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Stan Zuray
Stan Zuray

Stan Zuray was interviewed on November 18, 2009 by William Schneider and Sidney Stephens at his home in Tanana, Alaska. In this interview, Stan talks about environmental changes he has observed during his forty years of hunting, trapping, fishing, collecting firewood, and traveling the land and rivers of the region. Specifically, he discusses his perceptions that the water temperature is rising in the Yukon River, increased presence of disease in king salmon, and the impact of fire on the land.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2009-11-13

Project: Stakeholders and Climate Change Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Nov 18, 2009
Narrator(s): Stan Zuray
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation
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Water Temperature

Disease in Salmon

Water Temperature

Data Versus Memory

Impact of Fire

Smoke from Fires

Fire Management

Scientific Data

2009 Spring Flood

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BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is November 18th, 2009.

I'm Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens is here, and we have the pleasure of talking again with Stan Zuray.

Stan, thank you for taking the time.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Appreciate it. And don't -- don't click your knuckles on the table because I'm picking it up.


BILL SCHNEIDER: All right. Now --

STAN ZURAY: I'm a nervous guy. It's going to be --

BILL SCHNEIDER: It's going to be hard.

STAN ZURAY: Yeah. But I'll try it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So Sid, you have some questions?


SIDNEY STEPHENS: Well, yeah, I mean, I'm -- I'm really interested in having you lay out, you know, what you were just talking about with regard to your observations about water temperature,

and then the whole -- the whole nine yards, as much as -- as far as you want to go with that.

STAN ZURAY: Okay. Well, I'll try to be as clear as I can here.

You know, like I was saying, I'm a -- yeah, I'm not a -- I haven't studied the relationship between climate change and water temperature and fish disease and --

or soil temperatures or anything like that, but you know, I do know that, you know, there's a -- it seems like there's an increasing water temperature.

If you look at, like, there's some data out there, it's real spotty, it's not all -- you know, it's not consistent, it hasn't been taken at the same spot, but the Yukon River seems to be warming quite a bit.

The best data we have, like -- like I was saying, it probably, you know, wouldn't be allowed to be published by a scientific journal,

just because of the -- you know, some -- some of it, it hasn't been consistently taken, it hasn't -- you know, it's real spotty.

Sometimes it doesn't even include many days on some of the years, but a reasonable man would look at that data and say the Yukon River seems to be warmer; quite a bit, too.

I just -- I forget just what it is now but, man, I think it's -- it might be as much as 10 or more degrees --


STAN ZURAY: Yeah, it's -- it's quite a bit. You know.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: That really is a lot.

STAN ZURAY: Yeah. Well, like I say, they would have to get the -- I wish I had -- maybe, you know, have it in this house, you know.

But -- but even if it was a little less than that, it seems like it's warming.

And then, you know, I've read a lot -- there is a lot of science on disease, like this ichthyophonus disease we see in the -- mostly in the king salmon.

And that -- the science behind that, you know,

that -- the development of that disease, the speed of development over the course of days, you know, that -- that very much is related to water temperature.

And -- and just the emergence of the disease over the last 15 years, say, when, you know, just the fact that people don't remember it from a long time ago, and -- and then it emerged, and we've had it for a long time now.

And it's had its up and downs over the years, you know.

Right now we're in kind of a lower period, and you know, there's always hope that it's going to kind of disappear, you know,

the fish are going to develop a resistance and this is the end of it, but we've also been this low before and then gone right up again, you know.

And -- and you're talking like rates of like over 50 percent of the females that are heading upriver into Canada being visibly infected.

And -- and then, you know, rates such as like last summer, where they were still running over 20 percent.

And this disease does kill -- you know, the best science says the disease kills the fish, cuts the stamina down incredibly.

And you know, again, there's not a lot of studies on just what's happening to these fish that are infected with ichthyophonus, but we know that up in some spawning grounds that have been tested that the --

you know, we kind of find a high level of infection, which says that the fish that were infected have not made it.

