Transplants in Southeast Alaska

and the consequences of forced emigration

Since the 1920s, mammals of fourteen species have been transplanted from one location (mostly but not always in Alaska) to another location in Southeast. Many of the official transplants were done with the hope of establishing viable populations of game species in new places, with the goal of providing more prey for humans. The processes of capturing and transporting the unwilling immigrants commonly resulted in high mortality, even before the animals were deposited in their new sites.

Many of the transplantations failed. An attempt to establish a moose population near the Chickamin River in the 1960s failed altogether; all the transplanted young moose died. At that time, officials declared it was too expensive to do a preliminary habitat assessment and thought it more practical to just dump the moose there and see what happened. A number of other transplant attempts over several decades are said to have failed: deer to the Taiya Valley, goats to Chichagof, mink to Strait Island, muskrats and marmot to Prince of Wales, wolf to Coronation Island, snowshoe hare to Admiralty and other islands. Ill-advised attempts in the 40s and 50s to establish populations of non-native raccoons failed.

Some transplants were successful, apparently without any serious preliminary assessments: the mountain goats now living on Baranof are descendants of the transplants in the 1920s, and marten were moved to Prince of Wales, Baranof, and Chichagof in the 1940s and 1950s. After a habitat assessment in Berners Bay, a number of young moose were deposited there in 1958 and 1960; they established themselves successfully and that local population has grown. It may be emigrants from that area that we observe near Cowee Creek, Herbert River, and the Mendenhall Glacier. The possible effects of moose browsing on the structure of the vegetation in Berners Bay are apparently not known; given the notable cropping of willows and other shrubs in Gustavus, one might wonder about the effects on nesting habitats for birds—especially in the light of research elsewhere documenting that over-browsing can drastically reduce bird habitat.

Elk (a non-native species) were brought to four islands in Southeast in the mid to late 1900s. The elk, from Oregon and Washington, were exchanged for mountain goats from Alaska. Only the 1987 introduction of elk to Etolin Island was successful, and elk eventually dispersed from there to nearby Zarembo and other islands. Some preliminary habitat assessments were made, but post-facto concern about possible competition with existing deer populations arose, so continued monitoring and perhaps management are necessary.

After marten were transplanted to the three big islands, red squirrels were often introduced as prey for marten. It later became clear that marten really prefer voles and it is unlikely that the squirrel transplants had much effect on the introduced marten populations. However, it is very likely that the squirrels are having a negative impact on nesting birds on those islands, because they prey on eggs and nestlings.

Collectively, these attempts to establish new populations of mammals are a very mixed bag. There was a high cost in mortality of animals (not to mention dollar costs of capture and transport), many transplant efforts failed, and there was little attention paid to possible consequences. The impetus for game translocations in Southeast may have abated somewhat, and as our ecological understanding has grown over the years, it seems likely that any further transplants would be done with greater concern not only for the animals themselves but also for proper preliminary assessments and the ecological consequences.

Several additional transplants were done in attempts to augment existing populations or to re-establish a previously resident population. However, the effect of adding new animals to an existing population (deer to Kupreanof in 1979, for example) is usually not known. A transplant effort in 1989 attempted to restore a much-reduced population of mountain goats on Mt Juneau, with the stated intent of improved wildlife viewing (!). All the transported goats initially moved away, but by the early 2000s, goats were again seen on the ridge, although no one seems to know if these animals are related to the transplants or from a natural population on nearby ridges.

Sea otters have been re-introduced to many places in Southeast at various times, to restore the natural population that was extirpated by human activity. These transplants are apparently successful and the population of sea otters in Southeast is growing. The consequences of sea otter presence are currently being studied by faculty and students of UAF.

The historical information in this essay derived from Tom Paul’s 2009 ‘Game Transplants in Alaska”, ADFG Technical Bulletin #4. In addition to the official transplantations, there have been an unknown number of unofficial and mostly unrecorded ones, done by private citizens.

The ice tells

stories written on a frozen pond

MidApril, and my home pond is still mostly covered by ice, with a thin layer of snow on top. Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of activity out there. The snow records the passing of several visitors.

The pair of mallards that claim this pond are, at the moment of writing, resting quietly on the bank, under a snow-bowed alder. But they have been traipsing back and forth from the bit of open water at the outlet to the patch of open water at the inlet, leaving several trackways across the ice. Sometimes they visit the considerable accumulation of spilled bird seed that builds up under the feeders suspended over the pond. When the ice thaws and dumps the remaining seeds to the bottom, the ducks will dive for them.

