SOLDOTNA (AP) -- All-terrain vehicles are being blamed for tearing up some backcountry wetlands and for driving through streambeds near the headwaters of the Anchor River and Deep Creek.
That's a fish-rich area on the southern Kenai Peninsula where salmon, steelhead and other species spawn and grow.
Biologists said they discovered the damage almost by accident, while they were conducting fish counts around the area.
Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game said they plan to expand their investigation this summer.
''We've only looked at a very small portion of these watersheds,'' said Mike Weidmer, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
In those short stretches, biologists counted 45 ATV crossings -- more than one per mile in Deep Creek and about one every two miles on the Anchor River.
Three of the crossings were within a Critical Habitat Area.
On the south fork of Deep Creek, where an ATV trail merges with the stream, biologists found a rare site: juvenile Dolly Varden with severe injuries.
The fish apparently had been run over.
In other places, erosion along the bank from ATV crossings has caused the stream to become so wide and shallow that spawning fish no longer can pass.
Weidmer said his biggest concern is that the ATVs could be stirring up sediment so badly that it's smothering the juvenile salmon and the insects that the young fish eat.
Overall, fish in the southern Peninsula's streams are doing well. Populations of kings, steelhead and Dolly Varden appear to be stable, said Bob Clark, a Fish and Game research biologist.
Silvers are in decline, but that's a trend seen throughout Cook Inlet.
''We haven't seen any decline in salmon that you could contribute directly to development on the lower Peninsula,'' Clark told the Anchorage Daily News.
Still, the effects of this kind of habitat damage may not show up for a decade, Weidmer said.
The state owns much of the acreage in these areas and allows ATVs on its land so long as they don't cause ''unnecessary harm.'' On private land -- Native corporations own large tracts -- rules can be more lenient.
Crossing a salmon stream with a motor vehicle requires a permit from Fish and Game, no matter who owns the land. Violators can be fined up to $5,000 and jailed for up to a year.
Only one of the 20 trails that cross anadromous fish streams in the Deep Creek and Anchor River watersheds is permitted.
But enforcing those rules is impractical, Weidmer said. The land is remote and violations are sporadic. Catching lawbreakers would be difficult.
Fish and Game has tried posting signs at illegal crossings in other areas. The signs usually end up riddled with bullet holes, Weidmer said.
So he's looking for other ideas.
''We feel we can still provide access for people to get where they want to go without having so many stream crossings,'' Weidmer said.
He's finding a receptive audience.
''We want to get the travel out of the streams, too,'' said Doug Blossom, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers, a snowmachine group that has taken the lead on the issue.
Many of the same people who ride their snowmachines into this area in winter come back on their ATVs in summer to reach their cabins, or in the fall to hunt. Others just ride in to explore the backcountry, much like snowmachiners in winter, Blossom said.
ATV travelers can get by on fewer trails, Blossom said, but those trails need to be better built, with boardwalks and bridges that make them easy to use.
''If you improve a trail, everyone will start using that trail and quit using the other trails. Then you've accomplished what you want,'' Blossom said at a recent meeting on the topic sponsored by the Kenai Watershed Forum. ''We'll raise the money and do the work. We just need the permits.''
And that could be a problem.
There are so many landowners that it could take years to get permission to build better trails and bridges, said Scott Byrne, a member of a Kenai Peninsula Borough's Trails Commission.
State officials are hoping that ATV drivers can be educated about the harm their machines can cause. The drivers simply may not know that they're splashing through salmon streams or that their machines are causing so much damage, officials said.
''It's not the type of thing that's real apparent to people until you get up and fly around,'' Weidmer said.
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