And so right now you have from the mouth of the Yukon to way up in the headwaters in Canada, you have fishermen being incredibly impacted.

The entire subsistence commercial take on this river is being incredibly impacted by a lack of king salmon.

And you know, it's not just this disease that's causing it but, you know, pollack fishing on the high seas, you know, their by-catch isn't related to climate change, but this disease has a lot of supposed connections.

I mean, there's some -- you know, there's some scientific connections, you know, where they've done testing on water temperature and how the disease acts,

and then there's, like I say, maybe even increasing temperature in the river over the years is why it even emerged, you know.

But there's all these things we don't know.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Hang on a sec. Stan, could you turn off your refrigerator?

STAN ZURAY: I could. And we can do that again, too.

BILL SCHNEIDER: No, I think we're okay.

STAN ZURAY: Yeah. You've got a sensitive camera there. And I can turn off the fish tank, too.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You can? It won't hurt the fish? Since we're talking about fish?

STAN ZURAY: No, it won't hurt the fish. (Pause, indiscernible unrelated discussion.)

BILL SCHNEIDER: This is really good. Okay. That's much better.

So we're -- we're talking about the fish.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: How about -- let's see.

Do you have more to say, I mean, on -- on that -- that strand of that conversation?

STAN ZURAY: No, but that would be probably my -- like as far as my life, what I see impacting, you know, the people in the villages and in Tanana and stuff like that, that --

that's probably the biggest impact is there may be future impacts coming up here, lakes disappearing, whatever, you know, stuff like that, that haven't really.

But this fish thing, I mean, you're talking about -- if this fish thing is related to climate change, you're talking about something that's been affecting people for 15 years now.

You know. And -- and right now, we're in a crisis with the king salmon, you know.

And so it's probably the biggest thing. Yeah.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Could I back up to the water temperature question?


BILL SCHNEIDER: Before we were on tape, you were talking about how you measure water temperature.


BILL SCHNEIDER: And some of the variability issues.

STAN ZURAY: Right. Right. Okay.

Well, you know, you have, you know, over the years, you know, there's been water temperature maybe taken at one site for five years,

and -- and then another site for three, and then another place for ten, and stuff like that, and sometimes you have, like,

one read taken in a month, you know, and stuff like that, and that's the only data you have for -- you know, for that month of a certain year.

And sometimes like a year's average temperature might -- you know, the amount of data that you have for that data point is -- is so small that,

like I say, no scientist would ever use that, could ever get away with, you know, publishing that in a journal or something;

they'd never accept it, you know.

So our temperatures, that I know of, you know, I have some people in the Fish & Wildlife Service that have done quite a bit of searching around on this,

it's the guy that gives me my data loggers that we put on our fish wheel lead on the fence, you know, we put one up at the surface and we put one down at the bottom every year,

and you know, this -- this fellow's done quite a bit of work on -- on this.

And so, you know, there may be some data out there that's better, but it seems like this is the best we have.

And -- and you know, temperature taken, say -- say somebody takes a temperature reading on a fish wheel lead or a net or, you know, they put it out in the water or something like that.

Well, you know, currents change all the time depending on whether the water's rising or the water's lowering or whether the water's high or whether the water's low, and so there's all these variables.

So, you know, again, without consistency, Yukon -- some of this past data that we were using to say that the Yukon's warming, you know, it's highly suspect.

And I know like at the site at the rapids that we have, we think that's probably one of the better places to take a reading because what happens is the river narrows there and there's two channels that go around either side of an island, it gets real shallow and it churns the water,

and the reading is taken just below that point before the river has a chance -- the water has a chance to differentiate, I guess that would be the word, and to -- you know, your warmer water at the surface, colder water at the bottom.

And so, like, the temperature readings we take at the surface are the same every year, so far.

Probably for about four or five years now, we've had the same readings of the surface as at the bottom.

