By Joseph Robertia
The celebration of Earth Day is a time to think about the planet, the ways it may be changing and what those changes mean to its inhabitants — humans not excluded. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, many transformations are taking place with the flora and fauna, and while sometimes difficult to observe from a ground-eye view, the patterns of change are a bit easier to understand when seen from above.
To illustrate this concept, John Morton, supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, presented “The Kenai Peninsula at 30,000 feet,” as part of Kenai Peninsula College’s Earth Day celebration last week.
“The bottom line is things are changing,” Morton said. “I’m not pointing fingers to the cause or offering up solutions, I just want to put the facts out and show the empirical data to let people know this is real and happening right here.”
Using satellite imagery overlaid with various graphics, Morton was able to show one of the most easily observable changes to occur to the peninsula in the last 100 years — the human population growth and subsequent urban expansion.
Rather than an area with no roads, a scattering of small towns, Native communities and fish camps, the completion of the Sterling Highway in 1951 and the discovery of oil in 1957 brought many changes to the peninsula over the next several decades.
“Just in the last 30 years the human population has increased from 25,282 to 53,578 people,” he said.
Currently at 238,800 acres of private lands divided into 55,000 parcels, this trend of newcomers
amounts to roughly 1,000 new residents to the peninsula a year, which continues to alter the scenery.
Some of these folks come to pursue work in the oil and gas industry, which itself has radically changed the landscape of the peninsula. According to Morton, the extraction of these natural resources has brought a backdrop of 104 oil and gas pads, 188 wells, 71 miles of pipelines, 94 miles of roads and 1,800 miles of seismic lines.
The development of the Sterling Highway, homes and urban development, and all the oil and gas infrastructure being built where once there was wilderness, has created 175 miles of wildland-urban interface. When these two meet the results are another of the environmental changes that are easy to observe, according to Morton.
“Just look at the distribution of brown bear DLPs (defense of life or property shootings). From
1965 to 2008 we had 247 brown bear DLPs — 41 DLPs in 2008 alone — and it’s not an issue of more bears, it’s an issue of more people. These DLPs aren’t occurring in the sticks, they’re occurring along the wildland-urban interface,” he said.
The same is true of moose mortalities, according to Morton, which most often take place when one is stuck by a vehicle while attempting to cross one of the peninsula’s 3,016 miles of road, something that takes place roughly 250 times per year.
“On the 22 miles of the Sterling Highway that bisects the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, we’ve recorded an average of 2.7 vehicles, per minute, per day, passing through,” he said.
In addition to the human growth and development, the peninsula is also experiencing environmental changes as a result of the climate getting warmer and drier, according to Morton.
“Wetlands have decreased by 6 to 11 percent since 1950, glaciers have had a 5 percent surface area decrease in the same period of time, spruce bark beetle outbreaks increased triggered by two consecutive warm summers, and tree line is increasing by 10 meters per decade,” he said.
“And, based on scientific modeling, the changes are predicted to continue into the future,” Morton said. “Thirty-seven percent of the Kenai Peninsula is expected to change land cover type by 2099,” according to Morton.
Less alpine area, as well as a shift at lower elevations from the spruce forests that formerly dominated the peninsula, to more and increasing larger areas of savannah grass, will mean more changes to the species that occupy these areas.
“If you’re losing alpine area, its logical to assume you’re going to see changes to the species that live there, so harvested species — such as Dall sheep, ptarmigan, etc. — are likely to diminish in abundance on the Kenai Peninsula,” Morton said.
As some species decline, others may move to take their place. Already the peninsula is starting to
see an increase in black-tailed deer, although Morton said there is no hard data yet on what their population numbers on the peninsula may be.
“It’s also tough to say if they’re just expanding their population naturally, or if their expansion is related to climate change, but as it dries out here, it will become a more conducive habitat for them, so perhaps one day black-tailed deer hunting will take the place of Dall sheep hunting,” he said.
So what does all this change mean to the people of the peninsula? Morton said that it is for them to decide, but that these decisions should be based on staying informed about climate changes occurring locally.
“People need to change their expectations, and this doesn’t have to mean expecting things to get worse, it’s just means understanding they’ll be different,” he said. “By understanding this is happening, and by being aware of the issues, we can start working toward solutions.”