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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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Advocacy Report August 2020

By David Raskin, Friends President


Kenai Regulations

The proposed Kenai Refuge public use, hunting, and trapping regulations and the environmental assessment were released with an August 10 deadline for comments. Friends have been working closely with a group of Alaska organizations to develop comments and recruit people to submit comments and have sent action alerts to their members. Poppy Benson has written many communications, and Becky Hutchison wrote the excellent op-ed that was published in the Peninsula Clarion. I submitted comments for Friends (see link on our website). We have also requested public hearings to rectify the flawed way in which the USFWS has minimized the visibility of the release of this program and failed to schedule public hearings. The Humane Society commissioned a scientific poll of Alaska residents that 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

We are still waiting for the Secretary of Interior to issue the Record of Decision (ROD). The biological issues and uncertainty of a successful lease sale may be slowing its release by DOI. There has been no news to date, but we expect to see the ROD possibly by September.    

The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign (ARDC) lobbyists were again successful in their efforts to have minimum bid language included in the House Interior Appropriations bill. The language basically requires them to meet the stated minimum for how much they need to raise for a lease sale. If they do not achieve the minimum bids, they cannot use the funds. This presents a major problem for drilling proponents to have a successful lease sale, and we owe a big thank you to Representative Betty McCollum for shepherding this critical amendment through her committee. 

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 now focused on pressuring 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, there has been no news of any actions by road proponents. 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

Soon after the State of Alaska approved spending another $500,000 of taxpayers funds, a coalition of concertation groups filed suit 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.

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Refuges in the time of Covid 19; August Update

The uptick in covid cases and deaths in Alaska in the last month has kept Refuge Visitor Centers and offices closed and most employees working from home.  The campgrounds, trails, and land are open as they have always been.  All the trails that were closed on the Kenai Refuge due to fire damage from last summer’s Swan Lake Fire have now been repaired and reopened except for the Surprise Creek Trail.  Kenai Refuge continues to experience record visitation so please come prepared to be more self-sufficient as there are no campground hosts and fewer seasonal staff. 
Covid 19 has reached some of the villages in the Interior, SouthEast, SouthWest and Yukon Delta heightening concern about visits from outsiders.  Many villages have travel restrictions.  Check before you go.  If you are thinking of coming from outside Alaska, be aware that within the last two weeks travel restrictions have tightened for travel through Canada and for arrival in Alaska.  Check Canada and Alaska’s websites for the latest as this is a very fluid situation. 
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Great American Outdoors Act to Benefit Alaska Refuges

Passage and signing of the Great American Outdoors Act last week was a big win for National Wildlife Refuges.  About 95 million per year for 5 years paid out of federal oil and gas receipts will go to the system nationwide to address the maintenance backlog.  Our partner, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, was instrumental in advocating for this bill.  

Across Alaska, nearly all 16 National Wildlife Refuges will receive funding for maintenance repairs. Facility upgrades are the main focus, such as outhouse construction, bunkhouse repairs, visitor center revitalization, and warehouse construction. Facilities damaged over the years from river floods and seismic activity will be given priority. Other projects will directly benefit visitors such as trail upgrades and improved river access.

Remoteness and extreme weather make regular maintenance both essential and expensive. Rarely is there enough money in annual budgets to cover maintenance needs resulting in a large backlog of unfunded projects.  The Great American Outdoors Act, which will address most of the backlog, will ensure that Alaska refuge’s buildings, trails, and other infrastructure will continue to provide benefits for staff and visitors for years to come.
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Our Conservation Hero Turns 85

By: Poppy Benson

Long time Friends President and Advocacy Chair David Raskin celebrated his 85th birthday last week and his 61st Anniversary with his wife Marga.  It is timely to reflect on his long involvement with Friends and the conservation struggle.

David came to conservation through fishing.  He developed his love of the outdoors by fishing with his dad as soon as he was big enough to hold a pole.   Decades later, when he was a professor at the University of Utah, it was fishing that brought him to his first conservation fight.  Hiking out after a great day of fly fishing for brown trout on Rock Creek in the Uinta Mountains, he encountered a stranger who remarked, “Enjoy it while you can because they are going to dewater that river.”  That’s when he learned about the Central Utah Project Plan to dewater all the trout streams on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains and transfer the water to develop desert agriculture.  David jumped into the battle against the Bureau of Reclamation plans as conservation chair for the Sierra Club.  This fight lasted years and some rivers were lost but many saved.  Although a dam was built on Rock Creek, this was the last proposed inter basin transfer of water in the country.