So I think probably there would -- you might say that every year it would probably be like that, whether it was high or low because there's been a lot of variation over -- you know, we've had extremely high water, we've had extremely low water, it's always like that.

But, you know, a lot of sites where it's been taken it's not like that. So --

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so when you're saying the readings are the same, are you -- are you saying that it's not showing a temperature increase, then, at that point?

You're getting the same temperature every year there?

STAN ZURAY: Oh, no. No. What I'm saying is that the temperature at the surface is the same as the temperature at the bottom.

Day-to-day it changes all the time.

It's just that, you know, we -- when we graph our bottom temperature logger numbers and our surface temperature logger numbers by date, you know, they are identical. There's no --


STAN ZURAY: -- there's no difference, basically.

So that's what you want, you know.

And it's just too bad that, you know, we haven't taken readings, you know, somewhere at the same place with that kind of consistency year after year on the Yukon, and then you'd be able to say something about, you know, temperatures in the Yukon.

And it's possible that somewhere there's some better data, you know, but see, a lot of times you don't know.

You know, you're look -- looking for temperature data on the Yukon, you know, I'm not saying that we don't have it, it's just that it's hard to find.

You know what I mean?

Maybe some old timer took it, you know -- you know, somewhere on his own, you know, and -- and he's got the -- his kids have the files,

he's dead and gone now and his kids have the files stuck in some drawer and don't even know about it.

I don't know. But you know


STAN ZURAY: -- we are -- we are really hurting for some really good temperature data to say that the temperature in the Yukon is rising.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And so what you're seeing, then, you have this consistency between the top layer and the bottom layer


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- for the last five years.

STAN ZURAY: That, at that -- at that one site, because of the churning of the waters.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: And you see sort of daily changes in the water temperature?

STAN ZURAY: Oh, all the time. Totally related to -- because I take temperature every day in season also, with a less accurate just, you know, thermometer type thing that sits in the water all the time, about 6 inches below the surface.

And that's just to get daily temperature readings.

And they add -- you know, when you compare those to the more accurate logger readings off of that we put on the lead, which we don't have access to until after the season's all over, you know,

we suck the data out of it with a, you know, computer and -- or you know, and -- but basically, those less accurate readings that we take daily in the summer, they are -- you know, they are the same.

It's -- it's not that much off. It's, whatever.

But you can see by taking that every day, you know, I get a real feel for what causes the temperature in the water to -- the temperature in the river to rise, and it's really related to the sun.

I mean, you get a bunch of sunny days in a row and that river temperature just goes right up.

And you get a bunch of rain and cloudy days, and the temperature goes right down.

And it's -- so -- and you get, like, this summer, you get a lot of fires and stuff like that, and there's no sun, you know, and you don't see that temperature rise like that, even though it's a sunny day.

So it's -- you know, the sun warms the river, and...

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Well, it's interesting, too, because it seems like the temperature changes that people are talking about tend to be more exaggerated in the wintertime than in the summertime, too.

They just -- you know, that when you -- when you look at the graph for Fairbanks, and you look wherever else, I mean, there is this overall average increase of a couple degrees,

but the -- the temperature increases are more dramatic in the wintertime, which is not when --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- not when you're there taking --


SIDNEY STEPHENS: -- taking temperatures and not when the fish are there.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: So it's a very complicated process.

STAN ZURAY: It is. It's really hard to say.

Like, you know, we were talking earlier about, you know, like somebody -- you know, like people -- some people think that, you know, the animals, you know, like, say, the geese coming or something like that,

it's causing, you know, food -- the food availability of the hunt -- you know, you're trying to hunt geese and they are not as available anymore.

And you know, people trying to look back over years and it just seems like sometimes that's really hard to do, you know.

I mean, it's like -- it's like if the -- if climate change is really happening and it's making the snow melt sooner in the spring, well, you'd think that the geese would also notice that and they would just come sooner, you know.

