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GET TO KNOW YOUR ALASKA REFUGES: YUKON FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Did you know that Yukon Flats is a world-renowned breeding ground for waterfowl, or that it is the third-largest national wildlife refuge in the nation?

The staff focus much of their efforts on monitoring the status of animals and habitat that are important from both a local and national perspective. Through a diverse program of biology, education, outreach, and enforcement, Refuge staff work with partners to conserve these important resources. Here is a brief summary of staff activities and items of interest between October 2018 and September 2019.

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Introducing our New Board Member!

Sandra J Kerns, MEd., MSW, LCSW
Animal Assisted Activities/Therapies & Equine Facilitated Wellness Professional

Volunteering weekly and for special projects and events with the Friends of Alaska (since June 2018) at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center is a significant part of my commitment to support efforts to protect the nature of Alaska. I’m passionate about advocating for our land and marine ecosystems and the mammals, birds, plants and invertebrates that inhabit Alaska. I care about preserving Alaska and our planet for generations to come. As a board member, I strive to work towards increasing public awareness and education on the values and stewardship in caring for public lands and waters.

Backed by solid credentials and 34 years of professional experience, I bring strength and expertise in program, personnel, and system development to The Friends of

Alaska National Wildlife Refuges organization. With my prior business management experience for Providence Alaska Medical Center, National Association of Social Workers, and numerous academic entities, I am well versed in public speaking, team building and leadership, risk management, fiscal planning, and program design.

I am a lifelong learner, educator and career social worker. Through my counseling practice, Winter’s Grace Guidance Center situated on 10 acres of meadow and woodland located in Soldotna, Alaska, I mentor others towards healing experiences. Connecting children and families with nature and animals is a central focus of my work. l love spending time on trails, at the coast and high on alpine meadows. On the home front I enjoy companions Icelandic horse Kisi and mini pony Breezy, canine friends Ruby, Hadley, Daisy and Lily and feline Clementine.

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Spooky Seasons at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge


A group of 4 Friends met on Friday, October 25th to prepare salad bar items for the Spooky Season’s “Fish Anatomy” Salad Bar. The group met to cut, dice, slice, boil and prep pasta/salad items to create edible items that would represent fish anatomy. Salad bar items such as kidney beans, black olives, red bell pepper, artichoke hearts, noodles, tapioca, and grapes were prepared and delivered to the Refuge in anticipation of Saturday’s event.

On Saturday, October 26, 4 Friends members supported the event by staffing Discovery Tables such as the Fish Anatomy Salad Bar, Bats, Bug Eyes, Thunder and Lightning, Bloodsuckers, and Skulls & Bones. Representing Friends as we shared environmental education to assist in dispelling fears of potentially “spooky” items, we provided information in an interesting and fun way to over 310 children and family members who attended the event.


Overall Friends donated 13 hours of planning, preparation and staffing to support this successful event at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. A hearty well done to Ranger Jack who took the lead on this event and coordinated with Friends members.

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2019 November Advocacy Report

By: David Raskin, Friends Board President

The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal is front and center on the national stage, and the administration’s numerous assaults on the environment seem to be bogging down under the pressures of time, resources, and inadequate scientific studies!

Arctic NWR

There is continuing news concerning DOI plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Record of Decision (ROD) has been delayed for unannounced reasons, but is expected soon. A lease sale had been planned for December 2019, but the delay of the ROD and the necessary waiting periods after its release have pushed any possible lease sale into 2020. Also, there is no word about plans for seismic exploration which likely cannot occur before the 2020-21 winter, if at all. The longer it takes to try to sell leases, the better. Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue to hold successful outreach events throughout the country, and there have been many great pieces in various media. The campaign is now holding meetings with executives of oil companies and financial institutions to enlighten them about the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts.  There is little doubt that there will be a number of lawsuits to stop the leasing program. We will win this latest in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

Izembek NWR

There is no significant development in the August 7, 2019 suit filed in federal district court that names Friends as the lead plaintiff along with the previous eight conservation partners. King Cove Native Corporation, the Agdaagux Tribe, and the Native Village of Belkofski moved to intervene, and the plaintiffs did not object. We have not received any ruling from the Court, and we will provide updates as this lawsuit works its way through the legal process.

