Invasive Species, Caribou Habitat Surveys, SOS!

August and the last week or so in July have been just as adventure filled as my first 4 months with the BLM in Fairbanks, Alaska. Invasive species were getting awfully close to seed by the time we made it out to pull along the Steese and Taylor Highways in the Eastern Interior; and though we only saw a dozen or so Caribou, we had to fly out in a helicopter to access areas in their range not disturbed by humans; thankfully the only SOS signals needed on any trip were related to Seeds Of Success. Barring a very windy night up in the White Mountains that caused one tent collapse, and a near sleepless night for everyone up there, that is.

White sweetclover infestation at disturbed site along the Taylor Highway.
Seeds of Success site for collecting Kinnikinnik.

Even the most conspicuous and damaging invasive plants in Eastern Interior Alaska are somewhat limited in their impact to date. I say this with caution, however. In most of the lower 48 states and much of the colonized world, invasive species are only given serious attention once their eradication is nigh impossible. In other words, it’s almost too late. This isn’t to say invasive treatments aren’t worthwhile in those places, just that they cost billions to manage because of the damage done to crops and native habitats – in the US $120 billion a year to be exact (Pimental et al., 2005). In Alaska, at least from what I’ve seen, invasive plant populations are limited to roadsides and cities – of which there are relatively few. What I do see because of this, is a great opportunity to make an impact on removing these species before they become a more serious problem; and even more time, resources, and money have to be thrown at tackling it. Without intervention, it won’t take much for seed to be carried away down streams and rivers, and plants like Melilotus alba (white sweetclover) and Vicia cracca (bird vetch) to begin overcrowding riverbanks as they do on the highways we targeted.

Getting to that, our ‘weed’ pulling began on the Steese Highway at various BLM managed waysides such as those at the Upper and Lower Birch Creek. We stopped at each wayside along the way to monitor, but there were only a few that had infestations of the most damaging species. Interestingly enough, the furthest wayside from Fairbanks had the worst white sweetclover infestation of any! They must have hitched a ride from an unknowing driver, or perhaps in gravel used for the lot. These guys produce an average of 9,710 seeds (Klemow and Raynal, 1981; Klemow, 1982), though some estimates suggest as high as 350,000 per plant. The most concerning factor is that each of those seeds can remain viable for up to 81 years (Crocker, 1945). The picture below is one of the bigger white sweetclover I pulled. They grow in thick patches, sprouting early to overshadow their competitors and developing tap roots that quickly drain moisture from the soil.

Uprooted White Sweetclover.

The following week we drove up the Taylor Highway toward Chicken, stopping along the way to pull more white sweetclover on BLM land between mile-markers 4 and 6. I was lucky enough to have a previous CLM intern’s notes to go off when planning our invasive trips this summer – it was a huge help! After pulling those weeds we drove further up the Taylor to the Department of Transportation (DOT) South Fork Station. This sits at the South Fork of the Fortymile River – the same section of river I floated on earlier this summer – but just across the road. Between the road and the fence, and following the road up to the wayside, is BLM managed land. But on the other side of the fence is state managed land – the DOT Station. In what turned out to be a dichotomy here and perhaps representative of more issues than I should dive into, I found an interesting lesson in land management.

The fence between State and Federally managed land.

From the same notes I mentioned before, the previous intern and now retired biologist had discussed their frustrations at pulling bird vetch on the BLM side of the fence whenever they could because on the DOT side the same invasive species persisted. Talk about futile efforts. I can’t imagine spending a day removing an invasive plant from one side of a fence only for the same vine-like shrub to wrap its tendrils around the wire and have its seed blown onto where you just pulled a few weeks later. When I read this, I remembered a meeting I’d attended earlier in the summer about invasive species management on the Dalton Highway (this road runs through a different field office than the one I’m assigned to but I thought it would be worthwhile to go). At that meeting was someone from the DOT – perfect, I just needed to get hold of them and of course they’d help us eradicate bird vetch from both sides of the fence! Right?

