Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Statement

The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge have decided that for the health and safety of our community, employees, volunteers, and visitors during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival will not proceed as planned in early May.

It takes an entire community to support Alaska’s largest, most accessible wildlife viewing opportunity, and we are grateful to have earned the community of Homer’s support for the past 28 years. It is out of care and respect for the community (and our many beloved birders), and in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, that we take this action.

We know people across Alaska and around the world will miss the event, and the festival planning committee is saddened to share this news, but we are committed to doing our part to slow the spread of this dangerous virus.

While we are not gathering together this year, we plan to return better than ever in 2021. We also find hope in our shorebirds – as they migrate north, they will continue to gather along our shores. Please stay tuned for new ways to connect with the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

Thank you for your patience and understanding. As you continue to enjoy Alaska’s wildlife and wild places, please practice safe social distancing.

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Hot Topics in Alaska Wildfire

Please join us on Tuesday, March 17, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends March membership meeting with featured guest speaker and fire ecologist Lisa Saperstein.

This was a virtual meeting; watch a recording of Lisa’s presentation below.

How will wildfire affect refuges in a changing climate?  Wildfire was always a major driver of habitat change in much of Alaska but last summer was one for the record books​ in terms of the number of people impacted by smoke, road closings, activity cancellations and fear for life and property.  Scientists and managers are scrambling to understand what Alaska will look like in the future with predicted increases in fire occurrence and to figure out how to manage fire with a changing climate.  Lisa will give an overview on fire in Alaska from fire history and habitat changes to current research topics and refuge projects to reduce risks. 


Lisa’s current work focuses on post-fire effects on wildlife and vegetation, burn severity and fuel treatment planning and monitoring.  She is a collaborator on research on climate change and fire in boreal forest and tundra and on modeling fire behavior during wildfires.  After working on the Selawik, Koyukuk/Nowitna, Yukon Delta and Kanuti refuges, she was hired in her current position as fire ecologist for all Alaska refuges in 2010.  Lisa began her Alaska career as a Master’s student at UAF in 1989 investigating the effects of tundra fire on caribou winter range.



Missed this meeting?  Watch a recording of Lisa’s presentation:






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Ms. Benson Goes to Washington: To Talk Budget! (and You Can Help)

By Poppy Benson

I took advantage of a personal trip through Dulles last Thursday to speak to our Alaska Senators on behalf of Friends as our Vice President.  Neither Senator Murkowski or Senator Sullivan were available but I met with their staffers.  Senator Murkowski’s staff was particularly engaged with my message about the FY2021 budget currently under consideration.  Refuges in Alaska are down 25% in staffers since a decade ago, and we are seeing that in the work refuges are able to do and even in our ability to help them as volunteers. 

Three refuges, Yukon Delta (second largest in the nation), Togiak and Koyukuk-Nowitna, have been without Refuge Managers for up to three years.  Tetlin doesn’t have a full-time biologist.  Izembek’s staff is down to 3 permanent employees.  Administration priorities, particularly the Izembek road land exchange and drilling in the Arctic Refuge are taking funds and people away from refuge work in what could be accurately characterized as an unfunded mandate. 

The good news is that the proposed 2021 budget provided a nice bump up for refuges.  However, after 10 years of flat budgets, the spending power of Alaska’s refuges is still below that of a decade ago and the backlog of unfilled positions is enormous. 

My message was three fold:  support the nationwide refuge system budget at the $586 million level advocated by the National Wildlife Refuge Association; thank you for the extra money for invasive species management for Alaska; and Friends support Alaska refuges and will continue to advocate for them.  Since my return I learned about the Great American Outdoors Act which would permanently fund the Lands and Water Conservation Fund and provide $950 million over 5 years to address the refuge system’s nation-wide maintenance backlog of $1.4 billion.

You can help.  Please follow-up my visit by contacting our Senators to support the 586 million budget and the Great American Outdoors Act: https://contactsenators.com/alaska/lisa-murkowski and  https://contactsenators.com/alaska/dan-sullivan. If you are not from Alaska you can find the contact information for your senators here.

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Fairbanks Friends Shine at Art in the Arctic

The 5th annual Art in the Arctic, February 27, showcasing birds of the Arctic Refuges was a sparkling event well supported by Friends.  Two of the six featured artists are Friends members – Laurel Devaney and Amy Mackinaw.  Friends Patti Picha and Judy Williams worked the Friends Outreach table with Frank Williams photographing the event. 



Numbers were down some from last year with 125 attendees due probably to the biting cold but a good time was had by all.  This is a great event for bringing in a diverse crowd and softly conveying refuge messages and information about the 200 bird species that use the northern refuges.  This event is run by Fairbanks based refuges – Arctic, Yukon Flats and Kanuti.  