Kenai Predator Control and Hunting Regulations

The proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released, but we still expect them very soon. It is likely that the regulations will allow hunting of brown bears over bait, as well as loosened restrictions on hunting in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area and 4-wheel drive access to frozen lakes. It appears that there will be a 30-day comment period, but no public hearings. Friends and other organizations will be closely following these developments and will take action at the appropriate time.

Ambler Road

The proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road was on an “unprecedented, extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official. The draft EIS was limited to 150 pages that lack details and fail to address anything outside of the road construction, e.g., impacts to the Dalton Highway or any mining actions. Trustees for Alaska assembled detailed, comprehensive comments on the DEIS that were submitted on behalf of numerous organizations, including Friends. As with the many hurried and poorly supported BLM assaults on public lands, this process seems to be slowing down.

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2020 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Updates

Planning for the 2020 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is underway!  The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service welcome locals, outsiders, and of course, shorebirds as they migrate back to Kachemak Bay every year to make this spring-time celebration Alaska’s largest wildlife viewing Festival. 


The 2020 Festival, May 7th-10th, coincides with a full moon and some impressive tides.  This year, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is excited to welcome two Keynote Speakers: Catherine Hamilton is a well known artist, bird guide and naturalist who uses her talents to bring attention to bird conservation issues across the globe.  Eli Knapp teaches courses in ornithology, biology and human ecology at Houghton College and published The Delightful Horror of Family Birding in 2018.  Our Festival Artist, local Soldotna resident Abbey Ulen, is already busy creating this year’s Festival design.  


If you want to participate in the 2020 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, there are several ways to get involved:

  1. Host an official Shorebird Festival event

  2. Promote an event or business in the Festival program

  3. Donate to the Crane Club

  4. Join us to attend May 7-10, 2020 

Event sponsorship and donations may be submitted online by January 15, 2020 at: www.kachemakshorebird.org/supportforms/

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Duck Banding in Tetlin

By: Susan and George Hedrick

The dynamic wetlands of Tetlin Refuge in Tok provided a stunning backdrop of sunshine and nesting trumpeter swans for the Hedrick’s 2 week volunteer opportunity.

 
As Kenai based Friends of the Alaska Refuges, George and Susan  assisted refuge biologists with the often muddy tasks of duck capturing and banding.

   
Motoring across a Tetlin Passage lake, tromping in the mud and corralling ducks within an enclosure all provided fun and a terrific experience for learning about duck ID, habitat and  the importance of the national duck banding program to support migration data.


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Friends Need Friends

By: Tara Schmidt and Poppy Benson

Friends came to visit, and it was invigorating!  Thirteen Friends Groups from throughout the Pacific plus Fish and Wildlife staff descended on Homer in September for a 4 day “Tanax Agliisada” conference aimed at teaching us all new skills and sharing best practices.  Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges hosted the conference at the Alaska Maritime and Kenai National Wildlife Refuges.  A grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation brought the 60 attendants to Homer from Alaska, Hawaii, coastal Washington and Oregon, Midway Island and the Marianas Trench.

Building stronger boards, board recruitment and retention, improving community relationships, and empowering our organizations to ensure the success of the Refuge system as a whole were some of the topics covered in. Breakout groups allowed for brainstorming, sharing experiences and goal setting. We learned many of the issues we faced were not unique to us.

We all were fascinated although pretty depressed learning about the Washington D.C. scene from Caroline Brouwer of the National Fish & Wildlife Association and Desiree Sorenson-Groves of the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign.  At least I came away convinced we, Alaska Friends, do need to make a trip to DC once a year to keep our concerns in front of our representatives, and we do need to form a stronger alliance with the National Fish & Wildlife Association.