The mallards aren’t the only ones to harvest seeds from the ice. The hordes of siskins and redpolls that dropped all those seeds from the feeders come back later and collect some of the fallen seeds. The red squirrel that lives below a neighboring spruce tree ventures out to gobble up those seeds too—now that the feeders on my deck are no longer operative. Juncos go out there too, but the males are singing now, and they are having other things on their minds. I haven’t seen a jay here for weeks; they may have begun nesting—and the little birds can now forage in peace.

A raven regularly patrols the pond. The ice is its lunch plate, because there I throw out any uneaten cat food, which the raven collects. It has left a complex network of tracks all over the ice. That bird will miss the ice-plate when it melts!

Other visitors include a porcupine, who has trundled several times across the ice. Most recently, an otter came by, passing over the ice just once in its exploration of open waters.

Out on Mendenhall Lake, there were recent tracks of skis, and in the very middle of April we watched a pair of skiers and a dog taking their chances on the weakening ice. With worrisome visions of calamity dancing in our heads, we knew we’d be in no position to help, if the ice failed (it didn’t). We were safely ensconced up on The Rock, the rock peninsula across the lake from the visitor center.

It has become an early spring ritual to hike up on The Rock, looking for the early-flowering purple mountain saxifrage and whatever else we can find. We had a lazy lunch, basking in the sun, listening to ruby-crowned kinglet songs and watching bumblebees zooming about. The bees didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers, although the flowers held nectar and pollen. Perhaps they favored the willows: the male willows were starting to present pollen, just the thing for bumblebee queen to feed her new brood of larvae.

We were overseen by several mountain goats, lying on ledges near the top of the ridge. The goats are still down at low elevations, both here and near Nugget Falls across the lake, so they have been seen and enjoyed by many folks. Right in our own backyard, so to speak. How cool.

To round out a week of fun, I walked in the sun on the beach and sand flats south of the visitor center. I ambled along, thinking of other things altogether, when my brain awoke to the many small trackways crisscrossing the snow. Two feet, very short steps, going from one stubby willow shrub to another—who could it be but a ptarmigan! Then, about forty feet ahead of me, there was a small patch of something whiter than the snow. Aha! The perpetrator of the tracks. The bird didn’t move, and I didn’t move. Have you even tried to hold absolutely still for a long time?—don’t scratch your nose, don’t shift weight from one foot to the other, don’t cough, just pretend to be a tree. It’s very hard to out-wait a bird that is holding still and thinking its camouflage makes it invisible! But I managed to do it, and eventually, after many, many minutes, the bird resumed feeding on willow buds. Presently, another ptarmigan crept ever so slowly out from under a spruce and joined the first bird and both of them fed on willow buds. They seemed to be very small, so could they possibly be…….., but alas, I was too far away to be sure of the diagnostic identification marks in the plumage (foolishly, I’d left binoculars at home). After watching for quite a while, I made a wide detour around them and continued down the shore.

On my way back, I came upon them again, this time only about ten feet away. Being this close was a lucky break. Now I could see their tails very clearly and there were no black feathers there. Whoopee! That confirmed the conjecture based on small size—these were indeed white-tailed ptarmigan! Both of them were still snapping up willow buds and they let me watch again. The summer molt was just starting, and they had occasional blackish feathers poking through the white winter coat.

I’d never seen white-tailed ptarmigan before, and now there were two of them, right in front of me. They nest in the high alpine zone, but winter sometimes brings them down, and I got lucky!

Mountain Goats

extraordinary Oreamnos

One day in late March, I wandered toward the Mendenhall Glacier in search of mountain goats. March is often a good time to see them near Nugget Falls or across the lake on the big rock peninsula at the foot of Mt. McGinnis. Or even on the lake itself! In winter, mountain goats leave their summer range in the alpine and venture down into the forested zones, where they can find some food, albeit sometimes of poor quality, under the trees.

I had previously tried several times to find them near the glacier but I had been ‘skunked.’ And I was beginning to think that perhaps the rangers at the Visitor Center had locked up the goats somewhere (along with the beavers that are never visible in the beaver cam when I look for them).

Finally, on this day, I got lucky. There, just beyond Nugget Falls, was the elusive white beast. But wait—this one had eight legs! It was a nanny, with a nearly year-old kid walking right next to its mom, but on the far side of her, so I could only detect its presence by those supernumerary legs. I was too far away to tell if the nanny was pregnant with this year’s kid, which would be born later in the spring.