Meanwhile, Marga challenged the 5 coal power plants proposed for southern Utah’s red rock country, playing a major role in stopping the infamous Kaiparowitts Power Plant Project.   Both Raskins worked with the Escalante Wilderness Committee that helped to establish Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A three-month camping trip brought the Raskins to Alaska in 1975, and David bragged that they spent all but two nights sleeping out.  When they arrived in Homer and lookied down on Kachemak Bay, David exclaimed “Brigham Young was wrong.  This is the place”.  They promptly bought land in Homer, but it was 20 years later before David could retire from the University and build their home overlooking the bay.  

David’s first involvement in Alaska conservation was as Board President of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.  A chance meeting with Evan Hirsche, then head of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, was his first exposure to wildlife refuges.  David was invited to attend the organizing meeting of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges in November of 2005 at the Kenai Refuge.  At that meeting, he was chosen as our first president.  Except for two years, David has served as president and advocacy chair ever since.

For someone who knew little about refuges prior to that meeting, David jumped in with his usual enthusiasm.  He says the best way to learn refuges is to visit them.  He has visited 6 of the 16 refuges, including 16 days on the Alaska Maritime’s research vessel the Tiglax,  rowing a raft on the Canning River in the Arctic Refuge on a week long trash cleanup, and eradicating invasive plants at Izembek.  He has testified before Congress several times on behalf of refuges, written most of our position letters on Environmental Statements and federal actions and formed strong working relationships with other Alaska conservation organizations.  David has waged many conservation battles for Friends of which he thinks Izembek has been the most gratifying.  That fight to protect the Izembek Wilderness and globally significant eel grass beds from road development has gone on his entire tenure with Friends.  The recent court decision that preserved the Izembek Refuge was a sweet victory, although it may not be the last word.

Is David slowing down?  Well, he just decided to quit the contract work he has done for 50 years.  When I called him about this article, he was busy working in the engine room of his 36-foot boat.  He was thinking of selling it but decided he would miss the water so much that he is repairing it instead.  He just churned out five pages of thoughtful and technical comments as the Friends response to the proposed Kenai Refuge regulations.  I think we can expect to have his tenacious advocacy on behalf of National Wildlife Refuges for some time.  Happy Birthday David, and Happy Anniversary Marga and David.  Thank you so much for all your efforts on behalf of the wild and the beautiful. 
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Striking a Balance Between Competing Mandates for Salmon on the Kuskokwim River

By John Morton, retired USFWS wildlife biologist

Dr. Lew Coggins, the supervisory biologist at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, sent me an article he co-authored recently entitled Incorporating harvest–population diversity trade-offs into harvest policy analyses of salmon management in large river basins.  The body of the paper was as technical as the title, so I called Lew to get more context about his research.   

Like other Refuges in Alaska, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act mandated that Yukon Delta Refuge conserve natural diversity, but also provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents.  In this case, Lew tells me, he initiated the study to help current and future refuge managers evaluate this trade-off and address the concern that current harvest levels based on escapement goals could be impacting the stock diversity of Chinook salmon in the Kuskokwim River. 


Federal and local managers discuss Kuskokwim River fisheries management during a KYUK radio program








Chinook spawn in at least two-dozen tributaries of the main-stem Kuskokwim. Monitoring of harvest, escapement and age composition for Chinook has occurred since the mid-1970s with a focus on 13 stocks (Figure 1).  Recent declines in Kuskokwim Chinook abundance have sharply reduced subsistence harvest, closed commercial fisheries, prompted widespread stakeholder concern about the future of subsistence, and led to disagreement among managers and stakeholders about appropriate management.


Spawning distribution of 13 Chinook populations in the Kuskokwim River basin for which spawner abundance estimates exist based on weir or aerial surveys


The Yukon Delta Refuge has helped host several workshops since 2015 with influential community members as well as USFWS and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists and fishery managers. These workshops, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, included discussion of existing and potential Kuskokwim Chinook fishery and biological objectives and alternative management actions associated with them.  Lew and his colleagues developed a team that used these capacity building workshops to inform two other, more technical projects funded by the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative.


Capacity-building workshop with Kuskokwim River stakeholders in Aniak, Alaska

This research considered three contrasting harvest policies that emerged from the workshops:  (1) the “MSY policy” maximizes potential harvest by setting a basin-wide escapement goal and target harvest to produce maximum sustained yield under equilibrium conditions; (2) the “subsistence policy” evaluates a fixed harvest where the harvest goal is equal to that required to meet minimum subsistence needs; and (3) the “conservation policy” maximizes yield from the system but only once biological risks of extirpation to the least productive populations are minimized.  The current management policy seeks to ensure that the total number of Chinook making it to the spawning grounds fall within the range predicted to provide annual harvest greater than 100,000 to fully meet subsistence needs.

