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Refuges Step up Their Virtual Game: You are the Winner!

Need a stunning backdrop for your next zoom meeting?  How about a quick virtual yoga break with wildlife?  Are the kids getting you down?  Need new distractions for them where they will also learn something?  Dreaming of escaping to a wild place teeming with wildlife?  Alaska’s Refuges have you covered!  Check out these offerings.

  • Eagle, puffin, walrus or salmon to loom over your shoulder during your next zoom meeting.  Download the zoom backgrounds here.
  • Arctic Refuge Wildlife Yoga with Refuge Ranger Allyssa Morris. On Facebook here.  Also Kanuti Refuge Wildlife Yoga. and coming soon – Yukon Flats Wildlife Yoga
  • Spring ice fishing story time for kids with Selawik National Wildlife Refuge Ranger Brittany Sweeney.
  • A hot-off-the presses virtual tour of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.  Stunning scenery and impressive wildlife footage of bears, fish and birds highlight this 17-minute film made by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Download here.

I am hoping we can embed these urls  maybe the highlighted words would be best to link

Caption:  Would two photos side by side work or not enough width?  Maybe best to stick with one for those who view on phones. If one I am thinking the eagle what do you think?

Alaska Regional Friends Coordinator Helen Strackeljahn models one (some) of the wildlife zoom backgrounds available from Alaska Refuges online.  Helen is our principle contact in the Fish & Wildlife Service and is a great supporter of Friends.

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Hunting the Invasive Elodea in the Yukon Basin: You Can Help

By Delia Vargas-Kretsinger, wildlife biologist at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Elodea, the genus for waterweed, can be a nasty plant outside its native range. Known as the first submersed aquatic invasive plant to establish in Alaska, it propagates vegetatively from stem fragments. These fragments hitchhike on boats, trailers and float plane rudders to waterbodies all over Alaska where they can establish and spread quickly. Elodea degrades aquatic habitats by reducing oxygen, increasing sedimentation, altering stream flow and displacing native flora. Dense infestations impede boat navigation into hunting and fishing areas, even hindering floatplane operations.


Rosemary McGuire (FWSCD crew) sampling Bettles floatpond.

Elodea was probably introduced to the Fairbanks area via an aquarium dump. Chena Slough was chock full of Elodea when it was first identified there in 2009 by a couple of Forest Service scientists. Fortuitously, they had a copy of the Introduction to Common Native & Potential Invasive Freshwater Plants in Alaska.

The discovery led invasive species managers to think about where else Elodea had spread. The Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District (FSWCD) took the early lead, conducting Elodea surveys in Chena Slough and popular lakes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, even as fragments continued to flow down the Chena River. A fellow Fairbanksan said in 2015 that Elodea could be seen adrift in the current from the shore of the Chena Pump House Restaurant.


In 2015 I worked with the National Park Service, Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District (FSWCD), University of Alaska Fairbanks and other USFWS biologists to survey for Elodea downstream of Fairbanks. It has been found in Totchaket Slough and Manley Hot Springs Slough on the Tanana River, apparently in route to the Yukon River. The Koyukuk, Nowitna, Innoko, Kanuti and Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuges are all at risk, either downstream of known Elodea infestations or within the dispersal range of floatplanes.   

Data sheet

When we considered the scope of the area and the abundance of waterbodies associated with the Yukon River and its major tributaries (Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers), it became clear pretty quickly that we’d have to weed out waterbodies that did not fit the habitat criteria for Elodea. In flowing systems, Elodea seems to prefer low velocity and clear water. Known infestations on the Tanana were found in sloughs with only one entrance (no upper mouth) so this is something we key into when reviewing aerial and satellite imagery. And, of course, we look for waterbodies with a clear connection to the main river. Then, navigating with an iPad, we search for Elodea from the boat or shore, using throw rakes to sample the water column. GPS coordinates are collected for each throw rake location. Collectively we put in a lot of boat time on these rivers.


