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Willow tree does more than simply feed moose

John Schandelmeier

A few weeks ago I was traveling by dog team along the Denali Highway near milepost 26. I had just begun the climb out of the Tangle Lakes area toward the Maclaren Summit when I encountered a profusion of tracks. The trail was criss-crossed with moose, showshoe hare, ptarmigan and fox tracks. In one spot, a single lynx had crossed.

Why all the sign in this one location? Willows.

Willows are the most common shrub in Alaska. Depending on which source you access, there are 170 to 400 types of willow. About 40 species occur in Alaska.

They feed a lot of critters, especially during the winter months. Varying hares eat the bark and smaller twigs, ptarmigan pick the buds, and moose will eat most of the whole shrub. These animals, in turn, provide protein for the predators. Fox, lynx, coyotes and wolves are, in turn, dependent on the willow bush to some extent in most areas of Alaska.

I don't know about global warming, but I do believe that the willows and small shrubs along the Denali Highway area are getting bigger.

I first trapped the Maclaren River Valley in 1970. Fox and wolverine were my primary targets. One needs a substantial drag on the trap for either of these species. I would always use a piece of green willow at least four feet in length for my trap drags. Throughout the' 70s and early '80s, there were only a few areas where willows of that size could be found. I would sled them for miles to use on my sets in the high country.

I guess I never really noticed when the change occurred, but certainly today you could cut a drag from most anywhere along the highway without going more than a couple hundred yards. There is no doubt that the willows in the high country are growing.

Some of the most common willows in Alaska are the Alaska willow, Bebb willow, black willow and the little tree willow. Alaska willows occur everywhere -- from the coast to above the Arctic Circle. They are important browse for many species.

The Bebb willow is commonly known as diamond willow and tends to like wetter areas and can get quite large in some locations. Black willows are seen along the sides of our highways; you might call them pussy willow. Little tree willows are found primarily along river bars. One used by Natives for fish traps and baskets, today they are used to make furniture.

All of these species are great food sources for our browsing animals. Grasses, which carry 15 to 17 percent protein during the summer months, drop to about 5 percent in the fall. Willows, on the other hand, hold more than seven percent. That extra 2 percent of protein makes a big difference to a moose that must digest 30 or 40 pounds of browse every day.

With everything eating them, you may wonder why there are any willows left.

However, these resilient plants have the ability to fight back. When stressed, willows increase their production of tannins, which binds the proteins that moose and other browsers need -- and make the willow largely indigestible. Research in the Nelchina Basin found that moose were forced to switch to dwarf birch as their primary food source in heavily foraged locations.

The black willow provides more than protein. In the 19th century, its bark was used to develop aspirin. The active ingredient, salicylic acid, reacts to reduce pain and inflammation. Sources claim that the bark is more effective than a pill.

Willow bark also contains a natural anti-oxidant that provides a boost to the immune system. It is also used to treat gangrene.

So the next time you go for a hike and fall face-first over an offending bush, before you mumble bad names under your breath, check it out. It may be our good friend, the willow tree.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.