Well, kind of. After exchanging a few emails, I was told that while they couldn’t support the invasive pull with staff or resources, they would allow us to come and pull weeds on their side of the fence. It just had to be approved by a few higher ups, and they needed to know what day we’d be there to do the work. While this wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, I thought great, at least we can get the work done and maybe next year we’ll get a bit of help! Inter-agency collaboration between the state and federal government is a work in progress, but I’m hopeful.

When we arrived to pull, the staff was happy to let us in and get to work. Bird vetch is a tricky plant to remove as it reproduces both through seed and through rhizomes. This means you need to remove as much (ideally all, though not usually possible) of the root system. Yanking the plant out the ground is thereby ineffective because it simply snaps at the base. A more effective, albeit more time consuming, approach is to slowly pull from as close to the ground as you can and work the root system out of the ground. Naturally this became a competition to see who could remove the longest root!

Craig Townsend, BLM Wildlife Biologist, holding an uprooted Bird Vetch clump.

Following several other weed pulls, I was off to help out a different BLM biologist conducting caribou habitat surveys in the Fortymile and the White Mountains. In partnerships with PhD students and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), the project has several goals oriented around improving our understanding of caribou impacts on native arctic alpine vegetation, and mapping biomass of plant functional groups with drone assistance. Because of the limited road systems in Alaska, and perhaps one of the most fun things I’ve been lucky enough to do this summer, reaching remote locations for studies such as this one requires travelling via helicopter!

Just about to take off from our Fortymile Caribou Herd site!

Once we arrived at our randomly selected site, it was straight to work setting up the plot. I say that but often the plots were already set up upon my arrival – I had to fly alone because of something to do with weight limits in these little helicopters! My helicopter diet started a little too late apparently. You can see below some of the beautiful views we got to work above:

Rachel Pernick, Drone/Biological Technician, and Jim Herriges, BLM Wildlife Biologist, estimating species cover in the White Mountains.

Caribou tend to eat a considerable amount of lichen among certain shrubs, graminoids, and occasionally mushrooms. As such, lichen identification was a huge part of this project – something I have had relatively limited experience in. Jim, Katie, and Rachel were super helpful in getting me up to speed nonetheless, and after a few days of staring into quarter meter plots identifying, estimating cover, and then trimming biomass of all vegetation, I had them just about down.

Myself in the foreground estimating species cover and Rachel in the background setting up the drone path. It was chilly!

After a site was completed, which took most of a day, the helicopter would fly us to our next site where we’d set up camp, make some dinner, and chill out before starting a new plot nearby the next day. Weather dictated a lot of what we could get done with the need for a drone flyover prior to trimming any biomass. In the mountains that we surveyed, where weather is about as unpredictable as can be, this meant for a couple of days spent waiting in the tent for openings in clouds or fog. The drone can’t capture usable imagery without clear line of sight to the ground.

Jim trying to keep his hands warm while working with the dreaded metal clipboard. Visibility was limited, and the fog disappeared as quickly as it moved in.

A couple of days in the tent out of seven waiting for clear skies weren’t the only times weather worked against us either. On our second night in the White Mountains we knew there was a chance of strong winds and rain, which is why we camped down off one of the ridges in what looked like a well shielded valley. Unfortunately these winds were stronger than expected. That, or our campsite was more exposed than we had anticipated. The work tent I lent to Rachel only lasted about half the night before the guyline snapped under the force of the wind (likely the guyline that a squirrel had partially chewed into earlier this summer!). Shortly after, one of the tent poles snapped as well, ripping a hole in the tent and collapsing it all at once. She managed to grab her belongings, find her way ou tof the fallen tent, and run down into the gear tent– a fortress of a dome tent which went relatively unphased by the gales.

