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.
The dynamic wetlands of Tetlin Refuge in Tok provided a stunning backdrop of sunshine and nesting trumpeter swans for the Hedrick’s 2 week volunteer opportunity. As Kenai based Friends of the Alaska Refuges, George and Susan assisted refuge biologists with the often muddy tasks of duck capturing and banding. Motoring across a Tetlin Passage lake, tromping in the mud and corralling ducks within an enclosure all provided fun and a terrific experience for learning about duck ID, habitat and the importance of the national duck banding program to support migration data.
I have lived in Alaska since 1982 and had never seen a wild polar bear until this year. Thanks to Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, I not only assisted with education and outreach efforts in 2019—but I also saw many wild polar bears!
In the last decade, the number of people visiting the village of Kaktovik (on the Arctic Ocean coast) to view polar bears has increased dramatically. This is due, in part, to the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. It is also due to the increasing number of polar bears in the Kaktovik area, especially during August, September, and October when they are drawn to barrier islands and beaches in search of food. Kaktovik (population less than 300) is surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which creates unique challenges and opportunities for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Alaska Native residents to manage increased tourism in this area. Visitors—up to 35 a day—travel here, usually in small tour groups that stay from 7 hours to 3+ days.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has one employee, Refuge Ranger Will Wiese, based in Kaktovik. He is assisted in his education and outreach efforts by one or two people who present information to visitors, answer questions, observe visitation, and estimate daily tourism numbers (among other tasks). These assistants are often members of the Student Conservation Association. Occasionally others are needed too—and this is why I was invited to travel to Kaktovik.
I was in Kaktovik August 23-September 5 and had an AMAZING experience!
Here are some highlights:
I saw my first polar within an hour of arrival.
I saw as many as 20+ polar bears in one day.
I interacted with visitors from all over the world, from Italy, Israel, and Brazil to Atlanta, Tucson, and Kotzebue.
I was in Kaktovik when villagers harvested two of the three bowhead whales they are allocated each year. I observed the excitement and great cultural significance these harvests bring to the community.
As an active birder, I was excited to see Snow Buntings and Greater White-fronted Geese throughout the village, Common and Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons in the lagoon, Sanderlings on the beach, hundreds of Snow Geese preparing to migrate, and lots more!
And here are a few things I learned: • Although some subpopulations of polar bears appear to be holding their own, the Southern
Beaufort subpopulation (found in this area) is declining.
Polar bears are coming ashore on the North Slope earlier, and in greater numbers, in recent
Late summer is a “lean” time of year for polar bears, and they are drawn to this area in search
Arctic Ocean sea ice was at its second-lowest extent in summer 2019; in August/September
sea ice was 300+ miles offshore. So polar bears that come ashore are stranded until shore
ice returns in late fall.
Kaktovik residents and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service continue the challenging “dance” of
allowing tourists in guided boats on the waters (which are managed by the Fish & Wildlife
Service) while providing respect for—and input from—local residents.
The people of Kaktovik were unfailingly kind to me as I walked around the village with my
binoculars and bear spray looking for birds.
Will is really good with boats and he really knows his bears and birds!
This was an AMAZING experience. And I learned early on that my travel expenses were paid by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges! Thank you, Friends, for making opportunities like this possible and for supporting—in many ways—our state’s National Wildlife Refuges!
I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of Camp Goonzhii earlier this fall. The annual Science and Culture camp was held at the school in Arctic Village in early September. For three days, the students and teachers at the school, the camp instructors, and members of the community shared activities and stories about the environment, traditional culture and the refuge.
The six instructors took turns filling in all the blocks in the school schedule, alternately doing activities with the different age groups. I led the session on Aquatic Macroinvertebrates, starting with a field trip to the stream by the school to see what we could get into our bug nets.
After our collected samples settled overnight, we observed and sorted what we found and talked about what the aquatic organisms needed to live, and what needed them, and their role in the river environment overall. The fast moving scuds and erratic water boatmen were by far the favorites!
Related activities included traditional fishing and how to build a fish trap and an art project where the students did invertebrate art based on what we saw in the stream. There were also class activities and games such as learning about lynx, soundscapes and plastic pollution.
A big thank you to Allyssa Morris and Katherine Monroe at USFWS for all the organizing, to the school for hosting us, and to Friends of AK Wildlife Refuges for sending folks out on these volunteer opportunities. The Friends group also supported a community dinner at the school.
There were a number of hugs from small people when school ended on Friday!
My name is Lindsay, and I’ve been working as an artist in residence with USFWS for four years. You have supported a few of my projects in the past, and I’m so grateful. Most recently, you reimbursed my airfare to and from Ft Yukon so that I could attend and assist Julie Mahler in her Culture Camp at 8-Mile for one week. I wanted to send a quick writeup on what was accomplished there, a few photos, and express my gratitude for your continued support for my work in Alaska.
Julie’s camp is 8 miles outside of Ft Yukon, located on a slough off the Porcupine River. This is what the backyard looks like 🙂
Recently, Julie’s cabin burned down, but this didn’t stop this intrepid woman from bringing 14 kids out to camp to learn, play, practice their Gwich’in culture, and enjoy the magnificent land. Here’s a shot of Julie in the outdoor kitchen where we cooked every meal every day:
The wood burning stove, made out of a split oil can, served as both the provider of food and a space for gathering.
