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KOYUKUK/NOWITNA Burning Issues: Fire Research on Koyukuk/Nowitna NWR Complex
Alaska Region, August 31, 2004
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The summer of 2004 has the distinction of being the biggest fire season in Alaska's history with 645 fires burning over 6 million acres. Extensive wildfires, especially near towns and villages, have generated public interest and concern about the impacts of fire to the boreal forest ecosystem. These large scale events remind us of the value of biological research that contributes to our understanding of biological processes in Alaska.

Long term monitoring can be valuable in determining the effects of fire on ecosystems. Here at the Koyukuk/Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge Complex we have several historic and ongoing projects related to fire ecology. Permanent vegetation transects were established in 2001 in a portion of the Koyukuk Refuge that burned in 2000. The burn is of particular interest because it is in part of the wintering range of the Galena Mountain Caribou Herd. Biologists Jenny Bryant and Karin Lehmkuhl are monitoring the return of plants to the site, and are particularly interested in changes in lichen cover because of its importance to caribou diet. Annual songbird surveys in the burn and an adjacent unburned area were begun in 2002. Furbearer and small mammal use of burned areas has been studied on the Koyukuk and Nowitna refuges for nearly 15 years. During the 2004 field season, Karin Lehmkuhl is returning to the sites of 1985 and 1988 burns where she studied yellow-cheeked vole populations from 1997-1999. Vegetation sampling was conducted in July, and the results were startling. Growth of shrubs (such as dwarf birch and willow) and regeneration of black spruce has been quite vigorous in some burned areas. Small mammal trapping will be conducted at the sites in August.

So far this summer an estimated 250,000 acres have burned on the Kaiyuh flats, covering much of the Northern Unit of the Innoko NWR. Biologists here are eager to see how this impacts the moose population, which has been monitored in the area for over 20 years.

It is rewarding for managers and biologists to be able to address public concerns with sound scientific answers, and this year's extreme fire season is a prime example. The biological research and monitoring we conduct on National Wildlife Refuges has value that extends far beyond the borders of our refuges.

Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov



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