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Kids learn conservation while hunting for salmon

Young scientists from the Fairbanks Youth for Habitat Corps look for fish in Cripple Creek.
Young scientists from the Fairbanks Youth for Habitat Corps look for fish in Cripple Creek.

The Chena River watershed is one of the biggest contributors of salmon to the Yukon River. A tributary stream, Cripple Creek, was damaged by mining in the 1930s, but is slowly being restored to produce salmon again. A citizen science project is counting fish on the stream this week.

“Another long-nosed sucker. This one is about 95.”

These middle-schoolers are part of the Fairbanks Youth for Habitat Corps. They are measuring a fish just removed from a trap in Cripple Creek, west of Fairbanks. It’s part of the science they are learning in a two-week camp is run by the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District. Terrence Hobson-Brower describes what they are studying.

“The water, how healthy it is, and if it has a lot of population of fish, insects and bugs.”

Stream health is the theme. The kids have buckets and boots are looking for different species to count and measure as indicators of a healthy waterway or a polluted one.

“Okay, so we are learning about soil erosion.” Jenyeliz Valle is going into 8th grade. “Trees stabilize the soil near water so it doesn't erode. Fish are a very good sign and also bugs are very good sign of water health. We learned a little bit about invasive species and native species are better. Yeah. Mainly our main focus is the salmon. Um, salmon feeds a lot of native communities and when it, when construction and mining happens, it kind of depletes the population.”

Ah, the salmon. Cripple Creek empties into the Chena River, that takes its water to the Tanana and then the Yukon. The Chena’s watershed is the Yukon’s second-largest salmon-rearing area in Alaska. And it used to be more potent, before diversions and silt from mining changed the habitats and salmon could not thrive. A restoration project by the Interior Alaska Land Trust, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department Fish & Game on this tributary has been slowly correcting the damage. The creek has its natural flow again after 85 years. Now salmon can spawn in this stream again. And these kids are looking for them.

 ”If we catch three, um, salmon, Chinook, salmon, kind of, in one spot, that's a protected area. And that's our goal. This is our second day and I feel like we've done pretty well, but we haven't found any chinook salmon.”

And while they were looking for indicators of stream recovery, they stumbled upon a grown-up riparian scientist doing much the same thing.

“Conducting a study here on Cripple Creek trying to see the invertebrates and how they're returning to the community as they continue with the restoration.

Thomas House is an independent biologist helping with the BLAST program, Biomedical Learning and Student Training with U A F, which is also studying the stream rebound.

We're actually seeing lots of creatures here, especially cata flies. They're the ones that live in little cases made of stones and sticks, and there's quite a few of them here, and that's a very good indicator that it has good stream health.”

The kids are supervised by Scott Faulkner, Natural Resource Education Technician for the Conservation District. He explains the Youth for Habitat Corps has worked on several conservation projects in the area over recent years.

“The big takeaway that we would like participants to have is that they see a career opportunity, a pathway to follow as they step into the world and look and enter the workforce. And some of many of these students already have a passion for nature and for conservancy and are beginning to, and we're helping them better understand that and in their own community,” said Faulkner.

 ”And 7th and 8th  graders are super fun age. It's a good time to learn how to do this kind of stuff.”

Chelsea Wettroth is a Natural Resource Education Youth Coordinator, with the Conservation District.

‘We’re slaying.”

I'm hoping they'll think about their future. Open their heart and soul to a career in conservation,” Wettroth said.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.