The Alaska Department of Fish & Game continues habitat work through the cold days of winter. In partnership with State Forestry, we roller chop aspen stands that regenerated after the 1994 Hajdukovich Fire inside of the Delta Junction Bison Range. This rolling 'Mad Max' style implement is pulled by a D7 Caterpillar over the frozen ground to shear off and then chop up these young trees that are too tall for moose to eat. Aspen trees within a stand all share the same root system. When the top â€“ or tree part â€“ of this plant is killed, a hormone called auxen is released to stimulate the 'root suckers' to send up new shoots. In this way, aspen seedlings regenerate the site. Across this area, ADF&G has done several iterations of this work to create a mosaic of different age classes of aspen to support moose and also provide for the habitat needs of grouse. Wildlife need different cover types for their life stages and food requirements in addition to shelter and cover from predators.
The D7 Caterpillar weighs 40,000 pounds. The roller chopper weights 24,000 pounds and holds 1,763 gallons of glycol for a total weight of 40,000 pounds. This operation crushes and chops aspen trees up to 7 inches in diameter with 80,000 pounds to leave a wake of tree parts with space in between for moose to walk and tree seedlings to grow.
Although it's not easy for people to walk through this, the moose seem to do alright. ADF&G conducts pellet surveys in the spring to evaluate 'moose use' during the previous year. These transects are permanent lines 50 m long where moose pellet groups are counted within a one-meter width along the transect to provide biologists with an understanding of how much the moose are using their new food source.
ADF&G staff count seedlings to evaluate the effectiveness of this treatment. Once the seedlings grow to 1 meter in height, they are available as winter forage for moose. This usually happens within 2-3 years of roller chopping. The site is then 'available' for browsing until the trees grow too tall for moose to reach at about 15 years after treatment.
Spring field burns support bison, moose, and grouse habitat
Prescribed burning is planned to continue next spring on the fields within the Panoramic and Gerstle Complexes as has been done in the past. Prescribed fires have been conducted in the fields in 2017, 2018, and 2019, with several burns implemented in prior years as well. The field burns focus on grass, brush, and tall shrubs within the cleared portions of the field complexes. The intent of using prescribed fire in this area is to enhance habitat for bison, moose, and grouse in the near term by stimulating regeneration of grasses, willow and aspen.
State Forestry firefighters along with several ADF&G red carded staff burn several hundred acres each spring to keep fresh forage available for wildlife.
Burning the 'Spruce Islands' is planned for 2021 to create more habitat
ADF&G biologists plan to expand the habitat in the DJBR by burning the stands of black spruce within the Panoramic and Gerstle Field Complexes; these stands are surrounded by fields of grass and shrubs. With thousands of acres of contiguous black spruce surrounding the DJBR, restarting forest succession here increases the forage and habitat available to game species where hunting and wildlife viewing can be readily accessed. The prescribed burn operation will be done in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State Forestry as they have the expertise, skill, and resources required to conduct a prescribed burn.
These four blocks of black spruce range in size from 460 to 1,050 acres. Last winter, State Forestry roller chopped wide swaths through the spruce stands as shown on the map below and created a fuel break on state lands adjacent to the private lands on the south side of the Alaska Highway. This fuel break widened an existing trail to give fire engines access. The prescribed burns are ignited under specific weather and wind conditions. It is a priority to limit the potential for spot fires to ignite outside of the designated units. These fuel breaks serve as a contingency line should the wind direction change or otherwise carry fire brands outside of the units during the operation. Burning the spruce stands will require constant vigilance to ensure that smoke impacts to the highway and homes are limited.
ADF&G works closely with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to ensure that smoke management is handled in accordance with the Clean Air Act and the Enhanced Smoke Management Plan for Alaska. For this and all prescribed fires, ADF&G applies for an open burn permit and must communicate with DEC before and during the burn to ensure that smoke impacts to communities, highways, and other sensitive features are monitored. Burning the spruce islands is expected to produce substantial amounts of smoke. The prescribed fire plan requires that winds are blowing from the north so that homes and the Alaska Highway have limited impact from smoke. After the ignition, the winds however could change; if that happens and smoke is expected to drift north, then ADF&G will post notices in the communities affected so that people with health risks can take measures to avoid smoke. Further, air quality monitors will be placed in the area to detect changes in particulate matter; this information will be used to improve notification to the community about smoke.
ADF&G has been using local media such as the Delta Wind, flyers in town, and the website https://akfireinfo.com/ to provide notice of when the prescribed burns are likely to start. Usually the burns we do in the cleared fields occur in late April or May. The spruce islands are likely to be burned in June.
State Forestry is directly involved in these operations annually; ADF&G coordinates closely with both State Forestry and the BLM to ensure that fire suppression resources are available during these operations. Many safeguards are implemented before ignitions begin so that weather, firefighters, and resources are all aligned with the assigned prescription which specifies when the fire can take place. All of these operations will occur in and between the Gerstle and Panoramic fields (between Mile 1408 and 1393 Alaska Highway) in the coming years.