Marsh Madness

Scientists laud Mendenhall wetland's values

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

Only a handful of spots in the Panhandle are critical for the survival of water-feeding birds, and Juneau's urban wetlands is one of them.

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Just this month, the Mendenhall wetlands was ranked an Important Bird Area for Alaska - the first spot in Southeast Alaska to get the designation.

While the designation has no legal force, "it plants a flag" on the wetlands indicating its incredible value for birds, said Ian Stenhouse, of the Audubon Alaska chapter.

On a single spring day, Juneau birders have counted up to 5,000 migrating western sandpipers lighting on the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, looking for little bugs.

The refuge is a Juneau birder's paradise. Only 16 percent of the birds who use it reside in Juneau year-round, and the rest stop by on their way to and from other places, such as the Arctic or the tropics, says Robert Armstrong, a Juneau birder and biologist.

Not just a hot zone for birds, the Mendenhall wetlands also shelters and feeds Dungeness crab, coho salmon, flounder, harbor seals, hooligan, sand lance, innumerable small bugs and clams, mink, river otters, bats ... and the list goes on.

To celebrate the ecological values of the wetlands, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will conduct an April lecture series to offer the public some of the wealth of knowledge gained by Juneau scientists who study the wetlands.

"There's a lot of community interest in the wetlands," said Kristen Romanoff, an education specialist with the department, who helped organize the upcoming series. "Given that it is such an important place for wildlife, people are curious to learn more and have a better understanding," Romanoff said.

Another reason the refuge has captured local interest is because of its fluid boundary lines. Due to a collision of geological forces and property interests, the refuge is getting smaller.

The shrinking is underway because the refuge's only formal boundary is the mean high tide line. That line is moving out further and further into the refuge while the ground - lifting after the release of pressure from melting glaciers - rises at a rate of nearly six inches every 10 years.

Property owners can request the "new" land. Upwards of 16 acres already have been pulled from the refuge and additional acres are pending, according to Fish and Game. Some landowners are working with the Southeast Alaska Land Trust to designate their land for conservation.

Conservation or not, the wetlands will gradually become a different kind of wetlands, scientists say.

In 1962, the wetland contained about 1,400 acres of low-marsh sedges, an important sheltering area for cohos and source of food for ducks and geese. By 2025, the sedges will likely be limited to 400 acres, said Richard Carstensen, a Juneau ecologist.

Carstensen said the sedge grasses will still form thin belts around sloughs, and they will likely colonize new areas such as the Sunny Point and Lemon Creek area, which might be beneficial in drawing waterfowl away from the airport.

Over time, though, the wetlands will become a high-marsh grass-dominated place, with markedly less salt marsh for aquatic species but more space for land animals, Carstensen said.

Because of the shifting tide lines, much of that high-marsh grass land will be in private hands. "We're seeking ways to work with property owners to maintain the integrity of the refuge," Romanoff said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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