Meanwhile, I was wrapped up in my sleeping bag hoping my tent would make it through the night. The wind didn’t blow constantly, nor did it always blow in the same direction. There were moments where only the pitter-patter of rain could be heard. Then a sudden crash blew into one side, followed by a smashing of wind into the other. I probably slept a total of 2 hours that night. Periods of sleep would be interrupted by the tent pole above my head collapsing down onto me under the force of the wind – not exactly conducive to quality REM. Thankfully my tent made it through the night and so did Jim’s, none of our gear got terribly wet either. All in all it was a wild night that we laughed about in the morning over coffee in the dome! The next day wind and rain continued, though at a much gentler pace. We moved our tents down even lower into the valley below another plateau. Thankfully this was one of the days spent in the tent waiting for clear weather, and occasionally napping as we recovered from the prior near sleepless night!

Original camp set up – dome tent central
Post-storm set up – remaining tents concealed

Compared to the invasive species work and caribou habitat surveys, collecting seeds for the national Seeds of Success program went off without a hitch! One of the targeted species was Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, otherwise called Kinnikinnik, or Bearberry. There’s a huge population of this low growing shrub near the small town of Tanacross, Alaska, so that’s where we drove to gather seed. The goal of 20,000 seeds per species sounds quite daunting at first, but considering there are multiple seeds per berry makes the task more manageable. I’m sure many other CLM-ers have been out collecting too, and hopefully in good conditions! We had a beautiful sunny day to pick berries and collect a couple of herbarium samples, and quite enjoyed the relaxing pace of doing so. The only thing that could have made the day any better would have been if the berries were more edible – Kinnikinnik have the texture of lint if you bite into one! A native group called Gwich’in would eat the berries mashed up and mixed with dried fish or roe in a sort of pemmican, while the Dena’ina would mix them with oil or lard. They preserve quite well and maintain their nutritional value this way. Apparently the berries were also important as a food for survival when Alaska first became colonized, though I’m thankful not to have had to depend on them for sustenance. Trying one was more than enough!


Crocker, W. 1945. Longevity of seeds. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden. 46:48.

Klemow, K. 1982. Demography and seed biology of monocarpic herbs colonizing an abandoned limestone quarry. Syracuse, NY: State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 228p. Dissertation.

Klemow, K.; Raynal, D.1981. Population ecology of Melilotus alba in a limestone quarry. Journal of Ecology. 69: 33-44.

Pimentel, D.; Zuniga, R.; Morrison, D. 2005. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States.
Ecological Economics. 52:3, 273-288, ISSN 0921-8009.

Summer in the Arctic Circle

Cold days and nights with snow, ice, and few plants or animals: my initial thoughts on spending time in the Arctic Circle were well off the mark. Instead, the month I spent above 66° 33’ northern latitude didn’t drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, rarely included snow and even then only at high altitude, and gave me the chance to find some of the most remarkable alpine plants I’ve seen. I’ve taken loads of photos so I’ll talk through my last month with those!

The 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline, completed in 1977, transports 500,000 barrels of oil a day. The Dalton Highway was built to support it and is still primarily used for this reason. Land on either side of the pipeline is managed by the BLM, and this project is intended to gather the data necessary for developing Ecological Site Descriptions of alpine tundra and boreal forest habitat.
The trip began with a long drive up the Dalton Highway to just north of the Yukon River where we camped and surveyed from for the first week.
The two part inventory includes a thorough description of vegetation community structure using a modified Line-Point-Intercept methodology (in action above), along with detailed soil pit descriptions that often were dug to the depth of permafrost (in action below with some of that permafrost).
After week one we drove from the Yukon River site to our northern most sampling area, camping alongside the Dietrich River at Milepost 222 of the Dalton Highway. On one of our days off, Chris and I hiked to the top of that peak across the river! On the other side sits The Gates of the Arctic National Park – there are no roads in so it’s either a hike or flight away for those wanting to visit. We just crossed into the park while we were up there, and made some beautiful discoveries too.
One of the best photos I took on the trip, and my favorite plant find by far is pictured above. Silene uralensis, commonly known as Japanese Lanterns or Nodding Campion, are fantastic little alpine plants that thrive on rocky slopes. Well adapted to life this far north, their seed and root system has to withstand up to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, though the perennial pink benefits from spending most of the winter buried in multiple feet of snow.

