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ANCHORAGE: Alaska Refuges' Aquatic Ecosystem Studies Benefits from Partnerships
Alaska Region, September 1, 2011
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FWS Water Resource Branch employee filtering and preserving water samples at the field site for chemistry analysis.
FWS Water Resource Branch employee filtering and preserving water samples at the field site for chemistry analysis. - Photo Credit: Cathy Flanagan
University of Alaska ENRI staff writing field notes about benthic macroinvertebrate samples after collection.
University of Alaska ENRI staff writing field notes about benthic macroinvertebrate samples after collection. - Photo Credit: Dustin Merrigan

One of the mandated purposes for each of Alaska's National Wildlife Refuges is to ensure water quality and quantity. Surface water contained in the Alaska Refuge System’s 77 million acres consists of an abundance of rivers, lakes, wetlands, snowfields, and glaciers. These aquatic ecosystems remain a barometer for the health of the larger landscape. Changes in the water quality and quantity can impact fisheries, wildlife habitat and human health.

Water resource monitoring can be difficult in the best of conditions. It becomes more challenging on Alaska’s refuges due to harsh terrain, remote access and the abundance of water resources. Partnerships with universities and other research institutions allow for more comprehensive and cost effective studies of these important ecosystems.

This summer, the USFWS Water Resources Branch and Kanuti Refuge partnered with the University of Alaska Environment and Natural Resources Institute (ENRI) to study three rivers on the south side of the Brooks Range within the Kanuti Refuge. Little data has been collected in the region and the three year comprehensive assessment will provide the physical, chemical and biological traits of the South Fork Koyukuk, and Kanuti-Kilolitna Rivers.

The data collected will be the primary indicators of change or disturbance in the area. It includes the physical parameters (conductivity, pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, and continuous water temperature record), chemical characteristics (major ions, nutrients, and trace metals), and aquatic macroinvertebrate and diatom (algae) samples. The assessment also documents aquatic and adjacent terrestrial habitat features, which are crucial points for refuge management.

The biological component of the assessment will include macroinvertebrate and diatom surveys. Using multiple biological assemblages in aquatic studies can enhance the ability to detect and diagnose ecological disturbances and alterations in stream chemistry and physical habitat, both in the stream channel and along the riparian zone. The sensitivity of an assemblage is related to life cycle length, degree of mobility, and position in the food web. Diatoms, relatively sedentary primary producers with very short life cycles, respond quickly and predictably to physical and chemical impacts. Macroinvertebrates, consumers with longer life cycles and greater mobility, are indicators of general ecological condition.

Annual flow hydrographs provide a good tool to place water quality results into context of hydrologic conditions. Collection and analysis includes continuous stream flow data for the length of the project in conjunction with the suite of water quality and biotic parameters.

This study provides an opportunity to sample a region from which there is little data and fill gaps in the understanding of these stream types. The study design allows for comparisons to be made among the study sites, different interior Alaska land areas where similar data have been collected, and studies in other regions. Recognizing and understanding intricate relations of physical, chemical, and biological components help scientists and resource managers meet the challenge of managing rivers and streams to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems.

 

 

 

 


Contact Info: Alan Peck, 907-786-3662, Alan_Peck@fws.gov



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