Using computer simulation that captured both biological and fishery dynamics, their study shows the trade-offs of these three alternative policies on harvest (a) and harvest stability (b), stock equity (c), and conservation (d).  Figure 2 shows that the policy which focuses on MSY (1) provides the greatest harvest but poor stock equity and a chance that some populations may be extirpated.  In contrast the subsistence policy (2) provides the smallest harvest but greatest harvest stability, whereas the conservation policy (3) provides a middle road with respect to harvest, less harvest stability, but good stock equity and protection.  “The bottom-line”, as Lew explained to me, is that “under current levels of harvest and escapement goals, our modelling suggests the existing levels of stock diversity are protected.”  This is precisely the kind of information that the Yukon Delta Refuge Manager needs to know.


Modeled trade-offs among three harvest policies:  maximum sustained yield (1), subsistence (2), and conservation (3)  to meet fishery (a: harvest and b: harvest stability), equity (c: proportion of population tributaries with spawner abundances that exceeded a tributary-specific spawner goal) and conservation (d: proportion of populations extirpated) objectives. Each bar is the median performance of a given policy over the last 20 years of each simulation

 

The larger significance of this study is that it scientifically addresses the trade-off between harvests and the protection of diversity, known as the “weak stock problem” in fisheries management. This problem can be acute in large river basins with low levels of management control, like the Kuskokwim, where fisheries for multiple species and stocks in the marine environment or lower river overlap both spatially and temporally.  Doesn’t this sound like many of the salmon fisheries systems in Alaska?

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Proposed Rules Threaten Kenai Refuge Wildlife and Visitors; Comments Due August 10

Comment Electronically

Under pressure from the State of Alaska, the Department of the Interior required the Kenai Refuge to propose rules that would affect trapping, brown bears, visitors, dogs, and public safety on the Refuge.  There have been no public meetings and scant public notice. The
public comment period closes August 10.

Proposed Changes replaces the Refuge’s trapping regulations with the State’s less restrictive 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 as traps were not marked, traps that were rarely checked leaving animals to suffer, and overharvest of some species. Under Refuge management trappers were required to get a Refuge permit and abide by these safeguards:

  • No-trap areas near trailheads, campgrounds, refuge roads, and visitor facilities to protect visitors and dogs.

  • Requirement to check traps to prevent undue suffering and facilitate release of non-target animals such as moose, bear, and eagles.

  • Requirement to hide bait from view to protect eagles and other birds.

  • Special provisions to prevent overharvest of lynx, fox, marten, and beaver

  • Prohibition of toothed leg hold traps to reduce suffering and make release of non-target species easier.

  • Trapper Orientation to establish expectations and best practices.

  • Marked traps with the trapper’s name or symbol to ensure accountability.

All of these safeguards will go away 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 would allow brown bear hunting over bait. Hunters will be allowed to use human food to lure bears into bait stations up the Swanson River Road. This affects visitor and oil field worker safety 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.

Other provisions of the Proposed Changes would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads, trails or lakes but these are less controversial. However, allowing shooting along the Kenai and Russian Rivers from November 1 to May 1 seems ill-advised for public safety and would increase the take of watchable wildlife in this area.

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 consider user conflicts, such as trappers vs. hikers with dogs and hunters vs. wildlife viewers and recreationists.

 

How You Can Learn More:



Please comment on-line or by mail by 7:59 pm ADT, August 10. Feel free to use our talking points but make comments based on your personal experiences and values.


Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS-R7-NWRS-2017-0058
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
MS: JAO/1N, 5275
Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803

 

More questions? Contact us at info@alaskafriends.org

 

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


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Membership Meeting: July 21, 5pm

Emergency Meeting
Tuesday, July 21, 5 pm
Online Only

This meeting was recorded; view the recording below.

What You Need to Know to Help Save the Kenai Refuge  with guest speakers retired Kenai Refuge Supervisory Biologist John Morton, retired Kenai Refuge Ranger/Pilot Rick Johnston and Friends President David Raskin.  This panel will explain Kenai’s new proposed rules which would allow brown bear baiting on the Refuge and remove all the Refuge’s ability to regulate trapping as well as some other lesser provisions.  You will have a chance to ask questions.

This serious threat to the Refuge, which contradicts prior refuge decisions, prompted this unusual midsummer meeting.  Comments on the proposed changes will only be accepted until August 10.  There will be no public process other than the comment period.  For details about the issues, the Federal Register Notice, the draft Environmental Assessment, talking points, and instructions about submitting comments, please see our Proposed Kenai Regulations post. 
 
This meeting was recorded; view the recording below.




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