The National Wildlife Refuge chiefs from both the Alaska and Pacific regions, shared insight on national priorities, departmental directives, long term planning goals and ways we can work together on a panel titled “Impacts of National and Regional Priorities”. Understanding Refuge system priorities will help us work together to successfully develop programs and projects, which should in turn build community awareness and support of the refuge system.

In a small group meeting of the 10 Alaska Friends in attendance we hammered out these goals for the board for this year: 1) create a  membership committee and recruit a chair committed to recruiting/following up with members who have indicated an interest in participating at a higher level in our organization; 2) improve our communication efforts to highlight our work, promote our projects within the communities that are benefiting from our financial support of programs tied to the Alaska Refuge system; and, 3) send two from the Board to DC during the budget months of February or March.

Our fellow Friends were very interesting and fun people making for a stimulating four days.  Our hosting role went flawlessly thanks to our extraordinary conference organizer, Friends volunteer Anna Sansom.   Our visitors loved getting to visit two refuges – Alaska Maritime and Kenai, see their first moose, eat smoked salmon and moose we provided and even participate in Homer’s iconic “Burning Basket”.  We hope we have gained new allies in the fights to save Alaska’s Refuges.


Two takeaways from this conference are 1) we are part of a larger organization; and, 2) together we can be a strong coalition for advancing the mission of Wildlife Refuges. This was in line with the goals set for the conference – increase effectiveness and strengthen relationships across refuges. We need to work with other Friends Groups to achieve economies of scale, continue to share know-how and cross sell.

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Two Weeks with Polar Bears!

By: Jeff Walters, Fairbanks

I have lived in Alaska since 1982 and had never seen a wild polar bear until this year. Thanks to Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, I not only assisted with education and outreach e
fforts in 2019—but I also saw many wild polar bears!


In the last decade, the number of people visiting the village of Kaktovik (on the Arctic Ocean coast) to view polar bears has increased dramatically. This is due, in part, to the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. It is also due to the increasing number of polar bears in the Kaktovik area, especially during August, September, and October when they are drawn to barrier islands and beaches in search of food. Kaktovik (population less than 300) is surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which creates unique challenges and opportunities for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Alaska Native residents to manage increased tourism in this area. Visitors—up to 35 a day—travel here, usually in small tour groups that stay from 7 hours to 3+ days.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has one employee, Refuge Ranger Will Wiese, based in Kaktovik. He is assisted in his education and outreach efforts by one or two people who present information to visitors, answer questions, observe visitation, and estimate daily tourism numbers (among other tasks). These assistants are often members of the Student Conservation Association. Occasionally others are needed too—and this is why I was invited to travel to Kaktovik.

I was in Kaktovik August 23-September 5 and had an AMAZING experience!



Here are some highlights:

  • I saw my first polar within an hour of arrival.

  • I saw as many as 20+ polar bears in one day.

  • I interacted with visitors from all over the world, from Italy, Israel, and Brazil to Atlanta, Tucson, and Kotzebue.

  • I was in Kaktovik when villagers harvested two of the three bowhead whales they are allocated each year. I observed the excitement and great cultural significance these harvests bring to the community.

  • As an active birder, I was excited to see Snow Buntings and Greater White-fronted Geese throughout the village, Common and Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons in the lagoon, Sanderlings on the beach, hundreds of Snow Geese preparing to migrate, and lots more!


    And here are a few things I learned:
    Although some subpopulations of polar bears appear to be holding their own, the Southern

    Beaufort subpopulation (found in this area) is declining.

  • Polar bears are coming ashore on the North Slope earlier, and in greater numbers, in recent

    summers.

  • Late summer is a “lean” time of year for polar bears, and they are drawn to this area in search

    of food.

