Western Boreal Forest – Alaska – Region 3*

Details and background information on the Western Boreal Forest - Alaska region

The state of Alaska encompasses more than 163,158,000 ha. Wetlands make up more than 50 percent of the surface area. Palustrine scrub/shrub wetlands are extensive and make up almost two-thirds of Alaska’s wetlands. The interior of Alaska is hydrologically driven by riverine systems and the floral region is dominated by boreal forest. High quality waterfowl habitat within Alaska’s interior exceeds 8,907,000 ha and produces a fall flight that probably exceeds 4.6 million ducks and 100,000 geese (King and Lensink 1971). The boreal forest extends from the western lowlands northward to the mouth of the Mackenzie, dominated chiefly by white spruce mixed with paper birch. In the muskeg, black spruce is common, while balsam poplar, alder, and willow dominate riparian areas. Larch is most common in the middle and lower Tanana valley, but penetrates westward to the 160th meridian. Alpine fir and lodgepole pine extend into the Yukon.

Alaska’s boreal forest is framed by the Brooks Mountain Range to the north the lowland tundra of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the southwest and an irregular boundary of the Kuskokwim, Alaska, and Chugach Mountains to the south. The dominant rivers that have carved this forested system include the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Innoko, Koyukuk, Kanuti, Porcupine, Black, Charley, Tanana and upper reaches of the Suisitna and Copper River systems. Most lakes and wetlands in the boreal forest were formed by hydrological processes associated with rivers, and have resulted in shallow water bodies with relatively flat bathometry. These systems contain vast areas suitable for emergent or submergent vegetation. Flooding occurs along the major rivers in interior Alaska associated with two types of events, a heavy snow pack in spring or a late and rapid breakup. Either of these hydrologic events produces extensive floodplain inundation. Other than flooding, fires have historically driven the succession of these boreal systems. Fire modifies upland vegetation, pulses wetlands with nutrients, and may change the predator base. Critical waterbird habitat is found in the lowlands of the Yukon and Minto Flats, Kanuti, Nowitna, Innoko, Khotol, Iditorod, and Koyukuk River floodplains.

*Region 3 - NABCI Bird Conservation Region 4 (Alaska only – Region 4 for Yukon and SE Alaska is covered in Western Boreal Forest, Bird Conservation Region 6).

Importance to waterfowl

The diversity of waterfowl species in the western boreal forests of Alaska rivals that of the prairie/pothole region. Densities of scaup (1.95 pairs/km2), northern pintail (1.79 pairs/km2) and American wigeon (1.73 pairs/km2) dominate duck breeding pairs (Conant and Dau 1991). Green-winged teal (1.05 pairs/km2), mallard (0.95 pairs/km2), and northern shoveler (0.89 pairs/km2) are also present in significant numbers. Canvasback, goldeneye, bufflehead, ring-necked duck, and scoters are also present throughout wetlands of the boreal forest. Tundra swans, trumpeter swans, white-fronted geese, and interior Canada geese have all increased in recent years. Several sea duck populations (including Steller’s eider, spectacled eider, long-tailed duck and all three species of scoter) have declined in recent years. These species use a mix of boreal, tundra and marine environments.

Importance to other birds

Common and Pacific loons or horned and red-necked grebes dominate deep wetland areas, while yellowlegs, spotted sandpiper, red-necked phalarope, and common snipe dominate shallow flooded areas. Mew gull and arctic tern are common throughout interior Alaska. Neotropical songbirds dominate forested stands, while several species of thrush and waterthrush are common in riparian habitats. Great gray and boreal owls hunt on wetland margins.

Over 88% of Alaska wetlands are under public ownership, with the principle agencies in the boreal forest being the USFWS, BLM, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. First Nation land holdings are also critical. The Doyan Corporation holds some 5,061,000 ha of land in the Alaskan boreal and is the single largest private landowner in the United States.

Challenges to the western boreal forest of Alaska come in the form of projected development. In 1999, more hydropower projects are proposed for Alaska than all other states combined. The proposed (but defeated) Rampart Canyon Dam would have caused the inundation of nearly 26,900 km2 of the Yukon flats and the loss of 1.5 million ducks from the fall flight (Bartonek et al. 1971). Currently, pulp and paper operations are small for interior Alaska, but demand is expected to rise. Mineral extraction, especially gold and tungsten, has altered wetlands and destroyed some salmon streams. Petroleum and gas production will need expanded pipeline development through the boreal forest. Increasing human growth and tourism will demand increased road access to Alaska’s interior, which will result in altered hydrology, fragmentation of forests, and accelerated development. As human demands on the natural resources of the north expand, viable landcover and waterbird surveys are critical.

Current conservation programs

Beginning in 1989, DU has worked with key agency partners to delineate landcover types across interior Alaska. Initial work was cooperative with the BLM and centered in the Gulkana and Iliamna Basins, as well as the Black and Innoko River watersheds. Ducks Unlimited and the BLM have developed a sampling protocol that is now accepted as an Alaska-statewide earth cover procedure. This protocol utilizes extensive field verification with helicopters to increase accuracy assessment of final products. Partnerships with the NPS, the U.S. Air Force, the Alaska Fire Service, the USFWS will have helped map over 40,486,000 ha of landcover in Alaska by 2000. All of the landcover areas have digital map products and ten manuscripts (which describe boreal landscapes and waterbird usage) have been published in the last six years.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been developed for a number of western boreal landcover data sets. A demonstration CD has been prepared for the Western Boreal Forest and used for resource training. Various spatial data have been analyzed with landcover type and include: (1) boreal fire history with landcover type; (2) hydrography; (3) change detection; (4) macro-habitat selection by various waterfowl species; (5) carrying capacity and landcover selection by moose and caribou, and; (6) successional vegetation modeling. Specific research projects to date have focused on breeding ecology of lesser scaup and Barrow’s goldeneye.

Coordination with efforts in western boreal Canada includes cross training of U.S. and Canadian resource managers. DUC biologists will oversee all field efforts in Canada with a DU remote-sensing analyst. DUC will not duplicate a boreal GIS staff. Products will have similar protocols across borders and the western boreal initiative can truly be a linked international effort.

Goals

  • Expand understanding of wetland and waterbird ecology in the boreal forest.
  • Map 520,243,000 ha of landcover in Alaska within the next 20 years.

Assumptions

  • Digital remote-sensed data, combined with GIS analyses, will allow land managers to make reasonable land use decisions.
  • Knowledge gained in northern boreal habitats will aid in our understanding of disturbed systems in the southern (Canadian) boreal habitats.

Strategies

  • Expand partnership efforts with major agencies, Native Alaskans, and resource-minded industry.
  • Identify major wetland complexes important to waterbirds.
  • Coordinate with DUC to develop digital landcover mapping of key wetland complexes.
  • Develop GIS analyses of waterbird distribution and landcover relationships.
  • Conduct basic ecological investigations to improve understanding of waterfowl use in boreal habitats of Alaska.