So I'm kind of suspect of a lot of things people say, you know.

And a lot of that is because of what I -- what I do with the -- my project, you know, my fish project.

I'm -- I'm really used to running a fish project and having myself and other fishermen think certain things, and then when you look at the data, you -- you see, no, it's not really true at all, you know.

It's -- I remember there was -- I was talking with an elder in town one time here, and this is a good example of how people think certain things, you know, it's like -- and anyway, they -- this particular year, the ice in the Yukon went really early,

and we were out on the river pretty early with our boats, earlier than -- that we knew of, it was the earliest we had ever been out in the river.

And I remember saying to this fellow, I said, you know, I've only been around here for 35 years or something, you've -- you spent your whole life here, you grew up as a little kid here, do you ever remember being on the river this early before, you know?

The river breaking and getting out on the river?

And no, never. You know. The guy said, no, no, never.

And this is somebody who is -- has spent his life on the river, too.

This isn't just some -- just a regular elder, this guy spent his life on the river.

So anyway, that thought kind of got me thinking, and I went on the USGS site, you know, and they have the discharge, where I get my discharge readings ever day during the summer for my project,

but they also have, like, you know, the discharge readings, but of course, early on, when the ice is in the river, they -- you know, they -- they -- they know when the ice is breaking up, and -- and you know, when the ice is still in place.

So they have an ice out date every year, a real accurate ice out in Tanana, ice out in Fort Yukon, ice out in -- well, it turns out that just like five years prior, we were on the river and had -- the ice had broken up in Tanana two days early -- earlier than it had this particular year.

And we couldn't even remember it.

And I see this all the time.

Like people talk about, like, oh, I remember when the fish did this, or I remember when the birds did that, or I remember, and then you get ahold of data, and it shows just the opposite.

Or I remember when the -- when the chum salmon fill up the river, the ciscos leave, you know, you hardly catch any ciscos because they don't like the chum salmon in the river, and stuff like that.

And then you have -- you look at your data and it shows, yeah, some years one way, some years another.

And then you got examples of record cisco runs in the middle of a record chum run.

I mean, it's just like the data, people -- you've got to really watch what people say.

And I'm one of those people. You know.

Because I think all these things, too, and then I look at my data and I see how wrong I am.

So -- so I'm kind of -- that's why I like these river temperatures and stuff, you know, I think it's really important to -- to take data.

I mean, you know, traditional knowledge is fine and has its place, but -- but there's some places like when you're trying to see little differences, you know, like 5 degree differences in river temperature or something like that, that's not the kind of stuff you ask people about.


STAN ZURAY: That's the kind of thing you need data for.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Uh hum. Uh hum.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: What about -- oh, go ahead.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So then, I mean, that begs the question, then, what are the appropriate questions to ask, in your mind?

STAN ZURAY: Ask of who?

BILL SCHNEIDER: Of people that live in communities, who are living and working in them.

STAN ZURAY: Boy. Well -- well, I think -- I know one thing that we -- I remember one time we all sat down at a Tanana dog musher meeting and -- and asked, okay, back on a certain year, you know, everybody looked back on a certain year, who had dog teams in town.

And we came up with, well, Deany had a dog team, and Mike had a dog team, and he had seven dogs and you know, we -- as best you can,

and you can get a rough idea of how many -- and we got a rough idea of how many dog teams were in Tanana at that time.

And I think we came up with something like 47 dog teams in the village of Tanana in 1979.

And then, well, what have we got now? 10? You know.

So, I mean, you can do that kind of thing and -- and have a pretty good comparison. You know.


STAN ZURAY: You know, obviously, there weren't, you know, 10 dog teams, there were 47, you know.

And because those people were all alive and they had dog teams their whole life and they were alive in 1979, people knew they were here and can even picture them with their dogs and go back to their -- you know, so that can be pretty accurate.

