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.

Rambles in Gustavus

blossoms and birds, tadpoles and otters and a leguminous puzzle

I recently spent a couple of days roaming the trails in Gustavus, along with three other curious naturalists. Gustavus lies on the outwash plain created when the melting glacier of Glacier Bay poured its silty, gravelly meltwaters through Cooper’s Notch. Post-glacial rising of the land made the sandy plain more expansive. Now Gustavus offers a different array of habitats than are found in the nearby spruce-hemlock forest at Bartlett Cove or in Juneau. I love to visit Gustavus to visit friends but also because I enjoy the variety that’s just a nice ferry ride away.

One of our excursions took us on the Nagoonberry Trail, which passes through meadows, shrublands, and young spruce groves. Just for fun, we counted the number of wildflowers that we found in bloom. There were at least forty-seven species, exclusive of grasses and sedges. For comparison, a similar recent count in the lower subalpine zone on Gold Ridge turned up over fifty species—and there would have been more if we’d gone to the top of the ridge. A few years ago, we found over seventy flowering wildflowers in Cowee Meadows. I think that’s quite impressive. We don’t have to go to the tropics to find good diversity.

For some reason, lady-slipper orchids of several species are found in Gustavus, although I’ve never seen one in Juneau. A favorite one is the sparrow’s-egg orchid, with its very small ‘slipper’; it is also reported to be common in the Yukon. This species self-pollinates, and we found a robust specimen in which every flower had produced a fat seed pod. Nearby, there were three other kinds of orchids in bloom. I don’t recall any place in Juneau where I’ve seen four kinds of orchids growing within a few feet of each other.

We were entertained by bird families wherever we went. Lots of little ‘chip’ notes or thin ‘seet’ notes drew our attention to fluttering wings in the vegetation, which turned out to be little groups of juveniles with their parents—ruby-crowned kinglets, juncos, savanna sparrows, and chickadees. Young barn swallows were on the wing too. Lincoln’s sparrows were singing frequently, perhaps thinking about second broods. Sadly, we found two dead, well-grown juvenile hermit thrushes, in two different locations and so presumably not of the same family. They were very thin, and we wondered if the recent dry conditions had made it hard for them to find their own food.

We made a now-traditional visit to the gravel pits to look for toad tadpoles (aka pollywogs). Thousands of them were tightly clustered in the shallows at the bottom of a pool. At this time, only a few had started to grow hind legs; most of them were still just tadpoles. Presumably most of the remainder (if they survive lurking predators) will metamorphose and disperse as tiny toadlets later in the summer. I was curious about the derivation of their names. An internet source claims that both names come from Middle English: the first means ‘toad-head’ and the second one means ‘head-wiggle’.

One morning we were gifted with a boat exploration of the lower part of Glacier Bay. Around the long, low moraine at Point Carolus there were humpbacks breaching and kittiwakes foraging. Little flocks of red-necked phalaropes flitted about. Phalaropes are unusual because in these species it is the males who do the parental care and the females who are more colorful and aggressive; sometimes a female has two males on her territory, rearing their chicks. On the way back into Bartlett Cove we paralleled a roving pod of transient killer whales. Even the tourists ashore in the cove could watch these whales, but they probably could not observe that a sea otter speedily departed in the opposite direction from that of the killer whales.

Everywhere we looked in the lower bay there were sea otters, foraging and loafing. Our boat captain reported that on trips up-Bay, sea otters were observed hauled out on icebergs and reefs, a behavior seldom reported (in my hearing or reading, at least). This observation reminded me of the historical accounts of the emergency camp of the St Peter’s crew on Bering Island during the winter of 1741-1742, when Captain Bering died and Georg Steller discovered the now-extinct sea cow. The stranded, sickly crew unwittingly wiped out an entire species of flightless cormorant, as well as uncounted numbers of foxes, ptarmigan, and other animals. They slaughtered many hundreds of sea otters, partly for the furs (to gamble with, while passing the time!) and partly to eat. Great numbers of sea otters were hauled out on beaches, where they had never experienced any predators, and were (at first) ignorant of predatory humans, making them easy to slaughter. It seems that sea otters are more inclined to use terrestrial (or icy) haulouts in times and places where they are not harassed or persecuted.

We interrupted the boat ride with a short beach walk on the west side of Glacier Bay. Here we found that others had walked the beach before us, leaving evidence of their passing. Big moose tracks, indistinct prints of canids (wolf or coyote), and very impressive tracks of a big brown bear (at least eight inches wide), along with some prints of a quite small bear. That made us extra-alert.