Delia Vargas surveying Totchaket Slough

The good news is that even as we survey for Elodea, the FSWCD has begun treating infestations in the Fairbanks area with fluridone, an aquatic herbicide that at extremely low doses can eradicate Elodea but not native flora. To date, fluridone has been applied in Chena and Totchaket Sloughs, Chena Lake and Bathing Beauty Pond.  Birch Lake and Manley Hot Springs Slough will be treated this spring, but the coronavirus may derail that schedule.  Similarly, we had planned to survey the middle Yukon River this summer but the pandemic has put that on hold for now.

We are hopeful that Elodea can be contained and eradicated before it spreads further, but we need your help. Inspect your boat, plane and fishing gear before traveling to other waterbodies. If you see an aquatic plant that looks different, take a photo, note the location and REPORT IT: 1-877-INVASIV (468-2748).  Here’s a great app to help you identify Elodea and other weeds: Help us keep our waters free of invasives!

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Advocacy Report May 2020

By: David Raskin, Friends President 

Secretary of Interior Bernhardt has instructed DOI personnel to push forward in spite of the Covid-19 epidemic and shutdowns. However, the dramatic drop in oil consumption and the glut of oil that has strained the US storage capacity have increased the problems for the Trump administration’s push to expand oil and gas development.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

We still have no specific update on when the Secretary of Interior will issue the Record of Decision (ROD). There are indications that DOI is having difficulty overcoming the problems posed by the threats to polar bears that would accompany oil and gas activity on the Coastal Plain. The excellent study authored by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey (Seismic survey design and potential impacts to maternal polar bear dens) demonstrates the extreme difficulty of legally conducting oil exploration in critical denning habitat for the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, which increasingly den on the coastal plain due to the climate-driven loss of sea ice. This research compounds the many problems faced by the proposed oil leasing program.

The Arctic Refuge Defense 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. Four of the five major US financial institutions (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo) have now adopted policies that prohibit financing of oil and gas development in the Arctic, only Bank of America has not acted. The crash of oil prices has created problems for the pending sale of BP’s Alaska assets to Hilcorp. These are very positive developments in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published proposed regulations in the Federal Register to improve hunting and fishing opportunities across the National Wildlife Refuge System.  Included in this broader package is a proposal that would prohibit the use of domestic sheep, goats, and camelids (i.e., llamas and alpacas) on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lands due to concerns about disease transmission to Dall Sheep and other wildlife. Please click here to review the proposed regulation and submit comments by June 8, 2020. There will be a virtual hearing Wednesday, May 13 starting at 3:00 PM (AST). Register in advance for this public hearing here.   

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing the information needed to join the meeting. 

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

It seems that the Court is preparing to issue a decision in our federal lawsuit to stop the land transfer and road, and we look to another ruling in our favor. In the meantime, DOI issued a contract for the cultural and contaminants survey that is planned for September-October. No other on-the-ground activities are planned for the coming summer field season. 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. 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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Refuges in the Time of Covid-19; Update

Uncertainty is still the norm for Alaska Refuges and Friends but here are some things we know. 

For Visitors

  • Refuge lands – OPEN to public use as they have been throughout the pandemic.
  • Trails, public use cabins and campgrounds – OPEN except for Skyline and Lower Kenai River Trail on the Kenai Refuge due to fire damage.
  • Visitor Centers, events and programs – CLOSED.  Do not expect openings until perhaps July.

Unless you have your own float plane, getting to the more remote refuges is still problematic.  Over 120 villages and tribes have adopted regulations and resolutions limiting access to their villages and lands.  It is not clear how many charter operators will be working.  Your best bet for getting out are the refuges you can drive to like Kenai and Tetlin.  Please contact the refuge you wish to visit for more specific information. 

For Refuges

  • Offices – CLOSED with staff working from home but expect a gradual opening later in the month.
  • Field projects- MANY CANCELED.  A multitude of factors have doomed this field season on many refuges including state and village travel restrictions, difficulty of meeting CDC guidelines in a field camp setting and quarantine requirements for out of state crews and more. 
  • Youth Programs – MANY CANCELED.  YCC and Native Stewardship camps have been canceled on many refuges but are still on the books for camps scheduled for late summer.
  • Law Enforcement – ON THE JOB

Refuges are taking a cautionary approach to protect staff and communities.  Canceled field work will in some cases interrupt a decade or more of continuous data needed to spot trends and trouble spots, put field crews out of work, and deprive decision makers of needed information.  Loss of youth programs will break an important connection between refuges and communities.

