Alaskan Women Engineer Passage for Wild Salmon

breaking down barriers, making inroads for Alaska’s fish

Jess and Heather bring engineering expertise to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service design team that works to restore fish passage where roads cross Alaska’s rivers and streams 📷 USFWS Katrina Liebich
End of the road for these salmon. This Kodiak Island culvert was recently replaced with a fish-friendly crossing that lets adults and juveniles move freely up and downstream 🎥 USFWS/Franklin Dekker (gif)
Heather Hanson, a PE and Fish Passage Engineer, is based out of USFWS’s Anchorage Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Jess Straub, Fish Passage Engineering Technician 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Channel-spanning culverts let fish and floods pass freely 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Heather surveys a fish passage barrier with teammate/hydrologist Franklin Dekker where a road crosses an Anchorage salmon stream 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
A new fish-friendly culvert in Kodiak helps baby salmon escape the heat.
Old (left) vs new culvert designs 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Heather and Jess walk the road over a small stream in Mat-Su, Alaska 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
A fish-friendly culvert full of animal tracks spans frozen Crooked Creek in Fairbanks in December 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Nerd out/read more:

For a basic fish passage 101: Fish-Friendly Roads (yes that’s a thing)

When did you start working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Heather: I started in 2015

What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

Heather: They don’t think about culverts as a problem for fish passage. In reality, they’re small dams, and they can have a devastating effect on salmon and other fish — both juveniles and adults. Basically, our job is dam removal.

How do Alaska’s wild places inspire you?

Heather: I love to get deep into our remote areas, far from roads and trails. That’s fairly easy because my husband is a pilot. We have a bush plane, and we fly out regularly to places with no human impact. We especially enjoy running skis on the plane during winter, flying up to glaciers, and skiing.

What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s fish and wildlife?

Heather: Not proactively considering the needs of fish and wildlife in the initial design of development projects and infrastructure. There’s tremendous opportunity to balance all needs if we can work together up front. Infrastructure projects that accommodate the needs of fish, the natural, dynamic nature of rivers, and changing climatic conditions will perform better during floods and help sustain Alaska’s fisheries. We’ve seen a significant decline in fisheries since I’ve moved here and people talk about how many more fish there were 15 or 20 years ago. That’s very concerning to me.

When I’m not working, I’m….

Heather: …out playing in the backcountry.

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Alaska?

Heather: They think it’s a completely wild and undeveloped place. In reality, we have considerable development, even around remote villages. You’ll see roads for logging and mining — there’s just quite a bit of infrastructure out there. You especially see the impacts when you’re up in a small plane.

What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska?

Heather: There are many of them, but one has to be working outside of Cordova on the Copper River Highway. It’s such a dramatic landscape, and bears are wandering around everywhere. It’s spectacular.

What advice would you give someone interested in a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Heather: Careers in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are highly sought after, so I’d say you can’t give up. You have to demonstrate passion and commitment, and you have to persevere. If you keep at it, sooner or later you’ll get an opportunity.

What wildlife species particularly moves you?

Heather: Definitely brown bears. They’re extremely important to Alaskan ecosystems, and they contribute an element of danger and excitement when you’re in the field, of course. My husband and I once flew out to some remote mudflats by a river and we camped on the beach, and the bears were fishing and roaring at each other all night. We didn’t get much sleep.

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