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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.




Volunteer Update

Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges is working hard to get some volunteer opportunities for our members. The refuges are submitting requests for volunteers and funding during January. At our February Board meeting, we will be approving as many of their requests as possible. Any Volunteer Opportunities for 2020 will then be listed on our website by February 16 so stay tuned!

Meanwhile there are other opportunities to offer your skills and knowledge by contacting a refuge directly. These projects are not a part of Friends, but are general ongoing needs of various refuges.  Below is a list provided by Yukon Flats. There will be others of this type on more refuges and when we have information, we’ll try to get it out to you. Contact Jimmy_fox@fws.gov directly if interested. 

· Continue lynx capture/monitoring/snowshoe hare monitoring project

· Conduct mallard banding project at Canvasback Lake

· Implement annual scoter and scaup aerial survey

· Conduct annual waterfowl brood surveys

· Operate trail camera and snow monitoring program

· Conduct annual stick nest survey and keep active nest locations in NIFC Known Sites Database

· Implement annual loon survey

· Conduct annual trumpeter swan survey

· Implement annual Dall’s sheep survey in the White Mtns

· Provide aerial survey support for Draanjik River sheefish research project (2020-2022)

· Support Elodea eradication efforts in the Interior

· Conduct invasive species surveys in villages after consultation with tribes

· Inspect John Herbert’s Village structures, make necessary repairs, and identify deferred maintenance needs; and develop interpretative panel to display on site

· Engage students and create entries for the USFWS Migratory Bird Calendar in Fort Yukon

· Staff Outdoor Days event at UAF in Fairbanks

· Staff Bird Watch event at Creamer’s Refuge in Fairbanks

· Conduct USFWS waterfowl hunting clinic in Birch Creek

· Create salmon art and conduct fish wheel decoration contest

· Staff the USFWS Dragonfly Days event in Fairbanks

· Conduct an event in association with the 4th of July Parade in Fort Yukon

· Staff the Golden Days Parade float in Fairbanks

· Engage students at career fairs in Fort Yukon

· Participate in, and support, the National Native Youth Congress

· Revise fire ecology language for Web page and other outreach materials

· Create new content for kiosks in Circle and Fort Yukon

· Assess condition of kiosks and panels at Dalton Highway MP86 and Yukon River Crossing

· Work with tribes to install invasives prevention signs at major points of entry

· Investigate purpose and feasibility of marketing, in partnership with others, the LEO Network

· Develop refuge staff poster for rural communities

· Create and distribute biological reports to villages and post highlights on Web site and Facebook

· Work with IARC to develop messages for joint outreach materials and efforts

· Finalize, print and distribute new refuge brochure (and replace stock on shelves)

· Create and distribute CATG/USFWS fact sheet about AFA

· Conduct routine maintenance at Scoter Lake Fueling Site and other avgas tanks

· Continue to oversee and assist with construction of Fort Yukon bunkhouse

· Contract and administer construction of fence and gates for Fort Yukon bunkhouse

· Develop contracts for construction of solar systems for Fort Yukon Warehouse, Bunkhouse and Fairbanks Hangar

· Contract for insulating the Fort Yukon warehouse

· Repair roof on Canvasback Lake cabin

· Develop use policies for Fort Yukon facilities and equipment (and distribute/post)

· Develop calendar of routine maintenance for all assets

· Perform routine cleaning of Fort Yukon cabin and outhouse and keep essentials stocked

· Replace fuel meter and access system on hangar av gas tank

· Compile hangar repairs task order for Maintenance Action Team

· Maintain all field equipment




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Adventures with a unique Alaska shorebird: the Bristle-thighed Curlew

Please join us on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, 5-6 pm (AKDT), for our Friends January membership meeting with featured guest speaker, Kristine Sowl.  

Wildlife Biologist Kristine Sowl worked on a Bristle-thighed Curlew nesting ecology study in the Andreafsky Wilderness of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in the summers of 2010 to 2012. The curlew proved to be an elusive, difficult, and fascinating species to study.  Her presentation will talk about her experiences during that project.    Kristine Sowl has spent over 25 years working as a field biologist on public lands in Alaska, including Yukon Delta, Izembek, and Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuges, and summer seasonal jobs at the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, Aniakchak and Cape Krusenstern National Monuments, and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. She moved from Bethel to Homer a year ago and now spends her time helping Alaska’s wildlife refuges plan their biological programs. 