Female mountain goats in Southeast don’t reproduce until they are four or five years old, according to ADFG research. Then, if conditions are good, they may produce a kid every year for several years; if conditions are poor, they may skip a year. However, the probability of survival in Southeast decreases steadily after age four or five, and drops rather quickly after age eight or so.

mt-goats-jos
Photo by Jos Bakker

Snow can create big problems for mountain goats, especially as they get older. Deep snow makes much of their plant food inaccessible and also makes travel energetically expensive, unless the snow is well compacted and can support their weight. Fresh snow on unconsolidated snow pack can lead to avalanches, a significant source of death for goats. I once found an entire skeleton of a fairly young goat (its teeth were not very worn) at the base of a long avalanche chute. In general, mountain goat survival in Southeast decreases as snowfall increases. Late winter and early spring are seasons of lowest survival, when the cumulative effects of winter difficulties take effect. Old animals and males are the hardest hit.

You might think that summer is totally benign, in terms of weather. But mountain goats can’t handle really warm weather. When temperatures rise, they tend to seek north-facing slopes, or shady spots behind rocks, or higher elevations, or at least a nice cool snow pack for resting. Average temperatures greater than about 48 degrees F in July and August are ‘hot’ even for young goats. The average temperature is correlated with the number of days that reached over 60 degrees F. Older goats may suffer heat stress at even lower temperatures. Recent ADFG research in Southeast suggests that warm summers are often followed by increased winter mortality, especially for older goats.

Why should warm summers create difficulties? One possibility is that high summer temperatures melt the snow rapidly, so that the ground vegetation all matures in a relatively short time. In contrast, a cool summer would melt back the snow pack more gradually, so that the emerging vegetation is exposed over a longer period of time. Some evidence suggests that young, emerging plants have higher nutritional value than mature ones. Then cool summers would offer high quality forage over a longer period of time than warm summers. Furthermore, higher temperatures may more directly cause lowered forage quality because the plants grow faster and contain more indigestible fiber. Cool summers also reduce heat stress and may allow goats to forage more efficiently and perhaps more often (if they don’t have to seek shade as frequently). Thus, cool summers might allow goats to go into winter in better condition than after warm summers.

Mountain goats, like some other alpine specialists, tend to develop localized populations that are genetically different from each other. For example, ADFG research has documented distinct goat populations east and west of Berners Bay, and north and south of the Katzehin River, with little movement of animals between populations. Relative isolation of populations often allows the development of local adaptations specific to each population, if environmental and demographic conditions are different, but it remains to be seen to what extent this is true for mountain goats.

Detailed genetic analyses by Canadian researchers has shown that mountain goats probably survived the last major glaciation in at least two refugia. Fossil evidence had previously supported the idea of a southern refugium, perhaps in southern British Columbia or thereabouts. But the more recent molecular data show that another refugium probably existed in northern BC or Southeast Alaska; goats from northern areas tend to be different genetically from those of the southern areas. In the thousands of years since the Pleistocene glacier began to recede, some movement of goats must have occurred, because some populations now consist of both northern and southern genetic types. Similar historical differentiation of northern and southern population is known for other mammals as well, including ermine, red fox, and mountain sheep.

On the Rock

…some early fall observations

Mid-April, taxes are filed, the government didn’t close down, and the sun is shining. A good day to head up the West Glacier Trail in search of purple mountain saxifrage, whose pink flowers are among the first to appear in spring (pussy-willows are the very first). Much of the snow was gone, so we walked along the lakeshore for a mile or so and then cut uphill to the trail.

At the bench, the group decided in favor of dropping down to lake level again, rounding the bay with the big beaver lodge, and going up on the first ridge beside the beaver pond. And there, just above the pond, we found the first blooming purple mountain saxifrage. Soon we were seeing dozens of them on the barren rocky outcrops, with more to come into bloom in the next few weeks.

A bumblebee zoomed by but didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers. Perhaps she wanted to visit the multi-flowered catkins of the earliest-blooming willows.

At the beaver pond, there is a route up the cliff to the top of the ridge, but our group chose our old way. Past that pond, we scrambled up the alder-covered ramp to the next level. The rock terrace here is pocked with small ponds. A pair of mallards had secluded themselves in one of the ponds, well sheltered by shrubbery, but our coming spooked them and off they flew. Here we found more saxifrage, as well as lovely ‘gardens’ of moss and lichens.