  • Arctic Ocean sea ice was at its second-lowest extent in summer 2019; in August/September

    sea ice was 300+ miles offshore. So polar bears that come ashore are stranded until shore

    ice returns in late fall.

  • Kaktovik residents and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service continue the challenging “dance” of

    allowing tourists in guided boats on the waters (which are managed by the Fish & Wildlife

    Service) while providing respect for—and input from—local residents.

  • The people of Kaktovik were unfailingly kind to me as I walked around the village with my

    binoculars and bear spray looking for birds.

  • Will is really good with boats and he really knows his bears and birds!

This was an AMAZING experience. And I learned early on that my travel expenses were paid by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges! Thank you, Friends, for making opportunities like this possible and for supporting—in many ways—our state’s National Wildlife Refuges!

 

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Chasing Eiders: My Summers in the High Arctic

Please join us on Tuesday, October 15, 2019, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends October membership meeting with featured guest speaker, Elyssa Watford.

 

Want to hear an eider’s heartbeat?  Be taken along through ice and fog to the off-shore world of the barrier islands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?  Wonder what it would be like to live and work in a remote field camp on the edge of the Beaufort Sea?  Then join us, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, to hear Elyssa Watford share stories and stunning photos and videos of her three years of eider research on the barrier islands.  Elyssa, a PhD candidate at UAF, has been working with Common Eiders, North America’s largest duck, for three years.  The focus of her work has been the potential impacts of climate change on these special birds and their habitats.  Come learn about these birds and this important work and find out about volunteering and advocacy opportunities.

Elyssa will be at the Fairbanks meeting; our other gatherings will join via Zoom Meetings. 

  • Fairbanks: Noel Wein Library, 1215 Cowles, reception at 4:30; meet at 5
  • Anchorage: Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Office, 1011 E. Tudor, gathering and snacks at 4:30, meet at 5 p.m.
  • Homer: Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, 95 Sterling Highway, meet at 5
  • Soldotna: Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Ski Hill Road, meet at 5

    If you can’t make it in person, join us by phone or by computer:

  • By phone:
    Dial-in number: 720-707-2699
    Meeting ID: 619 207 040
    (Press ‘#’ if you are asked for a participant ID)

  • By computer:
    Join Zoom Meeting
    https://zoom.us/j/619207040
    (We are only using audio in this meeting; please join this meeting without video.)

If you are joining us by phone or computer, please download Elyssa’s presentation and follow along:
Download Presentation (PowerPoint .pptx)

Agenda:

Introductions and Discussion (5 minutes)
  • Introductions: Where do you live?
  • New People: Why did you join the call today?
  • Reminder to please mute yourselves when you aren’t talking
Board Activities/Decisions
  • Refuge Projects and Reports 
Committee Reports (2-5 minutes each): Volunteer Report – (Betty) Membership/Outreach Events: Upcoming events (Tara) Advocacy Updates (David, Dave)

Speaker/Presentation (30-40 minutes) –
Elyssa Watford
Topic: Chasing Eiders 

Next Meeting: Tuesday, January 21, 5-6pm Guest Speaker TBA
Six meetings yearly: January, February, March, April, September, October

 

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Advocacy Report October 2019

Advocacy Update by David Raskin, Friends Board President


As battles continue to save the Izembek and Arctic Refuges from destructive developments; the Lower Cook Inlet Seismic Survey, the proposed Donlin mine on the Upper Kuskokwim River, and the proposed Ambler road have been added to the list of threats to our Alaska refuges.

Izembek NWR

There are no significant developments in the August 7, 2019 suit filed in federal district court that names Friends as the lead plaintiff along with the previous eight conservation partners. The King Cove Corporation plans to intervene on behalf of the defendants. However, the Aleutians East Borough, City of King Cove, and the City of Cold Bay likely will not intervene. The plaintiffs see little to be gained by opposing the interventions. This suit includes the numerous legal claims against the agreement, and we are confident that we will again prevail. Trustees also submitted to DOI “Notice of Violation of the Endangered Species Act Section 7 for Failing to Consult Regarding the Izembek Land Exchange” and intent to sue the DOI on behalf of the same plaintiffs. We will provide updates as these work their way through the legal process.

