This is a story of a small place – a sandbar -, in a big place – the Red Bluff River -, in an even bigger place – the South Baranof Wilderness -, and, well, we won’t even get into the Tongass and beyond.
Over a week of work in Red Bluff Bay this week, we got to know the area very well. Three of our fifteen trip goals happened to require upriver travel, which we did on foot and by packraft. While upriver, we observed beavers, surveyed for owls and amphibians, and measured many giant trees, including a few spruce trees that were over 25 feet in circumference.
The Red Bluff River’s productivity and diversity can be traced back to those giant trees; as they rot and fall they alter the course of the river, make homes for canopy and cavity dwellers, and open clearings for berries and deer. Sometimes, they create sandbars, and we decided to survey one of those sandbars in more detail.
On this small patch of gravel and dead tree – also an ideal spot for salmon to spawn – SCS botany intern was able to identify forty-seven different species of plants, including the rare Mimulus lewisii, of which we collected a sample for genetic analysis. Mimulus lewisii, more often known as the pink monkeyflower, has a very interesting, patchy distribution that may be linked to receding ice and snow cover. Here’s a close-up of the flower: may it inspire you to go for a stroll in the wilderness!
Last weekend, SCS organized a work party to replace a broken bridge behind Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. The bridge is used by students who monitor the stream and its surrounding habitat, but it recently sustained serious damage due to rot and falling trees, and became too unsafe for classroom use.
Requests were made to several organizations and agencies but every one of them lacked either the time, the money or the workers needed to perform the work. SCS turned out to be the perfect catalyst for drawing resources from around the community and turning them into an effective bridge-building team.
- Spenard Builders’ Supply paid for about half of the material, and delivered them almost immediately.
- Sitka Trails Work covered the rest of the expenses, and provided tools, a truck, and invaluable expertise.
- Science teacher Rebecca Himschoot and her crew of Keet Gooshi Heen parent volunteers contributed their labor and tools. They also set up an impromptu class on the physics of levers.
- Carpenter Mike Venetti directed the project and designed the bridge.
- Sitka Community Schools and the Sitka Conservation Society contributed volunteer labor.
The Cutthroat Creek “steam team” students can now go back to hanging over the railings to measure stream flow with tennis balls and yardsticks. This is just one of many environmental education programs that the Sitka Conservation Society supports in and out of local schools from the elementary to the high school level.
Sitka Conservation Society has an established history of monitoring, education, and eradication of invasive species all the way from Yakutat to the Stikine River. This past week and for a week in November, SCS staff and volunteers helped organize and run two experiments in nearby Whiting Harbor.
The problem species is Didemnum vexillum, also known as “marine vomit,” or “rock snot.” It is probably from Japan, although by the time the species was discovered it had already established itself on enough continents that this guess can only be made by comparing different populations’ genetic diversity. The helpful species is a small snail known in Latin as Marsenina stearnsii. It lives on and appears to eat the invasive tunicate.
First, SCS resident Erin Fulton and myself (SCS Americorps volunteer Paul Norwood) got permission to cross the airport runway at night during an extremely low tide. We calculated that 31.5% of the low intertidal zone was colonized by the invasive species, and after surveying twenty square meters in more detail, we got more data on snail densities.
We also collected enough Marsenina stearnsii snails and tunicate colonies to set up the predator experiment the next day.
The next day, Patrick Fowler from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, myself, and Jasmine Shaw from UAF’s Cooperative extension service, went back to Whiting Harbor by boat to collect data on a genetic compatibility study for San Francisco State University, measured the samples, installed environmental data loggers, set up a predator study, and collected fecal pellets from snails that were captured the previous night.
On Monday morning, I arranged with the University of Alaska Southeast to use their lab, and examined the snails’ fecal pellets (also known as “snail turds” in scientific parlance).
Almost all the samples showed evidence that the snails had been feeding on invasive tunicates, which is very encouraging for the study. If the current experiment shows equally positive results, it is possible that our little snails will one day be used for invasive species control all up-and-down the West coast