At the end of the rock terrace is a crack in the cliffs that gives easy access to the top of the ridge, not far from the end. Here we sprawled in the sun for a leisurely refueling, in preparation for what we knew would be a bushwhack back along the ridge.

And indeed it was bushwhacking at its best, thrashing through the alders that filled the dips between rocky outcrops. So errant twigs snatched my glasses from my face, or knocked off my cap, or snagged on my pack, to the accompaniment of muttered imprecations. However, we rejoiced in the absence of leaves, which were still tightly furled in their buds, so we could more or less see where we were going. Here we found a robin, a plump squirrel, porcupine scat, and some old bear scat full of chewed up ground cone.

On the outcrops were numerous deposits of small scat pellets, not quite as round as hare scat and not in good hare habitat, se we deduced they’d been left by mountain goats. On one outcrop, we found a pile of tiny pellets right next to a pile of bigger ones, suggesting that a nanny with a kid had rested there. Our deductions were reinforced a little later, when we looked back toward the end of the rock peninsula and saw five ambulatory white spots. Three of them scampered agilely up and over the crest of the ridge and disappeared.

Looking down toward the toe of the glacier, we could see the edge of the rather new colony of gulls. Gulls still nest on the southern face of the rock peninsula, but as the vegetation gets taller and denser there, the gulls get fewer. A few years ago, they began a new nesting colony on bare rock closer to the ice.

We regained the West Glacier Trail via the ‘social trail’ that slants up the hillside through the alders. Here, however, the alders are my friends, providing convenient hand-holds.

This trail crosses a steep rock that even the mountain goats go around, judging from white hairs caught in the brush below the rock. Now, however, some thoughtful folks have installed a climbing rope that greatly facilitates passage over this spot.

Strolling in the March sunshine

basking and strolling through spring changes

After a deluge in late March, the sun showed itself, prompting residents to enjoy some serious basking. Some baskers took the lizard approach: finding a spot out of the wind and relaxing. Others chose to stroll, in hopes of seeing things beside the insides of their eyelids (mind you, that is quite fine, too!).

One gloriously sunny morning I strolled with a friend out to Nugget Falls on a blissfully ice-free trail. Two mountain goats were visible on the ledges on the far side of the falls, and we spotted four of them on the base of Mt McGinnis, not far above the glacier ice. Juncos were singing from the tops of small cottonwoods and varied thrushes squalled and trilled from the forested hillside. A red bird with white wing patches perched in the alders and gave us a quick look. I thought I saw the crossed bill tips, making it a male white-winged crossbill. But after our stroll we checked the books to pick up other marks for distinguishing these crossbills from the larger and rarer pine grosbeak.

Cottonwood buds were plump and aromatic with that lovely, delicate, characteristic smell that beats any commercial perfume. We found purple mountain saxifrage plants, green and sturdy, but not yet in bloom; just as well, because we’ve not yet seen any bumblebees that could do the pollination.

On the sand flats, lichens have become established. One of the common ones stands an inch or two tall, is white in color, and looks vaguely like small cauliflower heads. This is called foam lichen or snow lichen (Stereocaulon). It and some other lichens are important to the ecological development of these areas, because they take atmospheric nitrogen and ‘fix’ it into a form that plants can use, facilitating the colonization of the area by plants. There are many species of snow lichens around the world, found especially in cold, quite barren locations. They do best in dry, well-lighted places, but at least some species are subject to thermal stress on warm days. They typically are not the very first to move into a barren area, and when the taller vegetation takes over, the habitat is generally not suitable for the snow lichens, and they disappear.

Foam-Lichen,-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

In the afternoon of this sunny day, I went out to Eagle Beach, to soak up some more rays. There was a stiff little north wind, so summer dress was definitely not yet in order. Common goldeneyes dove in the estuary and dozens of Canada geese slept or foraged in the shallows. The usual mob of crows fossicked about on the sands near the edge of the incoming tide.

I tucked myself into a comfortable grassy nook at the upper edge of the beach to contemplate the shining Chilkats. The hundreds of big gulls that had been sauntering along the edge of the sands suddenly got excited and took to the air: hovering just above the water, continually dipping down to the water surface, the whole gang of them slowly moving along the shore for perhaps ten minutes or so. Whatever they were catching was really small—small enough to be swallowed immediately and therefore not big enough to fight over. I’m guessing the prey was juvenile fish of some species, traveling in a big school, but it seemed a bit early for baby pink salmon to be cruising along the shore. Maybe young sand lance?