Two days later, Arctic Refuge’s 2019 Artist in Residence, Michael Boardman, gave a talk and led a drawing workshop for 14.  Boardman has widely shared his experiences on the Arctic Refuge with over a dozen audiences both here in Alaska and in his home state of Maine.  Kudos to the northern refuges for so effectively using art to broaden support and appreciation for wild lands and wildlife.


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Can wolf predation be good for caribou?

By John Morton, retired USFWS biologist

I called Pat Walsh, the Supervisory Biologist at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, to ask him about an interesting article he published this past year in the journal Rangifer.  Titled “Influence of wolf predation on population momentum of the Nushagak Peninsula caribou herd, southwestern Alaska”, it essentially asks if wolf predation can be good for caribou.

Walsh laid out a fascinating ecological story.  During 1997−2007, the nonmigratory caribou herd on the Nushagak Peninsula, located within Togiak Refuge, declined from 1,400 to 500 individuals.  Walsh, working closely with his Alaska Department of Fish and Game State colleague, James Woolington, investigated the time budgets of three wolf packs that used the peninsula during the following five years (2007−2012) to figure out if wolves were responsible for the herd’s decline. During their study, wolf predation steadily increased on the caribou; however, contrary to expectations, the caribou population steadily increased as well!


These two field biologists tracked 20 GPS- and VHF-collared wolves during their study.  They found that only one of three packs regularly used the peninsula. This pack, known as the Ualik Lake pack, spent 35% of its time there.  Its use of the peninsula was disproportionately high in late summer and fall, disproportionately low in winter, and proportional during the caribou calving season in early summer.  The overall wolf use of the Nushagak Peninsula increased in direct response to increasing caribou abundance. Walsh and Woolington concluded that, in this instance, wolf predation was not driving caribou population dynamics.  Instead, the caribou population was the driver and wolves were simply responding to an increasingly abundant food.  The Nushagak herd had previously declined, then increased, due to internal demographic factors apparently unrelated to predation (see graph).

Not all wolf-caribou interactions are the same, and that the geography of the Nushagak Peninsula makes this situation somewhat unique.  The 800 mile2 peninsula is narrow enough that this single wolf pack was able to establish its territory near the head of the peninsula, and thus defend the area from other wolves on the mainland.  So, as the Nushagak caribou population increased, the Ualik Lake wolf pack spent more time preying on them, and concurrently (and ironically) spent more time protecting them from predation by other wolves!  Life is not always as it seems. 


Since the conclusion of their study in 2012, the caribou population has continued to increase to the point that habitat damage is evident.  In short, high numbers of caribou may be eating themselves out of house and home.  Wildlife managers have attempted to address this by increasing human harvest through several regulatory changes, but lack of snow in recent winters has prevented snowmachine access, which is the primary transport used by hunters there.  Walsh told me, “We think it’s possible that the Nushagak Peninsula caribou will face winter food shortages in the near future, and may simply walk away”.  Should this happen, local villages could lose an important subsistence resource.


Although wolf predation has not served as a very effective population control for caribou, it is certainly working in the direction of management.  And to answer the question as to whether wolves can be beneficial for caribou, it appears that in this case, it could be that the protection resident wolves provide may be too much.  As Walsh sees it, a bit more predation might prevent degradation of caribou habitat, which could help sustain the caribou population itself.

Walsh and Woolington wrote that the principal reason they conducted their study was to assess whether wolf population control was necessary to prevent the population decline in this herd. Had predator control been instituted at the onset of this study (as requested by local management committees), it is reasonable to believe that the caribou population would have increased as it did.  However, these two seasoned biologists also point out “stakeholders might have incorrectly concluded that wolf control caused the caribou population response.” This case illustrates the importance of careful thought and having sufficient data for both ungulate and predator populations before invoking predator control.

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2020 March Advocacy Report

By: David Raskin, Friends President

The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal and Izembek Refuge battles continue, and we expect major events in the very near future.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Secretary of Interior stated that the Record of Decision (ROD) is expected soon. Machinations continue behind the scenes regarding the amount of recoverable oil below the Coastal Plain. There are indications that the dry wells drilled in the past near the edges of the Coastal Plain may discourage the major oil companies from bidding on leases when the lease sale opens. That may open the door for smaller companies to buy leases at bargain basement prices. The Administration’s inflated projections for oil revenue from the Arctic oil seem more far-fetched as information dribbles out. Also, the USFWS announced a comment period on the excellent study on the potential impacts of seismic exploration on denning polar bears (federal register notice). Please send in your comments by April 20 and register your concerns about the dangers of seismic exploration to the denning of the endangered Beaufort population of polar bears,

Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue their highly successful outreach events throughout the country, and there have been many more great pieces in various media. The campaign’s meetings with executives of oil companies and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts continue to produce impressive results. Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign (https://www.arcticrefugedefense.org) have succeeded in convincing most of the major banks and financiers to adopt policies against providing financing for oil and gas projects, with special attention to the Arctic. We continue to make progress in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

The federal defendants in our federal lawsuit to stop the land transfer and road filed their reply brief last week. It contains a rehash of most of the same arguments that the Federal Court rejected in our previously successful suit. Although we await a ruling from the Court, we are optimistic that we shall again prevail. 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 still have not been released, but we continue to expect them soon. It is likely that the new regulations will not only 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, but we expect additional draconian measures to be included in the final version. It appears that there will be a 60-day comment period, but no public hearings. All of our conservation partners are closely monitoring this process and are preparing to take whatever action is necessary to stop this assault on Kenai Refuge wildlife.

Ambler Road

We are not aware of any significant development on the proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road even though it is on an “unprecedented, extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official.

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Arctic to Attu: A Photographer’s Tour of Six Alaska Wildlife Refuges

Please join us on Tuesday, February 18, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends February membership meeting with featured guest speaker and photographer, Lisa Hupp. 

Lisa will be speaking to us at the Anchorage meeting: our other gatherings will join via Zoom Meetings or you can join from home (see below). 

  • Anchorage: Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Office, 1011 E. Tudor
  • Fairbanks: Watershed School 4975 Decathlon  
  • Homer: Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, 95 Sterling Highway
  • Soldotna: Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Ski Hill Road

  

Lisa Hupp  will share her experiences behind the lens photographing Alaska’s refuges.  “I love how photography can demand close attention and devotion to place,” Hupp says. “It’s a way to see and share the world, whether you take photos on a phone or with a backpack full of equipment. Alaska’s national wildlife refuges are places of endless possibility for photographers, from dramatic and vast landscapes to charismatic wildlife. These refuges are big, wild and remote; photography can help us to tell their stories.” 

Hupp is the Communications Coordinator for National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.  You can see some of her images and read how she gets those amazing shots here. 

Download Lisa’s presentation: Arctic to Attu (PowerPoint .pptx file)

Missed the meeting?  Watch a recording of the meeting below:

 

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2020 February Advocacy Report

By: David Raskin, Friends Board President

The calm before the storm! The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal continues front and center on the national stage, and the administration’s numerous assaults on the environment continue to be bogged down under the pressures of time, resources, and inadequate scientific studies. However, we expect major events in the very near future.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

There are rumors concerning DOI plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Record of Decision (ROD) continues to be delayed for unannounced reasons and is now expected sometime in March. Since the lease sale had been planned for December 2019, the delay of the ROD and the necessary waiting periods after its release have pushed any possible lease sale farther into the Spring at the earliest.

There is no word about plans for seismic exploration.  which likely cannot occur before the 2020-21 winter, if at all. However, SAExploration has been sold to a Norwegian company. The implication of this transfer for exploration in the Coastal Plain is unclear.

Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue to hold more successful outreach events throughout the country, and there have been many great pieces in various media. The campaign’s meetings with executives of oil companies and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts are producing impressive results. Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign continue to spearhead this increasingly successful campaign. Major investment managers and banks are joining the ranks of those warning against investing in oil and gas projects, with special attention to the Arctic. We continue to make progress in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

There was no significant development in the suit filed on August 7, 2019 in federal district court that names Friends as the lead plaintiff along with eight conservation partners. The Court approved the unopposed intervention of the State of Alaska. We have not received a 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 continue to expect them soon. It is likely that the new regulations will not only 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, but we expect additional draconian measures to be included in the final version. It appears that there will be a 60-day comment period, but no public hearings. All of our conservation partners are closely monitoring this process and are preparing to take whatever action is necessary to stop this assault on Kenai Refuge wildlife.

Ambler Road

We are not aware of any significant development on the proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road even though it is on an “unprecedented, extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official.

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Yellowlegs are noisy, but we’d sorely miss them if they disappear…

By Chris Harwood, Wildlife Biologist, Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve conducted literally thousands of songbird surveys in my almost 30 years with Alaska Refuges.  On Kanuti Refuge, the listening conditions at my survey count points are typically excellent—little to no wind and, of course, no car traffic.  Really, the primary aural challenge is filtering out the species and individuals I’ve already identified and counted from possibly new ones. 

