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Proposed Rule Changes Threaten Kenai Refuge Wildlife and Visitors

There have been two different attacks on wildlife management direction on the Kenai Refuge.  Both aimed at overthrowing parts of the 2016 “Kenai Rule” which formalized many long standing management practices on the Refuge.  One is a lawsuit by Safari Club and the State of Alaska against the Department of the Interior (Fish & Wildlife Service) seeking to overthrow aspects of the Kenai Regulations on the grounds they were not compatible with state regulations.  The second is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own attempt to revise the Kenai Regulations to conform to state practices under pressure from the State and DOI. 

What’s New?

1.  The lawsuit was settled in Fish & Wildlife’s favor on all counts except shooting within the Kenai River Corridor which was sent back for further documentation.  On November 13, 2020, the Federal District Court in Anchorage ruled against the State of Alaska and Safari Clubs International and upheld the 2016 Kenai Refuge regulations that prohibit the hunting of brown bears over bait and require management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and education.  See Trustees Press Release HERE. The decision confirms that the Fish and Wildlife Service necessarily has the authority to manage wildlife on lands it oversees and to set management priorities within Refuges even if it conflicts with State priorities. Friends and 15 other conservation organizations intervened on behalf of the DOI to secure this major victory and were represented by Trustees for Alaska. 
2.  Overwhelming public comment opposed DOI’s attempt to change the Kenai Refuge Regulations.  Over 45,000 individual comments were submitted to FWS during the two public comment periods on the proposed revisions to the Kenai Refuge regulations.  68 testified verbally at a two night virtual public meeting at the end of October.  Only four testified in favor of the regulation change.  All others were opposed.
3.  Since the comment period closed November 9, we have been waiting to hear.  We understand that Washington officials feverously pushed to complete the required analysis of this massive number of comments in hopes of ramming through the regulations prior to the change in administration.

What is the Issue?

The State of Alaska in the past decade has not been happy with some aspects of the Kenai Refuge’s management of game animals.  The State contends that the State should have all authority.  In the lawsuit brought in 2016 by the State with the Safari Club against the Fish & Wildlife Service, the State sought to overturn the refuge regulations banning brown bear hunting over bait, management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and photography with a prohibition on trapping and general hunting and prohibiting shooting in the Kenai and Russian River Corridor much of the year.  

The proposed regulation changes brought forth by Fish & Wildlife Service under pressure from the State and a sympathetic Department of the Interior sought to accomplish some of those same goals – opening the refuge to brown bear hunting and allowing shooting most of the year in the Kenai River corridor.  In addition, the proposed changes would remove all Refuge control of trapping.  The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area management was not part of the proposed regulation changes however.

These changes would seriously weaken refuge regulations that were developed through extensive public processes and agreements with the state that cover 40 years.  Brown bears, trapping, visitor access, and public safety on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge would be affected.

The proposed regulations were released in June 2020 with a comment period that closed in August without a public hearing.  Over 34,000 comments were received, in addition to tens of thousands of petition signers. Friends as well as other conservation groups requested a public hearing and that request was granted.
Two nights of hearings were held in October and an additional 30 day comment period ended November 9.

The conflict between State and Refuge wildlife management that led to this stems from the different mandates of the two agencies. Federal laws and regulations require National Wildlife Refuges to be managed for natural biodiversity and a balance of predators and prey. The State mandate of maximum sustained yield of species such as moose and caribou is the justification for their predator control programs, especially killing bears and wolves. In contrast to the State, Refuges must also consider user conflicts, such as trappers vs. hikers with dogs and hunters vs. wildlife viewers and recreationists.

