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

Under pressure from the State of Alaska, the Department of the Interior required the USFWS to propose new rules that would dramatically affect brown bears, trapping, visitor access, and public safety on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  These changes would seriously weaken Refuge regulations developed through extensive public processes and agreements with the State dating back 40 years. There has been no public process on the proposed rules other than the public comment period which closes August 10. 

Items of critical concern:

Proposed Changes would allow brown bear hunting over bait.   This has never been allowed for brown bears in the Refuge.  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.

Proposed Changes eliminate the Refuge trapping regulations through its permit process and its many safeguards.  The State would take over management of trapping on the Refuge.  These current Refuge safeguards would be eliminated under State management.

  • Trapper Orientation established expectations and best practices.
  • Marking traps with the trapper’s name or symbol ensured accountability.
  • No-trap areas near trailheads, campgrounds, and visitor facilities protected visitors and dogs.
  • Requirement to check traps prevented undue suffering and facilitated release of non-target animals such as moose, bear, and eagles.
  • Requirement that bait be hidden from view protected eagles and other birds.
  • Special provisions prevented over harvest of lynx, fox, marten, and beaver.
  • Prohibition of toothed leg hold traps reduced suffering and made release of non-target species easier.

Other provisions of the Proposed Changes would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads and trails but these are less controversial.  However, allowing hunting with firearms 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 stems from the different mandates of the two agencies.  Federal laws and regulations require the 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 recreationalists.

How You Can Learn More:

How You Can Help:

We need you to comment and share this information with your friends and any groups that you feel might be concerned through our Facebook posts or other means.  There will be no public meetings, and there has been scant public notice.  Comments must be submitted online or by mail by 7:59 pm Alaska Time on 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

For additional information, join our zoom meeting (link to meetings page) Tuesday night, July 21, 5 pm and hear the true story from retired refuge staff and our president David Raskin.

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Local Citizen Scientists Help Monitor Tree Swallows

By Jaime Welfelt, Biological Science Technician at Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuges

Aerial insectivores, birds that capture their invertebrate prey from the air, have declined more than any other group of North American birds. To monitor aerial insectivore populations in Alaska, a dedicated group of federal, state, university, and nonprofit biologists formed the Alaska Swallow Monitoring Network (ASMN) in 2015. This coordinated effort aligns existing long-term swallow monitoring sites in Fairbanks and McCarthy, while providing a support system to add more sites across the state.


A banded female Tree Swallow collects grass to build a nest in the specially designed box. Once the grass nest cup is complete, the male will bring her white swan or duck feathers to insulate the cup. The side of the nest box is hinged so observers can quickly open the box and record its contents. Using fishing line, we can close the flap on the front of the box, allowing us to capture and band adult birds (photo by Carl Ramm).


The ASMN focused their efforts on Tree Swallows, a wide-ranging aerial insectivore in decline across the northern U.S. and Canada. Tree Swallows make an ideal avian study species because they readily use nest boxes and easily acclimate to human presence. Studies show that Tree Swallow breeding phenology and nesting success are sensitive to extreme weather events and changes in weather patterns over time.   

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuges (AKPB) began monitoring a few Tree Swallow nest boxes in King Salmon in 2007. In 2015, with support from ASMN and a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, AKPB increased the number of nest boxes and expanded the project to include the neighboring community of Naknek. Yukon Delta Refuge in Bethel joined the ASMN in 2017, as did the Alaska Songbird Institute (Fairbanks), University of Colorado (McCarthy), University of Alaska (Anchorage) and Juneau Audubon Society.


Tree Swallows lay one egg per day, with a typical clutch of 3-7 eggs. Occasionally, in Alaska, we see nests with eight eggs! (photo by Jaime Welfelt).

The Alaska Peninsula encompasses the southwestern-most boundary of the Tree Swallow’s range in Alaska, making it an ideal place to study population changes. On the peninsula, we installed nest boxes on buildings maintained by AKPB, Katmai National Park, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, local businesses, schools, and private residents. Refuge biologists, technicians, student interns, and volunteers check nest boxes regularly and record the number of eggs, when and how many chicks hatch, and when the chicks leave the nest box at the end of the season. The specially designed boxes have a trap door that allows us to capture and band both adults and chicks. The uniquely numbered leg bands allow us to identify individuals and estimate survival rates of recaptured birds. Data from this project will help us better understand the factors affecting Tree Swallow breeding phenology, productivity, and survival in Alaska.

Because AKPB can only be accessed by boat or plane, the Tree Swallow Project provides a unique opportunity to involve the communities of King Salmon and Naknek in our research.  The Tree Swallow Project has reached students across the Alaska Peninsula, including the remote villages of Chignik Lake and Perryville. During summer, Bristol Bay summer camps, homeschool students, and community members in King Salmon and Naknek join Refuge biologists in Tree Swallow banding demonstrations, providing an exciting opportunity to see science in action and live birds in the hand. Statewide, ASMN outreach events and social media posts have reached over 53,000 people.

