Ecology

Coastal Areas: Copper River Delta, Bering River and Lost Coast

The Copper River Delta is the northernmost portion of the Pacific temperate rainforest that spans from San Francisco to Kodiak Island. The soils are shallow and poorly drained, seasonal precipitation exceeds 150 inches in many areas, and sloughs, ponds and lakes are dominant features. Old growth spruce and hemlock forest, cottonwood, thick alder and willow, and fresh, brackish, and saltwater wetlands and marshes make up the coastal landscape.  The Delta contains over 700,000 acres and stretches some sixty-five miles along the coast.

The Copper River Delta is the largest site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve system, a State of Alaska Critical Habitat Area, and an emphasis area in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. It is also the only U.S. Forest Service district in the nation required to be managed primarily for fish and wildlife conservation.

The Delta is a critical staging area for over 16 million shorebirds and waterfowl that stop off annually, some flying 2,500 miles non-stop. Virtually the entire Pacific coast populations of western sandpipers and dunlins arrive in early May to feed and rest before continuing their journeys to their summer homes. The Delta supports the world’s largest population of nesting trumpeter swans and the only confirmed nesting habitat in the world for dusky Canada geese. In addition, loons, arctic terns, kittiwakes, plovers, scooters, gulls, cormorant, puffin, pigeon guillemot, herons, eagles, hawks, and owls find their way here, or live year round. Murrelets, surf scoters, and many varieties of duck also show up. Each fall, huge flights of sandhill cranes form gigantic spirals as thousands of birds descend on the Bering Lake area to feed and wait out storms on their annual migration south.

The delta lake, river and wetlands areas are prime habitat for coho and sockeye salmon, Dolly Varden trout, and eulachon.

The Delta is also critical habitat for many mammal populations. The upland area contains large concentration of beavers, along with black and grizzly bear, mountain goat, wolverine, fox, mink, martin, coyote, wolves, and land otter. Moose transplanted in the 1940s inhabit the entire Delta coast, and Sitka black tail deer (also transplanted) are sometimes found in the western portion of the uplands. Wolves on the Delta rely on salmon as a food source more than any other wolf population in the world.

On the eastern extreme of the coastal area is the Bering Glacier region. Here you find short coastal rivers, lakes and wetlands marking a transition between retreating glaciers and the Gulf of Alaska. A quarter of the known plants in Alaska occur in the Bering Glacier region; more than 250 plant species, five of these unique. The Bering Glacier is the largest glacier in the world outside of Greenland and Antarctica. The glacier is undergoing a dramatic cycle of surge and retreat attracting the attention of the international science community. It is the largest surging glacier on earth. Mt. St Elias (18,800 ft.), at the far eastern edge of the region, is the tallest mountain in the highest coastal mountain range in the world.

The Copper River Basin

The Copper River Basin is an ancient Pleistocene lakebed formed when glaciers blocked the river. The Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, Alaska Range, Talkeetna and Chugach mountains complete a circle of mountains that surround the basin. Four glacier-coated volcanoes dominate the view: Mt. Sanford (16,237′), Mt. Drum (12,010′), Mt. Wrangell (14,163′), and Mt. Blackburn (16,390′).

Permafrost, in some places to depths of 100 feet and more, and poor drainage create a landscape of lakes, wetlands and ponds. The many wetland areas support moist herbaceous bog communities. Better-drained areas support tall shrubs and coniferous forests dominated by white spruce, and broadleaf forests of cottonwood and aspen. The area is a mosaic of shrub tundra, open spruce forests, cottonwood, and bogs, glaciers, alpine tundra and barrens, all crisscrossed by countless creeks, streams, and rivers.

Over 45 species of mammals are found, including moose, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goat, bison, deer, brown and black bear. Also found are grey wolf, coyote, fox, wolverine, lynx, martin, otter, mink, muskrat, and beaver. Shrews, voles, bats, hares, marmot, and lemming are also among the many diverse mammals found. The western part of the region is part of the annual migration route used by the Nelchina caribou herd.

Over 200 bird species are found here. Upland birds, raptors, ducks, geese and swans, along with other waterfowl and bird species are also found. The many lakes and wetlands of the Copper River basin provide excellent nesting habitat for a variety of migratory bird species. The north central portion supports high numbers of breeding trumpeter swans. Many winter in the Copper River Delta area near Cordova/Eyak.

The area supports strong runs of salmon, particularly king and sockeye salmon. The returning salmon provide marine-derived nutrients that support the web of life within the watershed.

© 2011 Copper River Knowledge System