The Proposed Regulations

Proposed Changes would replace the Refuge trapping regulations with the less restrictive State regulations. The Refuge trapping regulations were developed in the 1980s in response to trapping abuses under State management such as dogs and eagles caught in traps, traps left out after the close of the season, traps along popular trails and roads, no accountability because traps were not marked, traps that were rarely checked leaving animals to suffer, and overharvest of some species. The Refuge would not be allowed to manage trapping on the Refuge. Under State Management these changes to trapping on the Refuge would occur:
  • Eliminate the no-trap buffers around trailheads, campgrounds, refuge roads, and visitor facilities (Ski Hill Road) which protected visitors and dogs

  • Eliminate the requirement to regularly check traps which minimized undue suffering and facilitated release of non-target animals, such as moose, bear, and eagles

  • Eliminate the requirement to hide bait from view which protected eagles and other birds of prey

  • Eliminate the special provisions which prevented overharvest of lynx, fox, marten, and beaver

  • Eliminate prohibition of toothed-leg hold traps which reduced suffering and facilitated release of non-target species

  • Eliminate Trapper Orientation, trap marking and a Refuge trapping permit which ensured accountability and established best practices

All of these safeguards would be eliminated under State management of trapping. The new rule will apply to all of the Refuge, except the Skilak Recreation Area which has its own set of rules.
Proposed Changes include brown bear hunting over bait. Hunters would be allowed to use human food to lure bears to bait stations up the Swanson River Road. This would endanger visitors and oil field workers as only the largest bear to visit the bait station will be killed, leaving other bears to roam with their newly-acquired taste for doughnuts and cooking oil. This would be a trophy hunt only as hunters are not required to utilize the meat of brown bears.  
Other provisions of the Proposed Changes open the Russian and Kenai River corridors to shooting from November 1 to May 1.  This would benefit bear hunters at the expense of late season fishermen and watchable wildlife viewers.  Other provisions of the proposed changes would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads, trails, and lakes.  

Lynx trapped out-of-season, Kenai NWR


Lynx trapped out-of-season, Kenai NWR

How You Can Learn More

How You Can Help

 Join Friends and stand with us to defend the Kenai Refuge. 

Friends Position
You can read our five page letter submitted during the comment period on the proposed regulations which details our positions and reasoning.

We are opposed to hunting brown bear over bait because it is incompatible with the purposes of the refuge, would have significant impacts on a unique brown bear population that is already under threat, and creates human safety issues.

We are opposed to having the State take over trapping management on the refuge. State trapping management is incompatible with the purposes of the Refuge because it does not safeguard species at risk, protect birds of prey, minimize unintended take and animal suffering, protect visitors and their pets, and require accountability from trappers.

We believe the Environmental Assessment is flawed, and does not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Alaska Lands Act (ANILCA), and the Refuge Improvement Act. The required Compatibility Determinations were not completed for trapping. We believe that preparation of a full Draft Environmental Impact Statement is required for changes of this magnitude.

We joined the lawsuit as intervenors because we are opposed to hunting brown bear over bait as explained above, and we support the Refuge's management of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area for wildlife viewing and photography.  We are opposed to opening the Skilak area to trapping and general hunting.  



More questions? Contact us at


Recording of a panel of retired refuge staff discussing this issue at our July 21, 2020 meeting:

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Membership Meeting: October 20 at 5pm

Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 5 pm AKDT. View Recorded Video

Please join us on Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends monthly  meeting.

Tracking Lynx Across Alaska:  What Have We Learned?
Guest Speaker Yukon Flats Refuge Wildlife Biologist Mark Bertram will share with us what they are learning about lynx movement and prey interactions from tracking over 160 lynx captured on four different Alaska Refuges.  
Where and how fast will lynx move when the hare population crashes?  Are there barriers to movement across the landscape or geographic features that enable movement?  What new technologies are being used to monitor lynx movement?  Bertram will answer all these questions and share fabulous lynx photos.
Mark Bertram, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1986, has been studying a variety of animals and other resources on the third largest refuge in the nation, the 11 million acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge for the past 27 years.  Mark says “The Yukon Flats is an awesome place to work –  a 10,000 square mile pristine wetland basin home to thousands of breeding waterfowl and healthy intact predator/prey systems – it’s a biologists dream.”   He resides in Fairbanks.  