The weather forecast for the next day was rain, but the sun prevailed in the morning. Parks and Rec hikers trod the Treadwell Ditch trail from Dan Moller to Jumbo, in dappled sunlight. We could see a weather change building up to the south, but the sun was still shining at noon. We were delighted with the new bridges over some badly washed-out gullies, but noted that bikes were leaving deep ruts in portions of the trail. Water levels were low, and we were able to cross Paris Creek: by walking on the mossy dam with the aid of a new rope railing, hopping on wet logs, or stepping on gravel bars and scrabbling over a log jam. If funding comes through, there may someday be a real bridge over this creek.

Hiking to Granite Basin

hot goats, salmonberry abundance, yellow fireweed, and fuzzy ducklings

There are two principal ways to get to Granite Basin, and on a wonderfully warm and sunny day in early August, the Parks and Rec hikers used both of them. Nine strong hikers aimed for Mt Juneau and the Juneau Ridge; they spent ten hours on the loop from the top of the mountain, along the ridge, and down through Granite Basin. They reported seeing goats and lots of flowers, especially noting a spectacular spread of pink-flowered fireweed in the upper basin. Beyond the Chilkats, the mighty, snow-clad peaks of the St Elias range were visible in the far distance, an unusual treat on an unusually clear day.

The rest of the hikers, slightly more numerous, chose a more leisurely hike, going up the Granite Creek trail to the basin. That old avalanche that had rested over the trail for several years was finally gone completely, no doubt as a result of our warm weather punctuated by periods of heavy rains. We noted that the trail had been roughly brushed, getting the nettles out of reach of any bare legs and making it possible for hikers to see where they put their feet. Some tread repair had been done on the lower section of the trail, but serious mudholes are getting ever larger as hikers try to walk around them. There are still many rotten or missing boards on the boardwalk and some places on a side-hill stretch that are eroded so badly that a miss-step would have unpleasant consequences. There is still time this summer for some fixing on this route…

‘Twas a great day for a hike, especially if one carried lots of water. We were a bit surprised to see two mountain goats on the side of Juneau Ridge, in the hot sun; we had expected them to be on the shadier side of the ridge. Few marmots were evident; they were presumably sensibly sleeping in their cool burrows, but I found several other items of interest along the way.

The salmon berries were ripe, and both human and ursine pickers had been busy. In the middle of the trail was the most beautiful bear scat I’ve ever encountered (and I have inspected thousands of them, to the amusement of my friends). It was a very shapely heap so full of digested red salmonberries that it positively glowed in the sunlight, the red set off by smudges of blueberry and yellow salmonberry, and dotted with numerous pale yellow salmonberry seeds. Very artistic!

Another find—spotted by a friend—was a clump of the yellow-flowered fireweed. This seems to be uncommon around here; we know of a large stand on the seeping slope behind Cropley Lake, but we seldom see it elsewhere.

July-22-Granite-Creek-Basin-44-Yellow-Fireweed-3-kerry
Yellow-flowered fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

The pool at the entrance to the basin itself often offers us a look at an American dipper or a spotted sandpiper, but this time we watched two fuzzy young ducklings, probably Barrow’s goldeneyes. They loafed on a rock in the sun, then went diving in the pool, and finally disappeared as they ran (yes, ran) up the riffle at the head of the pool. Still too young to fly, they must have been born near here. Females of this species typically nest in cavities, often in trees but sometimes in rock crevices, and there is even a report of a nest in a marmot burrow. Parental care in goldeneyes may be short and skimpy after the eggs hatch, and the ducklings are often left to fend largely for themselves.

At lunchtime, someone brought up the fact that there is a small city named Juneau in Wisconsin. I was born and raised not far from there, so I decided to track down a little history. The Wisconsin city was named for a relative of Joe Juneau of local fame. Reported to be Joe’s cousin, Solomon Juneau was a French-Canadian fur trader, who settled in the Milwaukee area, helping found the new city and its newspaper, and briefly serving as mayor, among other things. Eventually he and his family moved about fifty miles to the northwest, founding a village near a large post-glacial marsh, and one of his sons founded the town of Juneau, not far away. Juneau County in Wisconsin is named for Solomon Juneau too. As it happens, my husband and I once owned a house in the rolling hills there. So, in a sense, I moved from Juneau to Juneau.