Things like that, I think, you know.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Or if you're talking about something like fires and you say, okay, well, what are the impacts of fires on you as a trapper.


BILL SCHNEIDER: There is -- there's something where you could speak directly maybe.

STAN ZURAY: Uh hum. Yeah, sure, yeah, right.

You're just asking a question. You know, and the impact is the impact.

You know. Like three years ago, I lost, you know, half my traps, they all got burnt up.

You know. I mean, that's -- that's what happened. No doubt about it. So that was an --

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about --

STAN ZURAY: -- a subsistence impact.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What about the impact on the land from fires?

STAN ZURAY: Oh, boy.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Or on your trails, say.

STAN ZURAY: Well -- well, boy, it seems like I've always lived with fires, you know.

There's always been fires, I mean, as far back as I can remember.

I mean, when I first came here, we had just had, in '73 -- of course, you know, see, I have only been here 35 years, you know.

But you know, I remember when I first came here, the Tozitna flats had just burned not too long ago, you know, in the late '60s, they had burnt.

There was two times they had burnt.

So when I came here in '73, when you walked across the flats in the summer, you -- you were -- pretty much had black legs; you know, it would come up in your pants and stuff like that.

So you know, it seems like we're still doing that kind of thing. You know.

One thing that it does seem like, I don't ever remember having the smoke like, you know, all my 11 years out in the Tozitna River, and my earlier years here in Tanana, I don't ever remember -- I -- we -- we didn't.

We've never had to put up with the smoke that we've had to put up with in the last 10 or 15 years here. I mean.

And I -- and I kind of have -- like I know all my years up at the rapids, I have this way of gauging smoke, and that is like distance that I can see through, you know.

And this year, not only for the first time could I not even see the horizon of the hills across the river, but there were times when I could be in the middle of the river and see neither side.

So that -- this year was extremely bad.

And yeah, it seems like there's been a number of times lately where I've just flat out thought that you need to have some respirators around just for, you know, emergency use,

because things could get so bad that, you know, you could go all the way to Tanana and not be able to get out of that smoke, you know, and you could pass out in that distance just trying to get away from the smoke.

It was pretty bad. We were dizzy this summer. You know. Yeah.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: So are you thinking that the smoke issue is more an issue of proximity that the fires are closer and the wind is getting -- is coming your way, or -- or is -- are there more -- were there more fires this year than --

STAN ZURAY: Well, I think -- I think there's more fires. And -- and again, you know, it's like I don't make a study of --

it's just like everything else, even the ichthyophonus disease, or the land being -- the permafrost being lower, I mean, I'm not really sure if -- you know, I hear that they are not fighting fires as much nowadays.

And -- so when these fires start, you know, they just let them burn, you know.

And this year we did have a couple of fires that were really close to us.

The whole Interior seemed to have a fire that was close to them this year, you know.


STAN ZURAY: So you know, if you've got things getting drier and permafrost lowering and water lowering in the ground, you know, you're not going to have as much surface wetness, and -- and stuff, and you're going to have more fires.

And then if you have a policy where you let tundra burn, apparently, you know, talk to people who have worked for BLM and they say that, you know, having a fire go through doesn't necessarily make that land better for not having a fire in the future.

That -- that works in California when the brush all gets burnt out and stuff like that, it might be a number of years before there's any brush to, you know, facilitate a good fire again.

But like up here in the tundra, they say sometimes you get a tundra burn or something like that, and -- and that will actually make the ground drier, so that the next year you could even have an easier fire there.

So this -- so, you know, again, it's not like I make a study of this stuff, but you hear things and, you know -- and you know, climate change is definitely probably happening,

I'm certainly not doubting that, but -- but for somebody like me to pin it down and be able to relate things in my life to climate change,

you know, with any kind of, you know, sureness is -- it's hard.


What about one more kind of fish related question, and that is so clearly the water temperature and the ichthyophonus are conceivably climate change related,

how about -- how about changes -- shrub -- shrub and tree changes in -- in the migratory steams off the Yuk?