Some other flowers found on this hike unknowingly living with incredible vistas:
Surprisingly the pink flowered species pictured above shares the same genus as the previous plant, though they look completely different. Silene acaulis, moss campion, grows in what look like small cushions or domes to retain moisture and nutrients, as well as to withstand strong winds. Interestingly, moss campion is thought to act as a ‘nurse plant’ at high elevations for the surrounding plant community; moderation of the harsh environmental factors on mountainsides is beneficial to its neighbors! The photo looks into The Gates of The Arctic National Park.
A mixture of Chamerion angustifolium, Fireweed (a beautiful pink flowered plant seen all over Alaska) along with the yellow flowered Arnica angustifolia, narrowleaf arnica.
Parrya naudicaulis, Parry’s Wallflower, with the Dietrich River and Dalton Highway in the background.
Packera cymbalaria, Dwarf Arctic Packera.
Dryas octopetala, White-Mountain Avens.
Another of my favorite plants on this trip, and one of the few orchids that can survive in the arctic: Cypripedium passerinum, Sparrow’s-egg Lady’s-slipper.
Back to work after exploring and searching for cool alpine plants. Our sample areas varied in distance to the road from a half a mile to almost 2 miles. While this isn’t too far of a hike, the terrain is often unforgiving. Much of the ground in this part of Alaska is composed of tussocks. The aptly named white cotton-like grass pictured above with the crew, Eriophorum vaginatum or Tussock Cotton-Grass, builds mounds over years of growth. Between them, gaps that are made deeper by the freeze-thaw cycle do not make for easy walking
The next stop after our second week on the Dietrich River brought us to the Marion Creek Campground, about 5 miles north of the town of Coldfoot, population 10.
We celebrated July 4th grilling brats on the Koyukuk River, skipping rocks, and having a quick dip in the cold water after a hot day of inventory!
On another day off we stopped into the town of Wiseman, just north of Coldfoot, for the Wiseman Music Festival! It was more of a potluck with a group of people playing folk music but it was a great time. There was even a paragliding entrance by a local that climbed up and jumped off the mountain in background with his parachute, you can see him in front of the clouds above.
Our final camping and sampling area before heading back to Fairbanks was at the Arctic Circle campground. We took a picture with the friendly volunteer campground manager Sheila and her pup Max. Smoke was in the air at this point from the Hess Creek wildfire 90 miles to the south, at the time the biggest in the country.
Ron, myself, Summer, Marc at the Arctic Circle sign (left to right).

We got a lot of work done in the month on the Dalton Highway and managed to make the most of the few days off we had. If you ever get the chance to make the trip up here, it is well worth your time. Here are a few more photos with wildlife, trees, and a few more pretty flowers…

Myself, Ron, and Summer with what we thought was the last spruce tree – the most northern tree (above)! The actual last spruce tree (below)!
Here’s me working on a plant ID and showing off the bear spray that never left my side. Thankfully, and I’m sure to the joy of our bear guide, it wasn’t needed while we were up there, though we did spot a bear along with plenty of other wildlife…
A moose sow and calf eating aquatic plants under the midnight sun with Sukapak Mountain in the background.
An arctic fox, arctic hare, arctic grayling (caught for dinner!), owl (not sure which in the bottom left), grizzly bear (taken from inside a vehicle!), and the great horned owl (bottom right).
Finally, from top left across to bottom right: Morel Mushroom, Papaver lapponicum (arctic poppy), Linnea borealis (twinflower), Siphula ceratites (waterfingers), Zigadenus elegans (center, mountain death camas – don’t touch or eat!), Polemonium caeruleum (Jacob’s ladder), Rubus chamaemorus (cloudberry), Pyrola asarifolia (liverleaf wintergreen), and Castilleja sp. (Indian paintbrush, working on this species!).