Kristine will be at the Homer meeting; our other gatherings will join via Zoom Meetings. 




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2020 January Advocacy Report

By: David Raskin, Friends Board President


The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal continues front and center on the national stage, and the administration’s numerous assaults on the environment remain bogged down under the pressures of time, resources, and inadequate scientific studies!


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

There is some news 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 delayed until at least sometime in January. 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 February at the earliest.

There is no word about plans for seismic exploration, which likely cannot occur before the 2020-21 winter, if at all. A recent report published in the Journal of Wildlife Management describes the potential impacts of various seismic scenarios. Even the most restrictive alternative would risk some polar bear mortality. So far, we have not seen a proposed plan for exploration. The warming arctic temperatures have narrowed the window of opportunity for such activities on frozen tundra. However, the State of Alaska appears to be moving forward with seismic exploration on State lands immediately adjacent to the Canning River in the Arctic Refuge.

Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue to hold 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, is spearheading this campaign and has recently received national recognition for her great work. We will win this latest in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

There is 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. 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 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. It appears that there will be a 30-day comment period, but no public hearings. Recently, the State of Alaska and the Safari Club filed their motion for summary judgment challenging the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s rule that bans brown bear baiting (among other things). The Friends and other organizations are intervenors in this lawsuit and are closely following these developments. If the DOI adopts new predator guidelines, this lawsuit may be rendered moot. 

Ambler Road

The has not been 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. Trustees for Alaska assembled detailed, comprehensive comments on the DEIS that were submitted on behalf of numerous organizations, including Friends. We await information on the comments that were submitted and the issuance of a Final EIS. As with the many hurried and poorly supported BLM assaults on public lands, this process seems to have slowed.




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Interested in Promoting an Alaskan Refuge?

Did you know that as a Friends member you have the opportunity to assist and promote a Refuge by participating as a Refuge Volunteer Liaison?  We are actively seeking a few members who would enjoy working directly each month with a Refuge Manager and staff.  The benefits of developing a personal relationship with a Refuge, learning about special programs as well as daily activities that make our Alaskan Refuges unique is a life-enhancing experience. 

 

Liaisons in the past have been treated to personal tours of a Refuge, worked with biologists, environmental educators, visitor center staff and Refuge managers.  For a monthly time commitment (ranging from 1-3 hours) a Refuge Liaison works with Refuge staff to 1) discuss Refuge news, projects, issues; 2) participates in identifying Refuge volunteer needs, funding, outreach assistance; 3) gathers information from the Refuge for newsletters, Facebook posts, blogs and membership meeting programs.  The Refuge Volunteer Liaison will have the support of the Liaison and Membership Chairs for training, mentoring, and for assistance in submitting documentation such as brief monthly reports. 

 

If you would like to learn more about the opportunity to serve as a Refuge Volunteer Liaison and to see if you might be match for one of our Refuges, please reach out to Betty or Sandy.  We would be happy to share information and work with you to enhance and strengthen your ties with Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. 

 

Come join us in our stewardship efforts!

 

Betty Siegel, Refuge Volunteer Liaison Chair  siegelbetty@gmail.com

Sandy Kerns, Membership Chair  sandra.kerns@alaskarefugefriends.org




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Why Did the Moose Cross the Road?

By: Poppy Benson, Friends Board
Photo by: Mike Criss, National Wildlife Federation

Right through the middle of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge runs the Sterling Highway – lifeline and only road to the communities of the Kenai Peninsula, plus the only access for Anchorites and tourists to the rich fishing streams, beaches, trails and other natural playgrounds of the Kenai Peninsula.  Traffic in summer can be overwhelming with well over a million and a half vehicles a year.  When wildlife crosses highways it is dangerous for people and wildlife – all wildlife.   Moose, the most frequent victims, are as likely to die in vehicle collisions on Kenai Peninsula roads as to be harvested by hunters. Unlike in hunting, moose that die on the roads tend to be cows and calves needed to sustain the population.

When the Alaska Department of Transportation began planning  to upgrade the 22 miles of highway through the refuge, refuge staff knew they needed to address wildlife concerns.  This past summer highway construction was completed, including five highway underpasses for wildlife, one large bridge, and fencing in spots. These are the first wildlife highway structures in Alaska outside of Anchorage.   Kenai Refuge Supervisory Biologist John Morton recently gave a talk about these new wildlife improvements and the need.  You can view his powerpoint here. To learn more about this issue check out the Refuge Notebook article Morton wrote about this early this year.