On many of our Gustavian rambles we saw the purple and pink flowers of beach pea. Or so I thought. A more knowledgeable naturalist said No, not all of those are beach pea. Some have smaller, paler flowers and tend to be less sprawling than ordinary beach pea. So then we began to look more closely and, indeed, there were two different kinds of pea (closely related, in the same genus). The vibrantly colored beach pea has angular stems with no flanges (or ‘wings’), while the paler, smaller-flowered one has stems with wings. That one is called ‘wild pea’ in one field guide but is not even mentioned in another. So now I must revisit some of the Juneau beaches to see if wild pea grows here too.

Altogether, a highly satisfactory Gustavian visit in the company of fine companions.

Sojourn in Sitka

natural history and music harmonize beautifully

In late June I went to Sitka with some friends, in time to catch the final performance of the Sitka Music Festival. The music was wonderful, as always, and I had a small bonus: the panoramic windows of Sitka’s Centennial Hall gave me a view of a parade of ravens, flying by ones and twos, all in the same direction—a visual treat to add to the musical one.

Another objective of the Sitka visit was going out the St Lazaria Island, which I hadn’t seen in many years. Getting there is always chancy, because the island is fully exposed to the wide Pacific and the waters can be forbidding. On this morning, however, the weather gods were smiling, and we had a good ride. On the way out, we found a ‘smack’ of moon jellies—there must have been millions of them. They are said to be short-lived, and males and females are separate individuals. They feed chiefly on zooplankton and size reportedly depends in part on how well fed they are. I found no information on why they aggregate in huge groups such as the one we saw; is it for reproductive purposes or for feeding or by happenstance?? Several deer foraged on the beaches, and we passed a big flotilla of rhinoceros auklets. A gang of male sea otters, and a separate group of females with pups, were wary of our presence, and no wonder–they are hunted very heavily.

Then we got to St Lazaria. Some humpback whales lazed along the outside of the island. I was intrigued by the number of sooty shearwaters floating and diving. They come to our summer to forage but return to the New Zealand area to nest in the austral summer. Although Arctic terns, which have the reverse pattern –they nest here but spend the austral summer near Antarctica, are said to hold the long-distance record for annual migration, the shearwaters (sooty as well as short-tailed) must be close rivals.

St Lazaria is a remnant of an ancient volcano (older than Mt Edgecombe on neighboring Kruzof Island). Basalt cliffs rear up out of the sea, making two summits connected by a lower, grassy saddle that can sometimes get pounded by high seas. Broken basalt columns make great nest ledges for several thousand common and thick-billed murres, whose constant conversation and squabbling create quite a din. Nesting on these tiny ledges is a risky business for an egg, which might roll off when jostled by a parent. But murre eggs, only one per nest and laid on bare rock, don’t have the conventional egg shape; instead, they are rather pointed at one end, so they tend to roll in a circle instead of off the ledge as an ordinary egg would do.

Pelagic cormorants nest there too, using somewhat larger ledges, and each pair tends several eggs. Tufted puffins nest at the tops of cliffs, where accumulated soil allows them to dig their burrows. They were feeding chicks when we were there but were distinctly shy about returning to their burrows when our boat was nearby. There were lots of gulls nesting in the grassy area; I saw glaucous-winged gulls but, sorry to say, I did not bother to see if any other kinds of gulls were there. There was too much else to see! Added to the mixed community of nesters were some pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers; up in the shrubbery on top of the summits I heard song sparrows and maybe a fox sparrow. Peregrine falcons nest there every year—with dinner all around them (!)—and had chicks out of the nest already.

What we did NOT see were the many tens of thousands—one estimate says a quarter of a million– of storm petrels that nest in burrows in the soil atop the summits. They are the focus of long-term research, monitoring the population and nesting success. They are seldom seen on the island in the daytime because they forage all day at sea and return to their nests only when it is dark. Parents feed their single chick on plankton and stomach oil (partly digested plankton, a concentrated pabulum!) for about two months. Mated pairs are reported to stay together for many years, with little straying (unlike many other supposedly monogamous birds).

This brief experience brought back strong memories of a similar site (Puñihuil) near the island of Chiloé in southern Chile, where I studied birds in the south temperate rainforest for many years. The sea stacks there were held the nesting burrows of two kinds of penguin, and ledges for various gulls and some very classy cormorants, and we could see steamer ducks and the local ‘sea otter’ (really a converted river otter). Another spectacular wildlife show!