For Friends

Projects – CANCELLED at least through the end of June.

In this time when we cannot physically help refuges as volunteers, we can still advocate, learn more about refuges and above all enjoy and experience our National Wildlife Refuges.

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28th Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival

The 28th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is taking place online May 7-10th.  Join us in the celebration of shorebirds, public lands and springtime in Alaska.
 
The virtual Festival is a place where you can can connect with our beloved shorebirds wherever you are.  Report sightings, follow our daily Birders’ Blog, and view the real-time sightings map to follow what’s flying through Kachemak Bay!  Events will be added daily throughout the weekend, so visit us each day of the Festival for talks, identification tips, quizes and more.
 
You can show your support for the Festival by purchasing your 2020 Festival gear, bidding on our 6×6 Bird Art & Trip Auction, or joining the Crane Club.  Share your shorebird celebration with the Festival community by using #KBayShorebird2020 in your social media posts.  

Unseen Worms Change Boreal Forests: Don’t Dump Your Bait!

By Matt Bowser, Entomologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

In September 2018, we hosted two earthworm experts from the University of Minnesota at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  Dr. Kyungsoo Yoo and graduate student Adrian Wackett study how earthworms alter soils in the American Midwest and northern Europe, places where exotic earthworms have been around for a long time.  In Alaska, with the possible exception of one species, all earthworms have been recently introduced. The Kenai Peninsula offered these scientists a chance to study incipient populations of earthworms that we had documented just a few years ago. To read the report, click here.

They chose to work at Stormy Lake in Nikiski, where nightcrawlers were dumped near the public boat launch. Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus spp.) make vertical burrows and feed on surface litter, changing soils more dramatically than other earthworm species introduced to our area. Adrian and Dr. Yoo remarked they had never seen such abundant nightcrawlers as what they saw at Stormy Lake.  Earthworm biomass was twice as high as anything published online. Using their data, I estimated 1,300 pounds of earthworms per acre at Stormy Lake.  To put this in perspective, a 1,300-pound moose needs ~500 acres in good habitat.  So earthworms can outweigh moose by 500 times on an acre of boreal forest!





Photo: University of Minnesota graduate student Adrian Wackett digs a soil core near a public boat launch on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to examine the effects of a recent introduction of nightcrawlers

Why do earthworms flourish here? We suspect a bountiful food supply of leaf litter with little competition from other worm species. We also witnessed a new phenomenon. As the nightcrawlers invaded new areas, they buried the leaf litter with mineral soil brought up from below. In areas with older infestations where nightcrawlers had more time to multiply, they had consumed all litter and humus layers.

You have likely heard that earthworms improve garden soils.  This is true—cultivated plants generally benefit from earthworms.  But not everyone in the natural ecological community wins.  Exotic earthworms have caused problems in other parts of northern North America. By fundamentally changing the structure and properties of soils through their feeding, introduced earthworms have caused declines in native plants, fungi and animals that depend on thick leaf litter. Ferns, orchids and shrews, for example, tend to do poorly where earthworms occur while grasses and exotic plants fare better. Earthworms can even change which tree species repopulate a forest by altering seed and seedling survival. Thankfully, nightcrawlers remain absent from most of the Kenai Peninsula. On the Kenai Refuge, nightcrawlers are found only at a few boat launches, the result of what is termed “bait abandonment.”


On their own, nightcrawlers spread more slowly than most glaciers move. It would take five centuries for them to colonize Stormy Lake’s shoreline. Robins and other birds could transport earthworms, but this is an unlikely vector.  Nightcrawlers sexually reproduce, which means robins would have to drop multiple live nightcrawlers in the same vicinity to start a new population. Even if this did occur, robins tend to carry food only short distances, so this transport medium would not greatly accelerate dispersal rates. Earthworms can disperse faster by streams, but almost all their known long-range dispersal has been by people.

