May 5, 2011 |

Wild Things

Seals, sea lions, and whales are chasing fish at the mouths of our rivers. Dozens of birds surround us – some residents, some summer migrants, and some newcomers. Pussy willows and the large yellow flowers of skunk cabbage are attracting insects and hummingbirds. Tulips and daffodils are emerging, along with dandelions and hawkweed.

Every year between late April and mid-May, eulachon and herring arrive to spawn in the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers. Eulachon arrived in the Chilkat April 23, a few days earlier than in recent years. Four days later, they were at Chilkoot. A smelt that is declining in the Pacific Northwest, eulachon look for sandy, rocky substrates with light water flow to lay their eggs.

Arriving about the same time, herring spawn mainly in Berner’s Bay, but some come north to Mud Bay. Herring attach their eggs to aquatic plants. Both species are valued as a food source. Their presence brings the whole food chain: seals, sea lions, whales, gulls, eagles, ducks, fishermen and photographers.

Non-native species arrived here from somewhere else. They include brook trout and pigeons, strawberries, cherries and apples, ornamental jewelweed and dandelions.

Exotics are carried here by natural means like birds and mammals, wind and water, and by the actions of humans. People bring insects or seeds on their vehicles, clothes or shoes, or they can plant a lovely ornamental flower, fruit or vegetable in their garden from Africa or South America. Animals may arrive on their own or as pets. 

These newcomers raise a range of questions. Are they invasive species or natural change? If a new species survives here, will its effect be beneficial, harmful or neutral? Will it naturalize or "go wild," reproducing without the aid of people? For some exotics we know the answers; for many, we don’t.

We know pigeons have naturalized and increased in Haines. So have dandelions, and Canada thistle, strawberries and cherries. Orange hawkweed can be an aggressive weed, invading our lawns, but apples are a valued food source. Ornamental jewelweed is a lovely flower, but aggressively outcompetes our native and garden plants. Whether pigeons are harmful depends on whom you ask. 

Non-native plants have been studied and ranked according to harmful effects. If a non-native species adversely impacts local species, we call it invasive. An invasive plant can compete with local ones for nutrients, sun and pollinators. Invasive plants can even send poisons into the soil. If a harmed native plant is a food source for animals, the entire food chain may be impacted.   

As the world’s climate changes, habitats change, causing plants and animals to move. We have had new birds migrating to and through Haines in recent years. Moose are moving into the Seward Peninsula. Polar bears are running out of ice and will go somewhere.

What does all this mean?  We don’t always know. Sometimes we just have to wait and see, and think carefully about actions we choose because the consequences may be far reaching. 

When dandelions first came to Haines, they were transplanted as ornamentals into gardens.

Pam Randles is education coordinator for Takshanuk Watershed Council. "Wild Things," a column on nature and wildlife, is published monthly. If you have questions, sightings or photos, call Randles at 766-3542 or visit the group’s website, www.takshanuk.org.