Notes from the Field: Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains

From September 16 to 22, Professor Laura Prugh and her new postdoc, Madelon Van de Kerk, headed to the field in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. They were deploying remote cameras and snow stakes to monitor snow conditions as part of Laura’s NASA ABoVE project involving Dall sheep.

Laura feeling the chill of late September in , the largest national park in the United States.

The largest national park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias features terrain that ranges from sea level up to more than 18,000 feet.

A major goal of this study is to determine how snow conditions affect Dall sheep movement and survival rates. So they put up 22 snow-monitoring stations in an area of the park where their agency collaborators will be putting GPS collars on sheep later this fall. Each monitoring station consists of a camera mounted on a t-post that will take a photo of a snow stake every hour all winter. Their ground-based snow monitoring will be used to improve a model of snow conditions based on satellite remote sensing and meteorological data. Then, combining this model with the GPS location data from collared sheep will allow the researchers to determine—for the first time—how snow conditions like depth and hardness affect Dall sheep movements.

Joining Laura and Madelon for the fieldwork were her co-PI at Oregon State University, Professor Anne Nolin, and Anne’s doctoral student, Chris Cosgrove. The four of them flew to the Wrangells in a small plane—a Piper Super Cub—to reach their little cabin, well above the tree line on a large, alpine mesa. They then set up the snow-monitoring stations along elevational transects, which Laura says was extremely challenging work due to steep and rocky terrain. Their packs were also quite heavy and awkward, weighing more than 40 pounds, as they had to pack around the steel t-posts, PVC snow stakes, cameras and two 16-pound post drivers.

“We all had pretty sore muscles,” says Laura, “but it was worth it! The scenery was breathtaking, weather was great, and we saw lots of sheep, pikas, ptarmigan and some arctic ground squirrels.”

Take a look at a gallery of photos from their trip, and also a great little video of Laura explaining the project while on site last month!

Photos and video © Laura Prugh.

The Wrangells team (left to right): Madelon Van de Kerk, Chris Cosgrove, Anne Nolin and Laura Prugh.

The Wrangells team (left to right): Madelon Van de Kerk, Chris Cosgrove, Anne Nolin and Laura Prugh.

 

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