Here on the Kenai Refuge and in Alaska generally, where nightcrawlers arrived only recently, we still have a chance to conserve naturally diverse and naturally functioning forest ecosystems. In Canada and some northern U.S. states, organizations and governmental entities have sought to change people’s behavior by educating them about problems caused by exotic earthworms. Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota took it a step further by prohibiting live bait partly to prevent the spread of invasive earthworms. These public outreach efforts and regulations may reduce the long-range spread of exotic earthworms, but people continue to transport earthworms to new areas. We are currently assessing the potential for pesticides tested at airports and golf courses to eradicate small populations of nightcrawlers.

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Advocacy Report April 2020

By: David Raskin, Friends President

In spite of the Covid-19 epidemic and shutdowns, the Trump administration continues to push forward with expanded oil and gas development, and the State of Alaska and their allies continue their efforts to promote the Izembek Road, increase hunting of bears and other predators, and build the highly destructive, proposed Ambler road.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

We have no specific update on when the Secretary of Interior will issue the Record of Decision (ROD). However, a recent development in the Arctic Refuge involves the Kaktovik school that burned down in February. The Arctic Refuge issued a temporary permit that allowed modules for temporary classrooms to be transported across the ice through the Arctic Refuge to Kaktovik. The success of that emergency effort has prompted Kaktovik to consider applying for a multi-year permit that could lead to oil and gas development on the Coastal Plain. We will monitor the situation and take any needed action to prevent this from happening.   

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published proposed regulations in the Federal Register to improve hunting and fishing opportunities across the National Wildlife Refuge System.  Included in this broader package is a proposal that would prohibit the use of domestic sheep, goats, and camelids (i.e., llamas and alpacas) on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lands due to concerns about disease transmission to Dall Sheep and other wildlife. This management action was identified in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Revised Comprehensive Conservation Planwhich was finalized in 2015 after an extensive public process in which Friends participated. Please click here to review the proposed regulation and submit comments by June 8, 2020. 

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 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 continue to produce impressive results. Also, the crash of oil prices has led  Morgan Stanley and other financial institutions, including Wells Fargo, to raise questions about financial support of the sale of BP’s Alaska assets to Hilcorp. This could have major impacts on oil and gas development in Alaska. 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 State of Alaska and King Cove, defendants in our federal lawsuit to stop the land transfer and road, requested the Court to hold oral arguments on our motion to void the land transfer. However, the Court promptly denied their request and stated that the documents already submitted provide a sufficient basis for a decision by the Court. It seems that the Court may be preparing to issue a decision, and we look to another ruling in our favor. 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. 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. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) promulgated these regulations, which have been challenged by the State of Alaska, the Safari Club International, and a coalition called the Alaska Professional Hunters Association. At issue is a set of regulations finalized by the FWS in May 2016 that codified several long-standing, common-sense management decisions, collectively known as the Kenai Rule. The State and the Safari Club challenged the following three parts of the Kenai Rule:

  1. To continue the longstanding prohibition on hunting brown bears over bait in the Refuge,
  2. To emphasize wildlife viewing and environmental education in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area (WRA) within the Refuge, including restrictions on some hunting and trapping on two percent of the Refuge, and
  3. To extend the FWS’s typical safety buffer regarding the use of firearms in high-use areas to protect public safety in the Kenai River and Russian River corridors.

Trustees for Alaska, on behalf of the conservation organizations, recently filed a cross-motion with a supporting memorandum in support of the FWS rule and a memorandum in opposition to the State and Safari Club brief. The State and Safari Club reply is due mid-April, DOJ’s reply in mid-May, and our reply on May 18. In the meantime, Trustees was scheduled to get the Plaintiffs’ brief challenging the Park Service regulation on April 6. DOJ’s cross-motion is due June 15, ours is due June 22.

Ambler Road

Bureau of Land Management officials maintained their support for the most direct proposed road route to Alaska Interior mining prospects in their final environmental review of the plan published March 27, the same day leaders of the state-owned development bank allotted $35 million for future work on the project amid sharp public criticism. The 211-mile industrial road concept preferred by BLM Alaska officials to reach the Ambler mining district was proposed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in early 2017 when they submitted federal permit applications for the project. This road could have major impacts on nearby wildlife refuges, national parks, and other valuable environmental habitats and wildlife.