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Insects Matter: Battered Sallow Moth Outbreak on the Kenai Refuge

By Matt Bowser, Entomologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

In early June, I received multiple accounts of abundant black caterpillars stripping foliage along the Marsh Lake Trail on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Dark caterpillars were subsequently reported from Cooper Landing to Sterling to Kasilof. These larvae consumed leaves of aspen, highbush cranberry, birch, willows, roses, soapberry, and almost any other broad-leaved plant.  Steve Swenson of the USDA Forest Service tentatively identified them as caterpillars of the battered sallow moth (Sunira verberata). This identification was confirmed when caterpillars my kids and I raised in canning jars eventually emerged as adults in July.

Battered sallow moth caterpillars finish off a leaf on Marsh Lake Trail on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Multiple years of defoliation can lead to tree and shrub mortality. Credit: Cynthia Detrow

We periodically see outbreaks of these caterpillars in southern Alaska. The last event was in 2017, when  they were seen in numbers along the Richardson Highway and in the Mat-Su, Anchorage, and Kenai Peninsula.  The largest recorded outbreak of battered sallow moth caterpillars happened during 2003–2006 on the Alaska Peninsula, when up to 20,000 acres of alders and willows were damaged annually.  That outbreak, which may have included speckled green fruitworm moths, killed alders on mountain slopes over large areas. Deciduous trees and shrubs like alders and willows can usually withstand multiple years of their leaves being consumed without suffering lasting damage, so the severity of that event was notable.

Although the battered sallow moth naturally occurs from Alaska to central Canada and south to Colorado, there is no record of outbreaks of this species outside our state.  I wonder why battered sallow moths become so abundant in Alaska but nowhere else.  As with other forest caterpillars with periodic cycles of abundance, declines are likely caused mainly by diseases and parasites that pass through the populations.  At least one other sallow moth species is attacked by short-tailed ichneumon wasps.  The female wasp deposits an egg into a mature caterpillar, and the developing wasp larva will eventually kill its host during the moth’s pupa stage.

A Forest Service report links the 2003–2006 outbreak to higher than normal temperatures, but there’s not enough information yet to explain why higher temperatures might lead to increased populations. In related moths, outbreaks are often terminated by “zombie viruses” that rapidly sweep through dense caterpillar populations. The virus alters the caterpillars’ behavior, causing them to stop feeding and climb to the tops of trees. There the caterpillars die and disintegrate, spreading virus particles over the foliage below, where they can be eaten by other caterpillars. In some species the infected cadavers become attractive to other caterpillars, which cannibalize them and then become “zombie caterpillars” themselves.

An adult battered sallow moth that emerged from caterpillars raised by Matt Bowser (Kenai Refuge entomologist) and his kids this summer.  The caterpillars were provided by Dan Thompson (ADF&G biologist)

Adult battered sallow moths began emerging in late July, continuing into this fall when they presumably lay eggs. The life history of this species has not been worked out, so we do not know when the eggs hatch and larvae begin feeding. The larvae may hatch in the fall, feed and grow some, then overwinter as small caterpillars. Alternatively, the eggs may hatch in early spring. We do know that the caterpillars are out by the beginning of June.

I will pay attention to what happens on the Kenai Refuge this year and next. In general, we would expect trees and shrubs to recover quite well from this year’s damage unless there are high numbers of battered sallow moth caterpillars consuming leaves for multiple years. It’s also possible that other defoliators, like the recently introduced green alder sawfly, may have additive effects on mortality events, an increasing problem as nonnative insects and a warming climate collide.

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See a Refuge Cabin Trip in your Future? Kodiak has a New One

Want to “Live Your Wild” in a refuge cabin?  Kodiak, Kenai and Tetlin all have public use cabins and Kodiak just added a new one.   There are now nine public use cabins scattered across the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.  The most recent addition to the cabin system came “online” in September, and graces a serene site along the Chief Cove shoreline. 