Floral Blooms and Birds of Prey

It’s been over a month now that I’ve been living in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I’ve been lucky enough to watch the rapid transition from snowy mornings to sunny ones. Variability in Alaskan weather, and short term variability at that, is noteworthy. Not long ago I was cycling to work with nothing but my eyes exposed and walking outside to see this on my bike one afternoon…

…now this morning I walked outside with shorts and a t-shirt on after a week of forest inventory and another of a raptor surveys. In my last post I mentioned the infamous abrupt change from winter to summer that occurs in Alaska (one I had only been told about by then); in this one I’ll tell you a little more about what that looks like, as well as some of the incredible things I’ve seen and been a part of so far.

Though I showed up in April, it felt as though winter wouldn’t end. Teasing days of warmth gave way to rain or snow for weeks at a time. The transition was subtle yet sudden. As the snow melted, golden grasses of yesteryear showed themselves – their jobs done and their previous summers work about to show itself off. After all, these grasses had spent 2018 creating seed now primed and ready for germination. They weren’t alone in their endeavors either. Following the transition from gold to green, dandelions showed up by lining the roadsides with their infamous yellow flower heads.

The bloom of dandelions only slightly preceded that of willows, birch trees, aspen, and cottonwoods which burst to life from their dormant winter. Green foliage appeared as buds and within a week unfurled into light absorbing leaves ready to transform sun and water into sugars for both themselves and for other wildlife. The city of Fairbanks followed suit. Restaurants that had been closed all winter opened, and I started seeing people standing outside enjoying ice cream in the sun where I had biked through the snow only a few weeks ago. I could see and feel the parallel between the awakening of the natural world and the manmade one.

With the average nightly temperature now above freezing, I was ready to explore more of the Fairbanks area with some overnight camping. Granite Tors became the first stop. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, these granite formations sit about an 8 mile hike off the highway to Chena Hot Springs and are well worth a visit. Some of the flowers I saw on the hike (from top left, clockwise) were Arctic Anemone (Anemone drummondii), Milky Draba (Draba lactea), Northern Kittentails (Synthyris borealis), Lowbush Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea; who’s delicious berries I’ll be eating in a couple of months!), and Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus).

I even got lucky enough to avoid a bit of the commonplace afternoon rains on this trip by staying in the cabin on trail…

Leaving Granite Tors, I was excited to discover more arctic plants, but just as much to help out on a Peregrine Falcon survey on the Fortymile River. This trip marked the beginning of the field season for me, and was one incredible way to kick things off. Located six hours outside of Fairbanks toward the Canada border, Fortymile country embodies interior Alaska. There’s a mixture of majestic rolling hills and mountains, the occasional burned through tree stand, wandering families of moose, and constant reminders of remote wilderness. These things combine to bring both a smile to your face and a respectful uneasiness that often dictate if a person stays in Alaska or not.

After setting up the raft and camping riverside the first night, we set off on a sunny morning just outside of Chicken. Craig (a BLM biologist and my supervisor) had taken the truck up to our end point and caught a ride back to the put in. He, Teri (a BLM recreation specialist), and I floated about 30 miles in total, stopping across from potential Peregrine Falcon habitat to sit with our binoculars and scan cliff faces for signs of perches, nests, or the birds themselves. We rafted for a total of four days and spotted around 20 Peregrines, several Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and plenty of Marmots. While paddling on our third day, I only just managed to avoid colliding with a moose and her calf; we spotted them after coming around a bend on the left bank. As I began paddling to the right to avoid disturbing them, they decided they’d cross the river so back to the left we went! From ten yards away, we sat and watched the mother moose and her calf swim to the right bank and continue their lunch, only a little perturbed by our presence. I don’t have the photo of this but here’s one from the trip…

