.  Plus it was raining (ok maybe August hasn’t been THAT dry).  Instead we took a short stroll behind the field station to practice plant ID and test out our rain gear.  Jim had a solid knowledge of different mosses and lichens as he often works with caribou.  This is something I have not had much experience with, so I am looking forward to getting better at moss and lichen ID as this project progresses.  The 30+ bags Jim has of just ‘common’ mosses that look exactly alike is not an encouraging sign, however.

The next morning we navigated to two different sites in the Nome Creek area.  The first was ¼ mile from the road.  This seems close but tussocks, hummocks and sphagnum considered, it took quite a while to navigate to the site using GPS.  Once there we had to locate the part of the area that was actually surveyed by British students back in 2001 with only 2 grainy disposable camera pictures to aid us.  Keep in mind these sites burned in 2004 so we were often looking a rather different scene.  We eventually matched up ridgelines, clumps of dirt and the charred remains of trees and laid down a transect along what we hoped was close to the original transect.  For the first site, Jim walked us through the protocol: recording extensive site information, doing a point intercept transect, collecting soil samples, estimating caribou browse, denoting burn severity, measuring amount of organic matter burned, counting saplings, taking photos and installing site markers so that these sites can be more easily found in the future and used for long term ecological studies.  Our current goal for the data is to investigate levels of spruce regeneration among plots and analyze how this relates to burn severity, pre-fire amounts of organic matter, site soil moisture and amount of organic matter burned.  Jim (and others) have noted that often sites that were previously spruce forest will regenerate after particularly severe fires as deciduous dominant forests (or simply shrublands), see: http://www.firescience.gov/projects/briefs/05-1-2-06_FSBrief10.pdf

All said and done, surveying one site took upwards of four hours.  Quite the procedure.

Emily and I visited more sights after Jim departed, noticing low spruce regeneration on all.  I am excited to collect more data and see where this project goes.  As summer is coming to an end, data collection will have to resume next May.  I’ve just received word that I will be staying in Fairbanks through next May and hopefully into the field season so with any luck I will be able to follow this project along and collect data next summer.


Transect line ready at top of Nome Creek Tabletop Mountain Trail


Some Populus tremuloides regeneration


Odd fungus found at Nome Creek Campground. Any fungus nerds out there that know what this is?

Other exciting August happenings include a second trip to Denali National Park to meet up with some fellow Tar Heels who came up to visit and backpack through the backcountry, and a trip to central Alaska’s beloved bird inspired towns: Chicken and Eagle.


Teklinika River, Denali National Park


Hiking in Denali’s trail-less wilderness backcountry

My supervisor Ruth and I conducted NISIMS surveys (for invasive plants) on the way to and around Chicken and Eagle and attended National Public Lands Day in Eagle.  The weather was perfect for National Public Lands Day—crisp fall air, clear skies, cool temperatures, abundant sunlight—and Eagle is an adorable little town.  Eagle residents, BLM employees and more gathered to celebrate public lands.  A knowledgeable local resident led young-uns and others on a nature walk, the local history expert conducted a tour of the abandoned military fort (Ft. Egbert) established in 1899, children collected pressed and displayed leaves, a Ketchikan artist led a workshop on loop weaving, BLM employees grilled burgers and dogs, root beer floats were served and a good time was had by all.  The whole scene brought me back to autumn in the Midwest with its abundance outdoor activities, festivals, crafts and food.  My favorite season by far.  Around a fire later that evening I learned more about the residents of Eagle—many of them live a subsistence lifestyle meaning they hunt and gather for all their food (save perhaps one Fairbanks Fred Meyer run per year for non-perishables).  As such they are incredibly knowledgeable about flora, fauna, weather, soil, water etc. of the surrounding area and completely in tune with the environment.  It was quite impressive.  The fact that they depend so much on the land also means that the stakes are high.  A failed caribou hunt can mean a hungry family–no grocery store to run to for supplemental food (nearest decent grocery store is in Fairbanks, 6 hours away).  Each family that lives this way knows exactly how many caribou they need to make it through the winter, so changes in the environment that disturb or change the migration patterns of caribou have dire consequences for them.