Since all of Kodiak’s cabins are remotely located, the logistics were a bit more involved to get construction crew and materials on-site.  Success was enhanced by all of the pre-planning and preparations that took place prior to leaving the refuge headquarters.  In most years, support could also be provided by refuge pilots, but this year because of COVID-19 concerns, gear and personnel transportation depended entirely on using the refuge vessel Ursa Major II.

We have maintenance workers Danny Hernandez, Darrel Fox, and Kyle Coleman to thank for their efforts and expertise in building the Chief Cove cabin over two weeks in early September.  The construction crew is happy that their work will allow increased access to and appreciation of refuge lands. 

The previously established cabins are in Blue Fox, Deadman, and Viekoda bays, North Frazer, South Frazer, and Uganik lakes, Uganik Island, and Little River.  Each cabin allows visitors to spend extended time exploring the beautiful and breath-taking Kodiak NWR lands and wildlife.  While the cabins are sturdy, nicely appointed, and comfortable, they will, no doubt, also serve as safe shelters from the elements.  All are priced at $45/night, and all have bunk beds to accommodate 4 people (except the Deadman Bay cabin that accommodates 8).

To browse refuge public use cabins and what they have to offer or reserve a cabin follow these links for Kenai and Kodiak on and this link to the refuge website for information on Tetlin’s.  All refuge cabins are very popular so plan ahead.

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Kenai Public Hearing Scheduled, Comment Period Reopens

Thanks to all of your comments critical of the proposed changes to trapping, bear baiting, and other Kenai Refuge regulations plus letters from Friends and other conservation partners requesting a public meeting, the Department of the Interior granted our request for a hearing and another 30-day comment period.   The comment period is open until November 9, and the virtual public hearing will be October 26 at 4 pm, AKDT. 

Testimony at the virtual meeting is important because our passion on this issue took the other side by surprise and may bring them out in force.  You must pre-register for the meeting at this link.   You can  read the Federal Register Notice here.  Comment electronically here.  Comments you submitted in the first round prior to August 10 will be considered in the final analysis, but we encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity to raise other issues and describe how these changes will affect your personal enjoyment of the refuge.

Under pressure from the State of Alaska, the Department of the Interior required the Fish & Wildlife Service to propose new rules that would negatively affect brown bears, trapping, visitor access, and public safety on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  These changes would seriously weaken refuge regulations that were developed through extensive public processes and agreements with the state that cover 40 years. The proposed rules were released in June with a comment period that closed in August without a public hearing.  Over 34,000 comments were received, in addition to tens of thousands of petition signers.

Proposed Rules would allow brown bear hunting over bait for the first time.   Hunters could use human food to lure bears to bait stations up the Swanson River Road, jeopardizing the safety of visitors and oil field workers.  This unsporting hunting method is highly effective at killing bears and will have detrimental consequences on the refuge’s brown bear population.

Proposed Rules would open new areas to trapping and eliminate the safeguards in the refuge trapping program.  The Kenai Refuge would no longer be allowed to manage trapping on the refuge and the state, with it lax trapping rules, would take over resulting in these negative impacts:

  • Elimination of the 1 mile no-trap buffer around trailheads, campgrounds and roads
  • Elimination of special provisions to prevent trapping birds of prey
  • Elimination of provisions to prevent overharvest of species of concern
  • Elimination of required refuge permits, trapper orientation, trap marking and trap checking
  • Elimination of the ban on toothed leg-hold traps

Other provisions of the Proposed Rules would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads, frozen lakes, and trails and permit the discharge of firearms along the Kenai and Russian Rivers from November 1 to May 1. This would endanger public safety, increase the killing of watchable wildlife, and seriously degrade visitor experiences. 

Visit the Kenai Regulations page on our website  for a chart comparing existing regulations to these changes, information on how to comment non-electronically, advice on how to submit effective comments and more background information.

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Live Your Wild:  Celebrating our Refuges

What’s the largest network of public lands in the world dedicated to the conservation of fish, wildlife and their habitats?  Our National Wildlife Refuges which we celebrate every year in the second week of October.  Refuges inspire, empower and enable wildlife, people and communities to thrive. 