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Refuges in the Time of Covid 19

Like for all of us, things are changing fast and refuge staff are unable to predict what happens next.  All visitor centers and offices are closed and most staff are working from home.  Staff necessary for health and safety, such as law enforcement on the Kenai Refuge, are still out and about on the refuge.  Check individual refuge web pages for information on how to contact staff.  Events, most notably the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, are canceled but some events are still on the books for May although that may change soon.  The spring environmental education season is canceled, and all schools statewide are closed, but some refuges have stepped up to the plate with virtual field trips (see Happening on a Refuge Near You).  Announcements will be out soon as to any closures of refuges’ summer stewardship camps.  Most refuges have not yet decided if field work can happen this summer.  The Alaska Maritime has postponed the sailing of the M/V Tiglax until at least June.  
The good news is that refuge land and trails are still open to the public as long as you can and will follow the guidelines issued by the State of Alaska for travel between communities and CDC guidelines on social distancing.  Many trails on the Kenai Refuge, however, are closed due to damage and hazard trees from the Swan Lake Fire.  Some of these trails aren’t marked as closed yet, so check with the refuge.  The cabins on the Kenai Refuge are open for cabin rental if you can do so within the state guidelines for travel. Campgrounds on the Kenai Refuge are also open with very limited maintenance.  You are advised to bring your own toilet paper!

The refuges are very concerned about the health of the local communities and respect the over 125 orders and resolutions from local governments and tribal organizations concerning traveling and visiting their areas.  This is not the time to fly to Bethel for some early fishing or river floating.  We are all very lucky to have these big vast expanses of public land to use and enjoy while isolating ourselves, but please check with your local refuge to see what their specific regulations might be. All the refuge websites can be found here.
Needless to say, all Friends volunteer projects are on hold until we find out what events and field work projects will still happen.  You can check out what was planned on our volunteer page here.  If you are interested in a project, contact our volunteer coordinator, Betty Siegel, so she can keep you apprised of whether the project is a go or no go.  Her contact information is on the volunteer page.
This is a good time to connect with refuges on Facebook.  Some are putting up a lot of interesting new content from videos to bird ID games, to virtual presentations.  Each refuge has their own Facebook page so search for them by name.  
Be safe.  Respect the safety of the local communities, and know that migration isn’t cancelled.  The birds will come, and the fish will return, and we will be out on our beloved refuges again.  
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May you live in interesting times: Effects of changing climate on the ecosystems of Togiak Refuge

Please join us on Tuesday, April 21, 5-6pm (AKDT), for our Friends April membership meeting with featured guest speaker Togiak Refuge Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Pat Walsh.

This is a virtual meeting.  (Meeting details below)

Walsh will tell several stories of how and why the ecosystems of Togiak Refuge are changing and how these changes require a constantly changing approach to management.  Fish die-offs, wolf behavior and habitat use changes, and seabird die-offs are some of the unusual events Walsh will delve into.  

Dominated by the Ahklun Mountains in the north and the cold waters of Bristol Bay to the south, Togiak National Wildlife Refuge confronts the traveler with a kaleidoscope of landscapes including a rugged coastline featuring the walrus haulout and seabird nesting sites of Cape Pierce, world class rainbow trout and salmon streams, high snowy mountains, more than 500 big (over 25 acres) lakes and sweeping tundra.  Change has been occurring to this landscape since the Pleistocene but change used to be noted in centuries.  Now changes are evident from year to year.  Learn more about the Togiak Refuge here.

Pat Walsh has been Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Togiak National Wildlife Refuge since 2001.  He has BS and MS degrees in wildlife ecology and 30 years of experience in leading ecological studies.


To join the meeting:  Join the Zoom meeting by computer

OR

Join by phone:

Phone number: (669) 900-9128
Meeting ID: 918 6891 5432
Password: 336354
Download the presentation: Togiak Refuge presentation for Refuge Friends April 2020


The meeting will also be recorded and available here if you miss the 5 p.m. live meeting.

 

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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