Charting a course for stream restoration at Cripple Creek

Students in Christi Buffington’s Introduction to Watershed Management class study the newly installed fish-friendly culvert.
Photo courtesy of Christi Buffington

Fairbanks, Alaska (UAF) – Salmon and their finned brethren are a lot like Sunday drivers. They enjoy meandering in curved passages, stopping to rest in the shade and grabbing a bite to eat along their journey.

A century ago, Cripple Creek in Fairbanks’ western neighborhoods offered such possibilities to Chinook, or king, salmon. Then industrial mining in the 1930s shunted the creek’s water into a bypass drain, which remained as an eroded, straightened channel long after the mining ended.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks now are studying how a restored Cripple Creek could host not only juvenile Chinook but also chub, grayling, longnose sucker and burbot.

Dakota Keller, a graduate student in the UAF Department of Biology and Wildlife, is helping to rebuild habitat that previously provided an aqueous nursery for juvenile salmon before their outmigration to the ocean.  

“The goal is to see the flora and fauna come back,” said Keller, who is partially funded by the Institute of Arctic Biology.

Her research focuses on measuring stream habitat improvements. Those include adding shade on the creek shore, diverting water from the drain into the creek and, most notably, installing two large culverts specially designed to encourage the squiggle-line movements of salmon swimming through them.

Hope for juvenile salmon

Researchers and local communities have reason to watch the restoration efforts at Cripple Creek with intense anticipation. The creek drains into the Chena River, whose waters flow into the Tanana River and ultimately the Yukon River. Chinook salmon in the Yukon drainage provide food for people who practice subsistence living. 

Last year’s state salmon harvest netted an estimated $398.6 million, and Chinook salmon was estimated to be $14.7 million of that total, from sales of just under 235,000 fish. 

While the research at Cripple Creek is preliminary, it could reveal ways to help counter a devastating Chinook salmon decline that has been particularly grim during the last two years in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Yukon Chinook salmon run came in far below the preseason outlook for 2023 and was the second lowest on record. About 58,500 Chinook salmon passed the Pilot Station sonar on the lower Yukon, and about 15,000 Canadian-origin Chinook salmon passed the upstream sonar station at Eagle, near the Alaska-Canada border. The goal is to get at least 71,000 across the border. 

In previous years, the Chena and Salcha rivers near Fairbanks have had the largest numbers of returning king and chum salmon in the Tanana River drainage. More than  7,000 Chinook returned annually to the Chena and over 9,000 to the Salcha, according to a roadside fishing guide from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The  document seems like an artifact from a bygone era — a grim reminder of the heydey of Yukon drainage salmon abundance.  

Due to the low returns, neither subsistence, sport nor commercial fishing has been allowed on the Yukon River and its tributaries in recent years. For communities that depend on these fish, the knowledge gained from habitat restoration can’t come soon enough.

Creeks and the Golden Heart City

In the early 20th century, industrial mining made the Golden Heart City a thriving community.

The modernization and industrialization of the Interior had its costs though — one of which was the destruction of fish habitat.

On a map, the straight line of the mining drain from Ester juts southward, in stark contrast to the sinuous curves of the natural Cripple Creek channel.

Keller’s research measures how improvements to the stream habitat affect the waterway. She analyzes elements using a spreadsheet-based method called the Stream Quantification Tool. The tool was developed in 2021 for Interior Alaska by a company called Stream Mechanics and is also being used in the Lower 48 in places like Tennessee and Wyoming. Keller will generate an Excel sheet according to certain inputs about the transport of water through the channel and on the flood plain and soil.

In addition to the infrastructure improvements, another input Keller measures is bugs. Because fish eat bugs, their presence is a good indicator of how well fish would thrive in the creek. Insects’ short life span allows Keller to see changes in habitat quickly. The numbers and species diversity of bugs are measured by collecting insects in the water using a triangular net and hand-counting them. These findings are plugged into the Stream Quantification Tool, which will spit out data in the form of a spreadsheet.

While spreadsheets may not spur the public to action, communities can rally around the practicalities of restoring waterways.

“Restoration is something very actionable that people really get excited about,” Keller said.

The Cripple Creek project is a veritable who’s who of national, state and local Alaska land management agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Transportation, which enabled the culvert work. The Interior Alaska Land Trust, a private nonprofit group, helped spearhead the project. 

Converging resources and waters

Christi Buffington is a staff education and research scientist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center. She also serves as adjunct faculty at UAF and co-leads citizen science projects through an international science and education program called Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment. 

The program is a passion of Buffington’s. The work she does with GLOBE not only is useful for community projects but also brings students, scientists and neighbors together. Last September, in an effort to provide shade for future juvenile salmon and other fish species, Buffington’s students planted 130 birch seedlings, all grown in her neighbor’s bathtub, along Happy Creek, a tributary of Cripple Creek.

She has also shepherded numerous students on their way to receiving university scholarships to continue research on Cripple Creek. One former student who studied Cripple Creek as an undergraduate received a master’s degree from UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and was recently hired at IARC to continue research on habitat restoration.

Stream restoration has become a community affair in Fairbanks, with potentially far-reaching positive results for a declining Yukon salmon population. Buffington is excited about the prospect of effecting change and inspiring future scientists at the local level here in the Interior.

“This is actionable science happening in Fairbanks where we live,” Buffington said.