In the boreal forest, however, there is one natural distraction that tests my ability to concentrate during surveys (and even tries my patience!).  Songbird surveys in the Interior often coincide with late incubation, hatch, or brood rearing of Lesser Yellowlegs…and nothing can ruin a songbird survey quite like a Lesser Yellowlegs vociferously defending its nearby nest or chicks. 

Breeding (especially, successfully hatching) yellowlegs have little competition where alarm-calling stamina (and volume) and defensive mobbing and distraction displays are concerned.  Just try and hear that distant, soft-singing Blackpoll Warbler with a yellowlegs flitting in front of your face and screaming in your ear because you’re too close to its chicks you’ll never see.

 

Well, it now seems that such survey distractions might be getting less common—and that’s not a good thing. The Lesser Yellowlegs population has declined by 70–80% over the past four decades across boreal North America. And it’s not just a Canadian yellowlegs problem. We believe Alaska yellowlegs are declining, too.

So, why the decline?  Well, there’s a team of Alaskan and Canadian researchers who are now looking into threats to yellowlegs throughout their annual life cycle, including legal and illegal harvest in the tropics. Click here to read their report. 

Through near-annual survey work from our administrative cabin along the Kanuti River, I have determined that Lesser Yellowlegs are still pretty common on a nearby study area.  Given that this major yellowlegs research project lacked a study site in interior Alaska proper, I proposed that Kanuti Refuge join the boreal-wide “Yellowlegs Team” in 2018.  So we purchased 10 GPS transmitters to track where some of our yellowlegs migrate and overwinter so possible threats along their annual route could be assessed. 

We invited Laura McDuffie with USFWS Migratory Bird Management to the cabin in June 2019 to help us capture yellowlegs and deploy our transmitters (Laura’s M.S. thesis includes analysis of yellowlegs movements).  The timing of Laura’s arrival was perfect—yellowlegs eggs started hatching that day!

We captured 13 adult yellowlegs over six exhausting days and marked them all with uniquely coded leg-flags (green with two white characters) and one blue band to denote them as “Kanuti” birds.  Ten adults also received GPS transmitters.  In the fall, we also contributed funding for the project’s genetics work.

Once they departed Kanuti Refuge, all but one of our 10 transmittered yellowlegs stopped initially and briefly on Yukon Flats Refuge before heading down the Central Flyway through the Great Plains of southern Canada.  As of 20 August 2019, six of the yellowlegs had fanned out to points farther south, including Florida, Mexico, Cuba (2 birds), Ecuador and Peru. 


Four of the 10 transmitters were still reporting as of 1 January 2020.  Two of our birds are wintering in southeastern Brazil, another in northeastern Argentina, and the fourth in western Mexico. 

This spring, a field assistant and I will return to the cabin with the hope of re-sighting any of the birds marked last June. After hatch, we will also attempt to mark new birds as part of an ongoing effort to study adult survival.  The Yellowlegs Team is currently assessing whether more transmitter work is needed in coming years. 

Kanuti Refuge hopes to remain an integral member of this amazing continent-wide research partnership as we strive to better understand what it takes to ensure Lesser Yellowlegs remain common.

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Tetlin Refuge’s Trumpeter Swans: A Comeback Story

By Poppy Benson

One of the delights of traveling on the Alaska Highway through the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge is spotting graceful trumpeter swans on refuge lakes and ponds.  The trumpeter, the largest waterfowl species in North America, is such an iconic Tetlin species that it was chosen for their logo used on their signs and publications.  It is hard to believe that at one time, no trumpeter swans could be found on what was to become the Tetlin Refuge. 



Trumpeter swans were nearly decimated from the United States for the skin and feather trade between 1600 and the 1800s.  In 1935 only 69 individuals were known to exist in the US although others may have survived in remote parts of Alaska and Canada.  No trumpeter swans were documented in the Upper Tanana Valley where the refuge is located until 1980.  In 1985, the aerial swan survey recorded just 97 swans and 13 broods on and around the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
.  Since then the population has exploded.  In 2015, the last swan survey, there were almost 2000 swans!  This is consistent with swan recovery throughout the country.  Nation-wide swan populations have increased exponentially at a rate of 6.2% per year between 1968 and 2010.  Over half of North America’s trumpeter swans breed in Alaska.


Will this growth continue or has the swan population on the refuge peaked or is it about to peak?   The number of broods has been declining since it peaked at 147 in 2005.  The 2015 survey found that a greater proportion of adult swans are not breeding successfully. Could all the available wetland breeding habitat already be occupied by swans?   This year’s swan survey should help answer some of those questions.  The data presented here is from “Thirty Years of Swan Surveys at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge (1985-2015)” by Kristin DuBour.  You can access it here.

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