This project has also been a great avenue for young scientists and summer interns to gain experience in biological field work, managing data, and leading educational events. Since 2016, interns have logged close to 5,000 hours of volunteer time monitoring birds. Business owners and private residents who have volunteered to host nest boxes have expressed much joy in watching the Tree Swallows attend their boxes each summer.


Refuge intern Emily Leung holds an adult Tree Swallow captured at the Bristol Bay School in Naknek (USFWS photo).


A joint analysis of the Tree Swallow data collected in King Salmon, Bethel, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and McCarthy between 2014 and 2019 is currently underway in cooperation with University of Alaska Anchorage and other partners statewide. The results of this analysis will provide a comprehensive look at how aerial insectivores at northern latitudes are responding to changes in their breeding environment. The citizen science approach has allowed us not only to collect excellent data, but has engaged youth and the community in science and natural resource management at AKPB.

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Advocacy Report July 2020

By David Raskin, Friends Board President

Except for the release of the proposed regulations for the Kenai Refuge, it has been relatively quiet in terms of new developments.

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. Please see the lead article of this newsletter for detailed information about this critical issue and how to submit comments. This is a very important issue that not only affects the Kenai Refuge but could set undesirable precedents that could 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 causing rethinking at DOI. However, there has been no news to date.    

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 and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts have now focused on pressuring oil and gas development companies to join the major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

On June 1, the Federal District Court issued a resounding defeat to the proponents of the Izembek land exchange by nullifying the pending land exchange with King Cove. This decision hopefully puts an end to almost four decades of unsuccessful attempts to invade the Izembek Wilderness. 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.

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Refuges in the Time of Covid-19:  July Update

Nothing much has changed since last month.  Campgrounds, trails and refuge lands are open as they have been and visitors are flocking to road accessible Kenai.  Visitors need to be extra responsible as there are no campground hosts and few seasonal staff.  Bring correct change for camping fees and firewood from home.  Offices and visitor centers are still closed with no timetable for reopening as the infection rate in Alaska is accelerating.  Kenai Refuge has found a safe way to reach out to visitors in a parking lot,open-air, tent staffed Thursdays through Saturdays.  

If you are traveling to Alaska, be sure to consult State of Alaska regulations which requires testing prior to flights or quarantine after.  If you are thinking of visiting a refuge off the road system, be aware that many rural communities have their own restrictions on travel.  Check with the State, the communities and the refuge you wish to visit for the latest information.

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Membership Meeting

Emergency Meeting
Tuesday, July 21, 5 pm
Online Only
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.  See the article below.  You will have a chance to ask questions.
 
Join us online via your computer on zoom or call in. Details on joining the meeting  will be available on our website the morning of the meeting here. 
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Board Welcomes New Member:  Caroline Brouwer

Caroline Brouwer, from Rockville, Maryland, is a long time wildlife conservation professional who will add a unique DC perspective to the Board.  Caroline serves as the Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association working on federal conservation policies in Congress and with the Administration, focusing on funding and legislation affecting the National Wildlife Refuge System. She leads the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a coalition of organizations that fights for increased funding for wildlife refuges. Her previous positions have been with Ducks Unlimited in Washington, DC, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, a private attorney, and family court prosecutor.

“Wildlife has always been my passion, and Alaska is rich with wildlife. I have been to Alaska a number of times and work closely with the Fish and Wildlife staff in the region. The Kenai and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuges are two of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.  The day I saw a pod of humpback whales breaching off the coast of Sitka, was one of the greatest days of my life.   I am thrilled to be working with the Friends Board, and encourage anyone interested in preserving wildlife habitat and populations to become advocates for our public lands.”

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Dragonfly Day Save the Date!

The 10th annual Dragonfly Day will be a virtual event hosted by USFWS Kanuti Wildlife Refuge. In the past, this event was an outdoor fair held at Tanana Lakes Recreation Area, where families learned to net and released wild dragonflies. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, Environmental Education Specialist Ally Morris is now re-engineering the outdoor fair into an online event. The online program starting 27 June, will include information on the life cycle of dragonflies, techniques for observing dragonflies, and art projects. Lots of activities for families to introduce their children to the world of dragonflies. To promote this event, Friends funded the printing of holographic dragonfly stickers using the flyer artwork created by Sara Wolman. More information on this event can be found here.
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Tracking red-legged kittiwakes across the Bering Sea

By Brie Drummond, Wildlife Biologist at Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

A special bird that few people see, red-legged kittiwakes nest on only a few remote islands in the Bering Sea.  With few breeding colonies and a highly specialized diet of myctophid fish, red-legged kittiwakes are especially vulnerable to changes in their breeding and marine foraging habitats, including those brought about by climate change and introduced predators.  All red-legged kittiwakes in Alaska (85% of the global population) breed on Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  For the last four decades, Refuge staff have collected extensive data on this species during the summer breeding season, including numbers of birds returning to colonies each year, numbers of chicks hatching and fledging, and what chicks are fed.  However, we know very little about what happens to red-legged kittiwakes the rest of the year.  Research on other seabird species shows that winter conditions can play a large role in both survival and success at the colony the following summer, so we wanted to learn more about what kittiwakes experienced when away from the colony. 