In Alaska, we are shared stewards of world renowned natural and cultural resources on sixteen national wildlife refuges that span a vast and diverse state. They are the traditional homelands of our Alaska Native neighbors, who continue to practice a subsistence way of life that nourishes body and spirit. These refuges call to people from around the globe, offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences, iconic creatures, and spectacles of migration. For the people who live here, and for those who visit, these places give us a true refuge and solace in difficult times. From the far reaches of the Aleutians and the Arctic to the nearby trails of the Kenai, the wildness of Alaska’s national wildlife refuges sustains us.  

During October 11th-17th, connect with us to explore more:

Find new stories, activities, and virtual events from refuges around the state on our Alaska Facebook page each day.
Make an Alaskan refuge your office and dream of your next visit.  This album is for you.

Check out some of our virtual tours and lessons, including art, yoga, and nearby nature exploration.

Check out the big picture: connect with other refuges in the system and meet some of our Champions of Conservation who played a big role in who we are today. Follow along with daily features on the National Wildlife Refuge System Facebook page.

Are you a Refuge Super Fan? Share how you “Live Your Wild” on your social media using #WildlifeRefuge, and add a special frame to your Facebook profile and find your community. Choose to add a frame, and search “National Wildlife Refuge Super Fan” when editing your profile photo. 

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Advocacy Report October 2020

By David Raskin, Friends President

Kenai Regulations

We were successful in forcing the DOI to reopen the comment period for 30 days beginning on October 9 and schedule a virtual hearing on October 26. See the lead article in this newsletter for details. This major effort was led by the Alaska Wilderness Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and Alaska Friends. 

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

We are still waiting to hear about the expected call of nominations for oil leases. The window is narrowing for this process to unfold before a new administration is installed in January.

The village of Kaktovik and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation are exploring ways to drill for oil and gas on the inholdings in the Coastal Plain. They are planning to do seismic exploration this winter on their lands in the eastern area of the Coastal Plain. They will need to get permits from the USFWS, and the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign (ARDC) and Friends will be monitoring any developments and will take action if needed.

The ARDC campaign’s highly successful meetings with financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts reached another milestone with the announcement by the Royal Bank of Canada that they will not fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge. This is a major development that we hope will encourage other Canadian financial institutions to take this step to protect the arctic and their people who depend on it for subsistence and traditional ways of life. ARDC has continued their pressure on Bank of America and oil and gas development companies to join the major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

The latest development is a refurbished effort by the State of Alaska to obtain a road right-of-way to connect inholdings in King Cove with Cold Bay. This is a new tactic to represent individual landowners in King Cove that is very complicated and hopefully will fail to meet the requirements for standing. The State has been interested in doing this for many years, and Trustees for Alaska had addressed this in our recent lawsuits. We feel that it has little chance of success and  remain vigilant for any attempts by the State and the Alaska delegation to sneak something through.

Pebble Mine

The Pebble Partnership took a big hit following the disclosures of their behind-the-scenes antics that provoked the ire of Senator Sullivan and others. We hope that the Army Corps of Engineers will stick to their recent position that the Pebble Project failed to provide satisfactory mitigation plans for the proposed mine. The Corps gave the Pebble project 90 days to propose stream and wetland mitigation plans, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to put together such a plan because of lack of options.

Mulchatna Caribou

The Mulchatna caribou herd has experienced declining populations for several years. It ranges over a huge area of Western Alaska that encompasses large portions of the Togiak and Yukon Delta Refuges. The State is asking to extend its current, unsuccessful predator control activities to lands within the refuges. However, this is not consistent with FWS management practices and is unlikely to achieve the State’s hopes of increasing the caribou population. Declines in the caribou numbers are most likely due to human predation and smaller impacts of habitat loss and other factors, and FWS is not likely to allow the State to kill predators on refuge lands.

