No clear solution to ATV destruction of historic salmon habitat

Published: Jun. 7, 2016 at 4:37 PM AKDT
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State wildlife biologists say salmon habitat in the Mat Su Borough is being damaged by the growing number unpermitted off-road vehicles crossing streams and rivers.

Budget cuts to state wildlife troopers have made it nearly impossible to enforce Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) anadromous stream crossing regulations, leading to what officials describe as hundreds of incidents throughout state public lands in which ATVs and off-road vehicles barrel through historical salmon runs, damaging critical habitat along the way.

Alaska statute 16.05.871 states no person is allowed to drive vehicles through salmon spawning rivers, lakes and streams without obtaining a permit from ADF&G.

“The traffic on these trails is probably up 20 times what it was 10 years ago, just because the population increase and the number of increase of ATVs in the valley,” said habitat biologist for ADF&G Ron Benkert.

Benkert said increasing motorized traffic is unnaturally rustling up mud, crushing salmon eggs, and widening waterways to the point some streams are being diverted into the forest, especially at crossing points along Wasilla Creek.

“As the creek gets wider and wider and wider, it starts to get more shallow. And so when the adult salmon come up, they have a hard time getting across these riffles because of the shallow nature of it,” Benkert said.

Incidents of destruction have been noted throughout the Matanuska Valley Moose Range (MVMR). ADF&G biologists have installed signage throughout the MVMR warning drivers to avoid crossing through sensitive waterways.

The signs are often shot, vandalized and completely ignored.

“If enforcement of the law and citations don't cause the problem to cease or be minimized, there's not many options left on how to protect those salmon streams,” said commander of the northern detachment for state Wildlife Troopers, Rex Leath.

The public land surrounding the streams in the MVMR is open to multi-use recreation under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR.) The rules of the land are outlined in the Management Plan established in 1986, but the population of users has dramatically increased in the past 30 years.

The Mat-Su Borough alone is more than two and a half times larger than when the document was first published, growing from about 40,000 residents to more than 100,000.

“We've made some positive changes in some areas and still have work to do in other areas, including the Wasilla Creek Headwaters,” said southcentral regional manager for the DNR Clark Cox. “Sure, it's probably time to take a look at that plan again, but again with limited staff and budgets, that plan is on the books, and that's the plan we work with.”

Both environmentalists and off-road vehicle advocate groups agree it’s time for a change.

Rod Arno, executive director with the Alaska Outdoor Council, said the council's about 10,000 members across the state supported efforts to create a registration fee for ATVs, much like the registration fee imposed on snowmachines. The money would go to improve off-road vehicle trails, including protection of salmon runs.

“Outdoor folks don't mind paying their own way, and if there's a possibility that we can leverage our money from the use of ORV so we can build bridges that would adequately allow all of the legal rigs to go across that and not be in the spawning beds,” said Rod Arno.

The ATV fee proposal failed to pass through the state house legislature this year, but Arno said the idea isn't dead.

The Knik River Watershed, a conservation organization, believes even stronger action may need to be taken, arguing that if state enforcement of protecting salmon habitat is impossible, closures to motorized use on certain trails may be the only solution left.

Ultimately, the decision to reopen discussion and bring about change is in the hands of the Department of Natural Resources, who Cox said is juggling multiple projects at once.

Due to budget cuts, DNR’s southcentral land office is overseeing about 100 million acres of land with a staff of about 27 employees.

Permits to legally cross salmon-bearing streams and rivers on motorized vehicles can be registered for free with the Department of Fish and Game.

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