Red-legged kittiwakes (photo by Brie Drummond, AMNWR)

We used geolocation loggers (or geolocators) to record locations and behaviors of red-legged kittiwakes during the winters of 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.  Geolocators are small data recording devices (~1 gram or the size and weight of a large raisin) that attach to a plastic leg band and record light levels and immersion in saltwater.  From those data, we generate twice-daily latitude and longitude positions for each bird and estimate how birds spent their time (flying, sitting on the water, or actively foraging). 

To explore whether red-legged kittiwakes from different colonies had similar wintering locations and behavior, we deployed geolocators on birds from the two largest breeding colonies in Alaska, St. George Island in the Pribilof Islands and Buldir Island in the western Aleutian Islands, separated by1000 kilometers.  We captured and tagged kittiwakes during the summer breeding season when birds were attending nests at the colonies.  Geolocators do not transmit data remotely, so biologists must recapture the birds in subsequent breeding seasons in order to retrieve devices and download data.  For the St. George component of the study, we collaborated with Dr. Rachael Orben, an Oregon State University researcher.

We found where red-legged kittiwakes from the two colonies spent the winters depended on the time of year.  Birds from both locations left their breeding colony in late August or early September.  During the fall and early winter (October-December), St. George kittiwakes were in the Bering Sea whereas Buldir kittiwakes were thousands of miles west off the Russian coast in the Sea of Okhotsk.  However, during late winter (January-March), the two colonies overlapped in their distribution, especially in an area east of the Kuril Islands.  By April, birds were back at their respective breeding colonies.  These patterns were almost identical during the two winters of our study.

From the behavior data, we learned that birds from both colonies had similar activity budgets during the non-breeding season, spending most of the night sitting on water and flying during the day.  Most active foraging occurred the hour before and after dawn; this may reflect foraging for myctophids, which are generally available at the ocean’s surface only at night.

We learned important information about where and how red-legged kittiwakes from Alaska’s two largest colonies spend their time when away from the breeding grounds.  The region east of the Kuril Islands appears to be crucial for the global red-legged kittiwake population; interestingly, this area is a winter vacation hotspot for many other Alaskan seabirds.  We hope to publish these data in a scientific journal soon to share this information with other seabird researchers.

Izembek Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

June 2, 2020

Contacts:

David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, davidc.raskin@me.com, 425-209-9009

Gwen Dobbs, director of media relations, Defenders of Wildlife, gdobbs@defenders.com, 202-329-9295

Corey Himrod, Senior Communications Manager, Alaska Wilderness League, Corey@alaskawild.org, 202-266-0426

Fran Mauer, representative of Alaska Chapter Wilderness Watch, fmauer@mosquitonet.com, 907-455-6829 or 907-978-1109

Dawnell Smith, communications director, Trustees for Alaska,

dsmith@trustees.org, 907-433-2013

Court shuts down Interior’s second illegal land deal with King Cove Corp

Ruling sustains protections for vital wetlands in Izembek and for public lands everywhere

A federal District Court decision released late yesterday resoundingly shut down the Interior Department’s second attempt at an illegal land exchange with the King Cove Corporation to make way for a road through vital protected wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.   

“For the second time, the Court has told the road proponents that invading the Izembek Wilderness and damaging the biological heart of the Refuge to build an unnecessary and expensive road is unacceptable,” said David C. Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “Let us hope that this decades-long, misguided effort is finally over, and the natural habitat and wildlife that depend on the Izembek Refuge will continue to be protected in perpetuity.”

Trustees for Alaska filed the lawsuit in January 2020 on behalf of nine groups. A court ruling in March 2019 voided Interior’s previous land swap agreement, nearly identical to the Agreement vacated by the Court yesterday. Interior appealed the court’s decision in the first lawsuit, but then entered into another unlawful land deal behind closed doors while that appeal was pending. The second land swap deal had violated the same laws as the first, but would have been even more damaging by allowing commercial use of any future road.

