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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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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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