I mean, are you noticing -- like, okay, some people have talked about, you know, those really -- not only shallower water, but brushier, you know, increased vegetation, that kind of thing.


SIDNEY STEPHENS: Does that ring true, at all?

STAN ZURAY: I -- I couldn't -- yeah, I couldn't say. I wouldn't even want to try to say.

And as far as like water temperatures in those streams, again, it's like with the Yukon, you know, I can't -- boy, I can't tell -- you know, without having data,

and just knowing how prone people are to making assumptions and -- and being inaccurate, you know, I wouldn't -- I mean, I used to live out in the spawning stream for, you know, 11 years.

I mean, we ran a -- kind of like a hatchery out there, and we did all sorts of things with the salmon and -- and never had a thermometer, though.

Never took the temperature.

And if it was 5 degrees warmer now, which is, you know, on average, you know, if it was 5 degrees on average now, that would be highly significant, I would think, to a fish scientist, you know.

But, boy, how would I be able to detect that kind of change, you know?

Yeah, I mean, I know, you know, I have been crossing that river, but the amount of ice, you know, it's a dangerous river to travel on, but you know, I can't -- I can't really say anything about the -- you know, if it's more dangerous and the ice is thinner now than it used to be.

You know, I can't. You know. Yep.

SIDNEY STEPHENS: Well, I appreciate your -- your thinking on this, you know, your desire to sort of be clear about what you know and, you know, frame it -- frame it that way.

STAN ZURAY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I -- I -- I've had so many -- like I say, so many times I've had assumptions as a fisherman and -- and then see what happens when you look at actual data and science because being around so many scientists,

you know, running the projects I run and stuff like that, and taking data myself, that's what we do, you know, and it just blows me away all the time, you know,

how -- how somebody will read something in the news, and then that will color their assumptions of what their personal observations are,

you know, of the river, of game, or something like that, and it's just something they read or something somebody else tells them or something like that and it will color -- color something,

so you make these assumptions, but go and look at the data and -- and it -- it's not true, you know.

And I've seen that over and over again.

I see it every summer. You know.

It's not just something I've seen once every summer, I see it, you know, because you're around fishermen, and I do it, too, you know. So. So...

BILL SCHNEIDER: One question that's come up that's been the -- your experience with the flood this year.


BILL SCHNEIDER: How have -- how do you think that has impacted the land and resources?

STAN ZURAY: I know down -- one thing, down at the Nowitna River, I guess all of the moose got pushed out of that whole floodplain area,

which is a huge area, because that all flooded, and then -- and then come fall, and see -- and you know,

I guess, what I've heard the elders say and stuff like that is that when that kind of thing happens, there's not really any reason for them to move back in.

They will eventually move back into that area, but this fall, when the people were down to that area to hunt, there weren't any moose.

I mean, there probably will be by next summer, you know, but you know, once they get pushed out like that, they just feed in those areas they got pushed to and they are happy and it's summertime and lots of food.

And so that was a pretty good impact the flood had on the -- on the land there.

And -- but I don't know the -- the -- I would just bet that really, the flood, as far as the land animals,

I wouldn't think that scouring all the trees off of the river for a little ways back from -- you know, like it did downriver here,

it just took out all that old growth forest, you know, sometimes a hundred feet back from the -- the bank, big deal.

You know. I mean, that's not -- when you think of all the land there is, you know, I wouldn't think that would have much of an effect.

Well, yeah.

I think there's something else, but certainly had an effect on the people living on the riverbank. And you know.


STAN ZURAY: And probably there's some fish and stuff like that, maybe some spawning beds, like whitefish spawning beds because they -- they are mainstream spawn,

you know, it might have done some damage to some traditional beds or something like that, but yeah.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much.

STAN ZURAY: Thank you.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Appreciate you taking the time to do this.


STAN ZURAY: Yeah. Okay.