The Kenai Refuge’s vision statement on its website states: “The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will serve as an anchor for biodiversity on the Kenai Peninsula despite global climate change, increasing development, and competing demands for Refuge resources. Native wildlife and their habitats will find a secure place here.”  The refuge’s work in securing the wildlife underpasses is one example of refuge staff working to ensure that increased development did not take an unsustainable toll on wildlife.  Well done staff! 



Announcing Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Keynote Speakers for 2020

The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is excited to announce our Keynote Speakers for the 2020 Festival!  This year, we welcome Eli Knapp and Catherine Hamilton to Homer to share their unique perspectives on birding.  



Eli Knapp is a professor and author, whose writings you may have seen in Bird Watchers Digest.  His recent book, The Delightful Horror of Family Birding, takes readers around the globe from a leaky dugout canoe in Tanzania, to the mating grounds of Ecuador’s cock-of-the-rock, to a juniper titmouse’s perch at the Grand Canyon.  He will share insights gleaned from birds, his students, and the wide-eyed wonder his children experience.  




Catherine Hamilton is a professional artist, bird guide and conservationist. 
Her illustrations and writing can be found in The Warbler Guide and Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, and in journals and magazines such as Nature, Living Bird, Bird Observer, and Orion Magazine. Catherine will share her work in her role as ZEISS Sports Optics’ Ambassador for Birding, working with partner organization Birdlife International to help promote conservation awareness through birding and art.  



We hope you will join us May 7-10th at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival to hear these two amazing folks speak. 



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2019 December Advocacy Report

By: David Raskin, Friends Board President



The Arctic Refuge drilling proposal continues to be front and center on the national stage, and the administration’s numerous assaults on the environment seem to be bogging down under the pressures of time, resources, and inadequate scientific studies!

 

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

There is some news 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 delayed until at least the end of the year. 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 into at least next February. The longer it takes to try to sell leases, the better.

There is no word about plans for seismic exploration, which likely cannot occur before the 2020-21 winter, if at all. However, the State of Alaska appears to be moving forward with seismic exploration on State lands immediately adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Pam Miller sent the following useful information:

Public notice issued Dec 3 for public comment closing 4:30 pm, Jan 3, 2020 on the ADNR Geophysical Exploration Permit.  The proposed survey start date given as Jan 10, 2020. The survey outlined in the application’s map shows it immediately west of the Arctic Refuge (official FWS) border of Arctic Refuge and it is described as “entirely on State lands.”  This should be carefully checked against the legal descriptions for the survey. However, the application section G. lists the Canning and Staines Rivers as anadromous fish streams which may be crossed — yet the entirety of both these rivers are within the Arctic Refuge (FWS) boundaries. Clearly SAE 3-D seismic vehicles would be poised to quickly move into the Refuge if the IBLA ruled against the federal government in the pending border dispute. The permit application lists USFWS LOA for Polar Bear Incidental Take but it is not included here with the application, nor are other permits listed.

Our conservation and Native Alaskan partners continue to hold 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 results. At least three major financial institutions have indicated they will not finance oil development in the Arctic. They seem to recognize the risks posed by the challenges of development in the Arctic and the obvious prospects that there will be a number of lawsuits to stop the leasing program. We will win this latest in the decades-long battle to save and preserve the Arctic Refuge and its subsistence and cultural values!

 

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

There is no significant development in the August 7, 2019 suit filed in federal district court that names Friends as the lead plaintiff along with the previous eight conservation partners. We have not received any ruling from the Court, and we will provide updates as this lawsuit works its way through the legal process.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge-Regulation Changes

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 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. It appears that there will be a 30-day comment period, but no public hearings. Friends and other organizations are closely following these developments and will take action at the appropriate time.

 

Kanuti and Selawik National Wildlife Refuges-Ambler Road

The proposed 211-mile long Ambler industrial road would skirt the north end of the Kanuti Refuge and cross streams feeding the Selawik Refuge. The Ambler Road is on an “unprecedented extreme fast track,” according to a BLM official. Trustees for Alaska assembled detailed, comprehensive comments on the DEIS that were submitted on behalf of numerous organizations, including Friends. We await information of the comments that were submitted and the issuance of a Final EIS. As with the many hurried and poorly supported BLM assaults on public lands, this process seems to be slowing down.




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