Northern 'BioBlitz' held in Anaktuvuk Pass
From woolly louseworts to purple saxifrage, nine-spined sticklebacks to yellow-rumped warblers, last weekend was all about biodiversity in Anaktuvuk Pass.
To commemorate the centennial of the National Park Service, the organization held "BioBlitzes" in parks and protected areas around the country.
"A BioBlitz is a crash course in recording all the life in a place — a snapshot of plants and animals that are in a place at a particular point in time," said Jeff Rasic, chief of resources for Gates of the Arctic National Park. "We heard of this idea and it sounded really cool, so we jumped on board immediately."
For the last decade, the parks service has worked with the National Geographic Society to put together a BioBlitz in one park per year.
For the 100th anniversary of the service, the organizations decided to try and hold as many of those events as possible from coast to coast. According to National Geographic, there are about 250 such events happening this year, with about half taking place the third weekend in May.
It wasn't necessarily the best season for measuring biodiversity in the far north, said Rasic, but it would have been hard to find a time that would be ideal for all states ranging from near-tropical to polar.
"The short answer is no," Rasic laughed. "I mean, it was a fabulous thing, but if you were just designing a scientific BioBlitz, you wouldn't pick May. It's a little early in the season. Not everything's out and a lot of the plants haven't blossomed. But, we wanted to tie in with the national event and the other parks doing it on the same day. We thought, what a neat opportunity to show how different it is up here in the Arctic and how special. We anticipated there would be a strong contrast with things happening in Florida and California and that we'd really stand out."
Despite it being the shoulder season in the pass, participants were still able to rack up nearly 300 observations and identify 92 individual species of plants, mammals, fish, birds, insects, and more.
"There will be a whole trickle of observations and realizations as these researchers get back and pore over the things under microscopes and run genetic analyses and do other follow-up studies. So, the BioBlitz is, in a way, going to be happening for weeks or months to come," Rasic said.
More than 20 visitors came to the village to help out with the blitz, of which there were about a dozen specialists from a range of scientific fields.
The scientists were based at the school. From there, they hosted what Rasic called "mini-expeditions" into the field to collect data and observations.
It was important for the parks personnel to include local residents in the blitz, he said, which isn't always the case with events like this.
"One model for doing a BioBlitz is to have only specialists go somewhere that has biological interest and do their thing," he said. "But, a lot of BioBlitzes also include the public and citizen scientists and school kids. We really liked that idea and in Gates of the Arctic there really is just one opportunity to do that because it's such a remote park. We don't get droves of visitors and they aren't concentrated in one place, so we thought Anaktuvuk Pass would be the perfect place. It's a community that's surrounded by parklands and the people there know about the park and it's easy to access lands."
He said the observers had the chance to hear Inupiaq words for species and find out about traditional uses for plants and animals as they learned alongside local knowledge holders.
"One of the elders in town took us out to a willow patch and he showed us how ptarmigan snares were made from caribou sinew and it was a great chance to learn how all those things can work together," said Rasic. "[He had] this deep reservoir of knowledge that was just fantastic."
He was glad local students got the chance to participate, as well. School just finished, so they had the time and energy to go out into the park with the expedition leaders and help collect insects, spot birds, and catch fish.
"When a kid's locked into what they're seeing in a microscope or listening to some expert talk about or running around with a big smile on their face outdoors, it's a reward in itself," he said.
The information from the BioBlitz will provide a detailed picture of spring in Gates of the Arctic, which Rasic said will help establish a baseline and benchmark for future comparisons for the area. In addition, by doing so many blitzes across the country on the same weekend, there will be an interesting and unique opportunity to compare data from a variety of areas in the country.
"That's a way to track change, whether it's from human impact or development or climate change or invasive species. The BioBlitz is one way to start measuring those things," he explained. "When you stitch together all these observation points across the continent or through time, you can start to get a handle on what's changing and the reasons it's changing."
Gates of the Arctic is an important park to include, he said, as it's one of the northernmost protected areas with a relatively pristine environment.
"We always talk about the Arctic being the canary in the coal mine with global change and I think Gates of the Arctic could be the canary in the coal mine for national parks or protected areas," said Rasic. "There's very little development and not a lot of human impact. We don't have really any invasive species to speak of there. It's a really sensitive place to monitor change from. It's also in the Arctic where seasonal fluctuations and other kinds of change can be really dramatic and therefore, really visible. So, when we're seeing change in a place like Gates of the Arctic, it could be a wakeup call that the same change is happening in other places just less visibly."
More information and a list of observations and species found in the 2016 Gates of the Arctic bioblitz can be found at iNaturalist.org.
Two additional BioBlitzes will be held later this year in Alaska: the Denali Arthropod Inventory is scheduled for June 15 through Aug. 30 and a weekend blitz in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is scheduled for July 7 through 10.