The morning after I returned from the river trip, I drove out 3 hours from Fairbanks in the same direction as the Fortymile River to Tanacross for the first stage of a forest inventory project. A small airport with only a couple of buildings sits east of the native town with a population of 136. The forest surrounding the airport was the focus of our inventory, where BLM and Tribal Corporation land was torn through by winds raging up to 114 mph in 2012. The project involved measuring live and dead tree heights and their dbh (diameter at breast height), counting downed woody debris along transects, estimating forest canopy cover, and compiling a vegetation list with each species’ total coverage.

I learned how to distinguish white and black spruce on this trip, which I’ve been puzzling over for a few weeks now! The easiest method is to look at their cones (pictured below) – white spruce has long slender cones and black spruce cones are about as wide as they are long. In the absence of cones however, new branch growth can give a clue. White spruce have pubescence along the new growth whereas black spruce do not. It’s not always easy to spot but it works!

We stayed in Tok for this project where we had to stop by Mukluk Land after a long day in the field. This little amusement park/Alaskana museum has been around since 1986 and is run by an elderly lady anyone would be happy to call grandma. She even runs the local newspaper, and if you break 300 in skeeball you get your name in it. I managed to hit 310 after a try or two (or thirteen!), and am waiting for my copy of the June edition with my name and score! Another highlight was the smoked salmon mac and cheese we made for lunch and ate next to the airstrip…

On the 17th of June, I will leave for the Arctic Circle for a month to continue a forest inventory that began last year. I won’t be online until I’m back in town mid-July so my next post won’t be for a while. Good luck to all my fellow CLM-ers in the meantime, it’s been great reading through all of your blogs and hearing about your adventures.


The Alaskan Adventure Begins!

I arrived in Anchorage a couple of weeks prior to my start date with high hopes of seeing some wildlife, and at the off chance of catching the northern lights in a late winter sky. Almost a month later and two weeks into my work with the BLM Fairbanks office and I’ve seen moose, caribou, bald eagle, peregrine falcons, a black bear wandering the boreal forest, and even managed to catch a glimpse of the aurora.

Botanically speaking, we’re still a week or two from the legendary “green up” that occurs over a matter of days. The stoic frost covered landscape buttressed by white birch bark and evergreen spruce will soon give way to a flurry of spring foliage, the chirp of songbirds, and endless sun. Through phenological adaptations, vegetation has managed to survive harsh seasonal changes that limit their growth this far north. Dwarfism in arctic and alpine plants is common; warmth near the surface is highly valuable, and the differences in temperature between a few inches and a few feet above the ground is larger than in a more temperate climate. Staying small allows plants to hold on to moisture and warmth. Other struggles associated with harsh winters include freezing rain as well as the freeze thaw cycles that result in bowed and partially fallen trees. You can see in this photo the dramatic bowing of birch trees that are rooted into an expanding wetland – they’re often referred to as “drunk trees” because they’re falling all over the place! This is caused by pressure exerted on the soils through expansion during the winter freeze followed by a release of pressure in the spring thaw – it’s the same process that causes all those potholes in Chicago, just on a larger scale!

The real botanic work of the internship won’t begin until leaves and wildflowers sprout in the coming month, of course along with all those not so lovely invasive plants too. Nonetheless, preparations for the field season are well underway with bear awareness training, shotgun certifications, and the occasional field trip to make sure monitoring equipment survived the winter. We drove out to the White Mountains last week to check in on some stream monitoring gear and set up a camera to capture ice break up at Birch Creek with the BLM hydrologist in the photo below. Snowmobiling out there was a bit of an added bonus as up there in the Whites the truck couldn’t quite make it out to the creek!

The first couple of weeks have been an incredible welcome to Fairbanks and the state of Alaska as a whole. I can’t wait for more of the same as the field season kicks off soon!