Arctic NWR

There is important news concerning DOI plans to sell leases this year for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The BLM Final EIS was released in September, with a Record of Decision (ROD) expected soon after the close of the 30-day comment period on October 22. A lease sale is planned for December 2019. Since the FEIS was so hastily done and grossly inadequate, without a new EIS process it is likely that the Final EIS will not withstand the many legal challenges that will be raised. Numerous conservation groups, Alaska Native Tribes, states, and legal organizations are carefully analyzing the FEIS and the forthcoming ROD. There is little doubt that there will be a number of lawsuits to stop the leasing program.

Predator Control and Hunting Regulations

The release of the proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations is expected very soon. The most serious threat to wildlife is the likely regulation to allow hunting of brown bears over bait, as well as loosened restrictions on hunting in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area and 4-whell drive access to frozen lakes. It seems that the DOI is will modify the existing regulations to agree with all of the demands by the State of Alaska. Although the USFWS requested a delay to study the major impacts on these areas and the problems of access posed by damaged trees caused by the extensive Swan Lake fire, the DOI refused to delay the process. It appears that there will be a 30-day comment period, but no public hearings. Friends and other organizations will be closely following these developments and will take action at the appropriate time.

Lower Cook Inlet Seismic Survey

Hilcorp began a seismic survey of its offshore lease site in lower Cook Inlet to search for untapped oil and gas deposits near Anchor Point and Homer. Such seismic blasting can reach 250 decibels and be heard for very long distances. This large number of high intensity blasts would cover 370 square miles, much of it within waters of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. There are potential impacts on fisheries, marine mammals, including the endangered beluga whales, and other marine life, but the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released an environmental assessment that concluded there would be no significant impact of the seismic activities. Allowing no opportunity for public input, the Bureau claimed the seismic survey would have negligible effects on marine life and birds.  NOAA also announced provisions that allow Hilcorp’s proposed oil and gas activities in Cook Inlet by claiming to minimize harm to marine mammals over the next five years. However, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the administration to stop Hilcorp’s plans that will disrupt the feeding and mating activities of endangered beluga whales and could drive them closer to extinction, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

Ambler Road

The proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road is on an “unprecedented, extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official. This road could have major impacts on national wildlife refuges and parks in northern Alaska.). The draft EIS was limited to 150 pages that lack details and fail to address anything outside of the road construction, e.g., impacts to the Dalton Highway or any mining actions. Numerous organizations are working on responses to the DEIS.



Donlin Min
e

The proposed Donlin Mine lies in the headwaters of the Kuskokwim River, with potentially devastating impacts on the Yukon Delta NWR. According to Alaska Public Media “Many villages in the region are conflicted over the mine. The old mine near the village of Red Devil was built 100 years ago, and now carries a toxic legacy of mine pollution (for a three part series on the proposed mine,” see “The proposed mine requires a lot of infrastructure: a port, an airstrip, a power plant, a proposed 315-mile pipeline to bring gas for the power plant from Cook Inlet, a road and fiber optic cable. . . The Donlin Mine could be one of the biggest gold mines in the world. And the project is well on its way. Last year, it secured two vital federal permits and a handful of state permits. This year, it expects to receive several more. It’s also completing its safety certification for the seven dams it plans to build. That can take up to two years. It’s unclear when they will actually start mining.” However, the Association of Alaska Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 federally recognized tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has formally opposed the Donlin development. Conservation organizations are closely monitoring this proposed project and its potential impacts on the Kuskokwim watershed and the wildlife and habitat of the Yukon Delta Refuge, one of the largest and most important migratory bird areas on the planet.

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