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Friends Hire New Program Director

We are happy to announce that Melanie Dufour will be starting work for us this month as our part-time Program Director.  Melanie is replacing two part time employees, Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Coordinator Mallory Primm, who left for a full time job, and media specialist Chessie Sharp who has left the state.  Thank you Mallory and Chessie for your great work for Friends.  We are hoping that by combining the jobs, both Melanie will be better supported with more hours and Friends will have more of her attention.  It is a huge job attempting to manage the largest wildlife festival in the state and support 16 National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska with just a volunteer Board, a few committee members and a part time employee. 

Melanie is a long time Homer resident and well connected in the Homer environmental education community.  She will be able to hit the ground running on the Shorebird Festival.  Melanie has this to say about her new job. “I am so excited to be working with all of the Friends!  Sharing the natural wonders of our Refuges and the incredible birds who make the journey to our shores each year is so important for conservation of the same and the gifts that those give to each person who walks on this land, Alaska.  I look forward to both sharing new ideas and implementing steps that will assure success and sustainability of  Friends of Alaska National WIldlife Refuges.”

Welcome Melanie!

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Advocacy Report September 2020

By David Raskin, Friends President

Kenai Regulations

The proposed Kenai Refuge public use, hunting, and trapping regulations and the environmental assessment were released. We submitted comments for Friends (see link on our website). The extensive efforts of many conservation organizations, including Friends, helped to produce more than 35,000 comments to USFWS. Many of us also requested public hearings to rectify the flawed way in which the USFWS minimized the visibility of the release of this program and failed to schedule public hearings. We have been told that these requests are pending approval of a Federal Register notice drafted by the USFWS Alaska Regional Office that would extend the comment period and schedule public hearings. This is a highly political issue, so the bureaucrats in Washington, DC may not allow these to go forward. We will let everyone know what they decide. The Humane Society scientific poll of Alaska residents shows overwhelming opposition to the proposed regulation. This is a very important issue that not only affects the Kenai Refuge but could set undesirable precedents that would negatively impact other refuges.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Secretary of Interior issued the Record of Decision (ROD) on August 17. The next steps are a call for nominations for a lease sale and an actual lease sale. In their rush to sell leases before the November election, the Administration may shorten the call for nominations from the usual 30 days and proceed quickly to selling leases. The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign (ARDC) is closely monitoring developments.

On August 24, Trustees for Alaska filed suit in Anchorage Federal District Court on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Friends, and 11 other conservation organizations that challenge the Administration’s leasing plan. Read the press release here].  This was followed by a similar lawsuit by other conservation organizations that challenged the administration’s application of the 2017 federal tax overhaul that orders oil leasing in the wildlife refuge.

ARDC released the results of a national poll that showed overwhelming national opposition to the Administration’s plan to drill in the Refuge. The ARDC campaign’s highly successful meetings with executives of oil companies, insurance carriers, and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts. They have continued their pressure on Bank of America and oil and gas development companies to join the major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

Since the June 1, 2020 Federal District Court decision nullified the proposed land exchange with King Cove, road proponents appealed to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court. Trustees for Alaska is handling their appeal, which used similar arguments that were soundly rejected by the district court. We expect the district court decision to be upheld and will be monitoring this closely. If the appeal fails, any new attempt to resurrect the road would require an act of Congress and a signature by the president. Trustees for Alaska and all of our conservation partners remain vigilant for any attempts by the Alaska delegation to have a rider added to other legislation.

Ambler Road

We are following the progress of the federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups to stop this damaging road from being built. It would invade the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and have the potential to disrupt wildlife and habitat that could have major negative impacts on the national park and nearby wildlife refuges. We hope that the lawsuit will halt this costly and destructive project.

Pebble Mine

Army Corps of Engineers performed an unusual about-face, issuing a finding that the Pebble Project failed to provide satisfactory mitigation plans for the proposed mine. This unusual flip-flop b the Corps followed public statements by Donald Trump, Jr., Nick Ayers, former chief of staff to Vice president Pence, and other wealthy mine opponents. All are avid fishermen who want the Bristol Bay salmon protected from this destructive mine. The Corps gave the Pebble project 90 days to propose stream and wetland mitigation plans, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to put together such a plan because of lack of options.