“The Court found that Interior broke the law again to benefit commercial interests, with no regard for the consequences to public lands, water, or wildlife,” said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “Interior’s continued and failed attempts to dodge the laws mandating protections of our National Wildlife Refuges is an insult to the American public. We are thrilled the Court rejected this corrupt and illegal land exchange, finding that it is contrary to the purposes of Izembek and ANILCA, and that such an exchange could not be done without Congressional approval. We hope this is last time we need to ask a Court to reject such an exchange.”.”

Like the first lawsuit, the second one argued that Interior cannot use the land exchange provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to gut a National Wildlife Refuge and congressionally designated wilderness. Groups also argued that Interior circumvented public process, environmental review, and congressional approval.

Commercial and private interests have advocated for a road for decades. Under the Trump Administration, Interior has made repeated attempts to push through a land swap intended to trade Refuge and Wilderness lands to make way for a road.

The Court held that Interior violated ANILCA in two ways. First, the exchange does not meet ANILCA’s conservation purposes or the specific purposes of Izembek Refuge to protect wilderness and wildlife values. The court also agreed that the Exchange Agreement is an approval of a transportation system that falls within the ambit of ANILCA Title XI. As a result, Interior could not enter this exchange without approval from Congress and the President. Finally, the Court found — as in the previous lawsuit — that the Secretary failed to provide adequate reasoning to support the change in policy in favor of a land exchange and a road through Izembek.

GROUP STATEMENTS:

“The court has seen through the Trump administration’s illegal attempt to trade away the globally-renowned wildlife habitat and congressionally-designated wilderness lands of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “This is a victory for an ecologically irreplaceable area and the black brant, Emperor geese, brown bears and stunning array of other wildlife that call it home.”

“The wilderness values of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge are irreplaceable. Unlawfully giving away public land to build a road right through its heart that could be used for commercial use is characteristic of this administration’s constant catering to private interests,” said Kristen Miller, Conservation Director at Alaska Wilderness League. “We applaud the court’s judgment today. Building a road through federal wilderness would have been a bad deal for taxpayers and a bad deal for the environment, especially when there are other, safer options available.”

“Once again, an illegal land trade scheme by the Trump administration to build a road across the Izembek Refuge Wilderness has been stopped by a court decision.” said Fran Mauer, Alaska Chapter of Wilderness Watch. “This decision not only protects the incomparable wildlife and wilderness of Izembek, but it also helps to preserve the integrity of the National Wilderness Preservation System from a harmful precedent.”

“Today’s court decision once again holds the administration accountable for another blatant attempt to circumvent public process and environmental review,” said Sarah Greenberger, interim chief conservation officer and senior vice president for conservation policy at National Audubon Society. “Nearly every single Pacific Brant stops over in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge during migration each year. Paving the way for a road through this Refuge would put this bird population and others at significant risk. Any attempt to skirt the law and disrupt this vital habitat will be met with our strong opposition.”

“A road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge would be a costly and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars, and would severely damage this important wilderness,” said Dan Ritzman, Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife Campaign. “This deal has been repeatedly studied and consistently rejected for good reason, and we’re glad to see the court reject it once again.”

“Great news today. The Courts have once again protected the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge when the Administration has tried so hard to do the opposite,” says Geoffrey Haskett, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.  “The Administration keeps trying to plow this road through this magnificent wilderness ignoring all previous decisions to protect it. The rule of law prevails and the Izembek Refuge remains protected. This is an enormous victory protecting an incredible wilderness.”

“This is an enormous victory for one of the most spectacular places on the planet,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court shot down the Trump administration’s arrogance and hubris. We’re so grateful the judge recognized that there is absolutely no basis to overturn the decades of science and study that has already been done. All of this analysis agreed that bulldozing a road through the heart of Izembek would devastate one of the world’s most ecologically significant wildlife refuges.”

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Advocacy Report June 2020


By: David Raskin, Friends President

We had a HUGE victory on Izembek (see below). Otherwise, it has been relatively quiet in terms of new developments.

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 causing rethinking at DOI. However, there has been no news to date.    

The ARDC 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 now focused on pressuring Bank of America to join the other major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.


Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

On June 1, the Federal District Court issued a resounding defeat to the proponents of the Izembek land exchange by nullifying the pending land exchange with King Cove. The decision essentially blocks any future attempts without congressional legislation signed by the president. The Izembek press release by Trustees for Alaska describes this marvelous decision in more detail. This decision hopefully puts an end to almost four decades of unsuccessful attempts to invade the Izembek Wilderness. We are extremely grateful to Trustees and all of our conservation partners for their untiring efforts to finally achieve this wonderful result that protects and preserves the Izembek Refuge for the foreseeable future.

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. Meanwhile the continuing intervention in the litigation by Friends and our conservation partners supports the effort to protect brown bears and reasonable hunting restrictions promulgated for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness in Alaska.

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