Late break-up of ice in Quartz Lake was not unexpected in view of the persistent cold that delayed the normal arrival of spring-like weather this year. What was unexpected as the ice went out was the exposure of windrows of dead fish that littered some of the beaches.
It has become all too apparent in recent years to those who fish Quartz Lake that it is undergoing major habitat changes as lake levels decline. It was therefore a surprise to me that the June 6 Daily News-Miner article on the fish die-off at Quartz Lake did not mention the drastic decline in lake level over the past two decades.
In view of what has been evident at Quartz Lake in recent years, the downplaying of the magnitude and importance of the fish die-off by Tom Taube, sport fish research supervisor at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as quoted in the article, was dumbfounding. As a charter employee of ADFG at the time of statehood and with considerable pride in the agency’s long-term record, it was surprising to me that Taube showed little appreciation and understanding of the importance of maintaining habitat quality in fisheries management here in Interior Alaska. Taube’s assurance that dumping two truckloads of hatchery fish into Quartz Lake would solve the problem completely missed the target.
Can lake levels at Quartz Lake be returned to former levels, restoring fish habitat quality and productivity that were the hallmarks of Quartz Lake?
In the past, beavers, through their building and maintenance of dams, have played a major role in maintaining higher water levels in the Shaw Creek Flats, allowing increased amounts of water to flow from the flats into Quartz Lake. The periodic presence of beaver dams on the small lakes and drainages in the flats adjacent to Quartz Lake has coincided with high water levels in the lake.
Archaeological excavations at Quartz Lake show that the last time Quartz Lake was as low as it is at present coincided with the peak period of the fur trade. When beaver pelts were at their highest value, beavers were being trapped intensively and their dams were not maintained. When fur prices declined during the Great Depression, trapping efforts declined to an all-time low in Alaska and continued during World War II. Beaver numbers in the flats increased, dams were rebuilt and water levels in Quartz Lake were three to four feet higher than at present.
Although fur prices have not returned to the high levels of the more distant past, a gradual increase in trapping interest in recent years has been stimulated by availability of snowmachines, replacing dog teams as the primary mode of transport for Alaska’s trappers. Beavers continue to be trapped at moderate levels in Interior Alaska by mostly part time trappers in spite of the labor-intensive effort involved in trapping them and in preparing their skins.
Quartz Lake has no defined outlet. Water leaves the lake primarily through evaporation. The watershed surrounding Quartz Lake is relatively small, with no defined streams emptying into the lake. Virtually all the water entering the lake is from precipitation — rain or snow that falls directly on the lake and drains from the surrounding watershed. In recent years, when melt water from the much larger Shaw Creek watershed flooded Shaw Creek, a small amount of water entered Quartz Lake from the flats.
In the past, however, when beaver dams were present, they retained much of this melt water, raising water levels in the flats three to four feet and causing a substantial flow of water into Quartz Lake. Beaver population numbers in the Shaw Creek Flats adjacent to Quartz Lake, however, have remained below that necessary for maintenance of the extensive dams that previously existed at the outlets of several of the larger lakes of the flats and on some associated streams.
If beaver dams can be rebuilt where they previously existed 50 or more years ago, water levels in the flats can be raised to previous levels by capturing the flow of spring melt water from the large Shaw Creek watershed. Increased flow of water into Quartz Lake would result. A return to former higher stream flow in Shaw Creek throughout summer will benefit grayling, burbot, salmon and other fish that spawn and feed in Caribou and Shaw creeks as well as in other drainages in the Shaw Creek watershed.
Restoring water depths in Quartz Lake will reduce the frequency of over-winter loss of fish through oxygen depletion associated with decomposition of its lush abundance of aquatic plants. This has been a problem during the low lake levels of recent years and was the cause of the large die-off of fish that became evident with the breakup of ice there this year.
Rising lake levels will also restore former lake surface area and the extent of lake edge, both of which contribute to the high invertebrate productivity of the lake that has been the basis for the rapid growth of the stocked char, silver salmon and rainbow trout that have been annually released into Quartz Lake, formerly considered the most productive road-accessible fishing lake in Interior Alaska.
If beaver dams can again restore higher water levels in the Shaw Creek Flats, this will bring about improvement in habitat for nesting swans, geese, ducks, and other wetland birds, as well as for most fur bearers, including beavers, muskrats, mink and otters.
Beavers and their dams also accelerate recycling of riparian and adjacent forest habitats, with long-term benefits to moose.
The trapper who traps muskrats and beavers in the eastern portion of the flats adjacent to Quartz Lake has volunteered to hold off trapping of beavers there to stimulate dam construction.
Dam construction by beavers however, cannot occur if airboats are permitted in the flats. Airboat traffic prevents successful dam building by beavers on those lakes accessible by air boats. It also causes channelization at the inlets and outlets of the lakes, which in the last few years is clearly accelerating draining of lakes in summer. This increases summer drying of the wetlands, with direct detrimental consequences for beavers, muskrats and nesting waterfowl. It also lowers annual biological productivity throughout the flats.
Continued lowering of the water table throughout the flats also increases the likelihood of wildfire during the spring and summer. Beavers, as builders of dams that control water levels, have effectively demonstrated their engineering and hydrological skills, and they do their work when permitted at no charge to the state.
How can damage to and degradation of fish and wildlife habitats in wetlands by power sports equipment be avoided or minimized?
Damage to and destruction of fish and wildlife habitats in the Quartz Lake-Shaw Creek Flats wetlands through the use of air boats is now well documented. Damage to trails and fish and wildlife habitats in recent years has also been associated with the use of four-wheelers, especially the newer heavier models, during spring bear-baiting activities. Four-wheeler use when frost is coming out of the ground has created quagmires, rutting and especially erosion and associated siltation, which have negatively impacted biological productivity of the waters of the lake and wetlands. Severe rutting also damages trails and affects subsequent uses by other trail users, including dog mushers, snowmachiners, hikers and skiers.
Authority for controlling or limiting airboat and four-wheeler use on state wetlands falls primarily within the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources, whether done to prevent direct destruction of wetland habitats and wildlife, enabling restoration of former water levels in the interest of restoration of fish and wildlife habitats as is clearly needed in the Shaw Creek Flats, or to increase water levels in Quartz Lake. ADFG also has jurisdiction as it relates to fish and wildlife production, and the Department of Environmental Conservation does have a role to play in assessing and maintaining water quality in lakes and streams for production of fish and wildlife and human health considerations.
Authority governing wetland habitat management, when dispersed through three state agencies, is admittedly difficult to exercise. It must be done more effectively than in the past, however, if the downward trend observed in habitat quality and productivity are to be reversed. If this is not possible, an alternative requiring legislative action would be a new status for the Quartz Lake-Shaw Creek Flats wetlands, such as a state wildlife refuge or expansion of the Quartz Lake State Recreation Area to include a portion of the Shaw Creek Flats. This may be necessary if these prime wetlands are to remain productive for their continued traditional and sustainable uses for Alaskans as has been the pattern of their use since the arrival of the first humans in Alaska more than 14,000 years ago.
David R. Klein is a professor emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology and the Department of Biology and Wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.