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Tracking Lynx Across Alaska:  What have we learned?

By Mark Bertram, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge


In recent years, you may have seen a Canada lynx, heard of a lynx sighting from a friend or read about one in your local newspaper.  Lynx populations have been high in much of Alaska, so they have been out and about.  That population high is fueled by snowshoe hares, the primary prey for lynx.  Every decade or so, hare populations skyrocket and then crash.  Lynx populations follow the same cycle as hares but lag by one or two years.  Interestingly, this predator-prey cycle occurs in sync across boreal Alaska.

Dr. Knut Kielland, with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has studied this intimate predator-prey relationship since the 1990s.  In 2014, he teamed up with Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge to examine a long-standing scientific theory that the peak of the 10-year hare cycle acts in a synchronous “traveling wave” across the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forest, similar to a rippling wave in a pond. 

But just what is it that sets the wave in motion and carries it over thousands of miles through the boreal biome?  Weather patterns have been suggested, perhaps related to cyclical sunspot activity, but these patterns are inconsistent.  The most likely explanation is long distance movements by predators.  Both lynx and great horned owls disperse over 700 miles in search of food.  Predators moving great distances from food-poor to food-rich areas could explain these 10-year patterns across the landscape.


Photo by Lisa Hupp, FWS

Kanuti, Koyukuk, and Yukon Flats Refuges and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve have since partnered with Dr. Kielland and Tetlin Refuge to collectively examine lynx movements across the northwestern reaches of North America’s expansive boreal forest.  Our goal is to identify which habitat characteristics are critical as dispersal corridors so land managers can maintain viable lynx populations across Alaska conservation units.  To follow lynx movement, we capture lynx in walk-in live traps and attach a radio collar that records location every 4 hours.  Every few days, the collars upload stored locations to a satellite, from which we can subsequently download data. 

In the past four years, 163 lynx were captured and fitted with radio collars near Tok, Fort Yukon, Bettles, Galena and Wiseman, providing hundreds of thousands of locations.  Some lynx stay close to home while others disperse in all directions over great distances (Figure 1).  For instance, Tetlin Refuge biologists collared an adult male near Tok in 2017 that took a year-long sojourn through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, eventually settling west of Great Slave Lake, 2,100 miles away!  In February 2019, another adult male was collared near Bettles.  That April, he headed northwest 550 miles through the Brooks Range to the Chukchi Sea coast near Icy Cape.  In May, he beachcombed south for 200 miles, double-backed along the North Slope for 500 miles to the Dalton Highway at the Sagavanirktok River, and then meandered southwest through the Brooks Range.  Since October 2019, he has taken a respite in a secluded stretch of the Killik River headwaters.

Movements of 163 telemetered Canada lynx across Alaska and northwestern Canada, 2018-2020

We have recorded long distance dispersals for both young and old, male and female, with daily travel averaging 10 miles and up to 27 miles per day!  There appear to be no natural barriers to movement as lynx have trekked across the Brooks and Alaska ranges, and the Wrangell, Cassier and Mackenzie mountains while crossing the formidable waters of the Yukon, Tanana, Porcupine, Copper, Kuskokwim and Mackenzie rivers.  Collectively, this collared sample of Alaska lynx from four refuges and one park have traveled from the Chukchi Sea to British Columbia to the North Slope to the Yukon Delta, traversing through 20 conservation areas thus far. 

Hare populations are now decreasing across Alaska.  In response, we expect more collared lynx will disperse in search of food across the landscape.  As more than 1,000 lynx locations are downloaded daily, university, refuge and park biologists will look closely at these dispersal movement patterns in search of terrain that dispersing lynx prefer.  Identifying landscape corridors that link conservation units in Alaska and Canada will prove valuable in future land use planning.

Want to learn more and see more stunning lynx photos?  Author Mark Bertram will be our speaker at our October membership meeting, October 20 at 5 p.m. on zoom.  Put it on your calendar and watch next month’s newsletter and our web site meetings page for the zoom link.

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