We all camped in tents, and the elder who joined us to teach Gwich’in language and sewing to the kids, Freeda, stayed in a canvas tent with a wood burning stove. We all piled in there to do art and listen to stories on a particularly rainy day. Otherwise the kids were outside from morning to night, playing traditional Gwich’in games, building forts in the forest, swimming in the river, learning about the native plants, fishing, and more.
I even taught the kids (and the adults) yoga! Here’s a pic of Stella, the camp dog, enjoying her version of yoga too.
Julie taught them about some of the edible and medicinal plants that are found in the area on a nature hike, and the kids brought back specimens and learned how to draw them.
I brought a bunch of art supplies with me, and we did drawing every day. We stitched together a massive quilt of their drawings that showed their love for Culture Camp at 8 Mile!
I absolutely loved my time at 8-Mile. I learned so much from both the adults and the children and enjoyed sharing the skills that I can. Here’s to many more successful years of Culture Camp at 8-Mile. Thank you for your support!
It’s 85 degrees in Bethel, Alaska, and we’re sitting in the back of a hot van in June, banding tree swallows, getting pooped on by the birds, and getting bitten by mosquitoes. Thinking I would escape the sweltering Florida summer, I instead arrived in the middle of an Alaskan heat wave.Banding these beautiful, iridescent, freestyle-flying birds was a dream come true for this former Alaskan.I had the time of my life, and I couldn’t have been happier.
Traveling long distances, aerial insectivores (which includes tree swallows) have seen significant population declines.They are being monitored statewide and nationwide to determine if climate impacts, habitat loss, pollutants or pesticide usage has changed hatch timing, or insect abundance, which is the tree swallows’ main source of food.The Bethel project is the westernmost range of the tree swallow study in North America.
The birds migrate north in the summer, and have a short window of time to mate and hatch their chicks.The bird banding takes place during the mating season in June, and both the adults and chicks are banded.
In the initial stages, the adult birds are banded.This is done fairly quickly to ensure the adults return to feeding their young as soon as possible.Each bird is banded.The beak length, wingspan, weight and sex determination (male or female) is done within the span of a few minutes. Over the coming days as the chicks reach maturity, we start banding the chicks.At times the broods are large, sometimes up to 5 or 6 chicks.At the end of the two-week period, nearly all the birds in the 40 or so boxes had been banded.Information will be analyzed and sent to the Alaska Songbird Institute and its network of cooperators.
It is always exciting to capture a bird that has previously been banded.We came across several banded birds this year, and they were really happy occasions for us.
Citizen Science – The Education Component of the Tree Swallow Project
In order to encourage residents of Bethel, particularly youth, to get involved and learn more about their natural environment, USFWS partnered with the 4H Club to assemble the bird boxes that were distributed throughout town.Residents throughout town agreed to put boxes near their homes, where they could enjoy watching the swallows’ activities right in their own backyards.Children in particular were enthralled with the birds, and enjoyed watching us band them. The Boys and Girls club joined us one afternoon while we were banding the chicks, and the kids were fascinated. It was fun to have them around, and see and feel their enthusiasm.An important element of the project, their involvement helps generate interest in nature for the next generation.
Salmon Fishing on the Kuskokwim
One Saturday afternoon there was a fish opener on the Kuskokwim River, and it felt like the entire city of Bethel was out on a boat that day! The parking lot for the fishing boats was jam-packed with trailers and trucks.We were out on the water in mid-afternoon, and it was a productive and fun few hours.A net was put up, and we waited for a signal. The water started to bob around a couple of the buoys. In all, four Chinook (Kings), and a couple of Sockeye (Red) salmon were caught. A good day’s catch !! And a lot of fun.
The year before, I had the opportunity to visit a few Native fish camps along the river, and talk to Bethel residents about catching, cutting up salmon, and smoking the fish in the traditional way.We also discussed the shorter amount of time that residents were allowed to get on the water to fish, and the types of fish that were being rationed.What an incredible lifestyle. Family time out on the water, and delicious fresh fish cooking on the camp stoves. It was heartening to see salmon drying in the yards of the fish camps, with the knowledge that there would be fish to eat throughout the winter.
We were invited to have fresh salmon stew at one family’s camp, which was an honor, and truly memorable.Not to mention that the stew, cooked up with onions and vegetables, was delicious.
Museum and Gallery
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a small museum attached to the offices, and it is packed with wonderful information about fish migrations throughout the state, as well as specimens of various wildlife that inhabit the area.It’s well worth a visit.
Things I Enjoyed Doing Around Town
Many boardwalks meander throughout Bethel, and being on foot is a great way to see the town.There are lots of beautiful lakes and sloughs, all across town. Walking along the Kuskokwim River was very meditative.
There is a new, state-of-the-art swimming pool and sports complex, and it’s a fun way to spend an evening (or two).This particular Floridian wasn’t used to cold pool water any more, but the hot shower afterwards more than made up for it.
Bethel is not known for its Four-Star dining experiences, but regardless, there are lots of restaurants to choose from. (In an ironic twist, one cannot find fresh fish on the menu).
The Bethel Farmers Market, an organic farm, is open Wednesdays and Saturdays.Their homegrown strawberries, sweet and delicious, are to-die-for.Their potatoes are incredible- sweet, hearty, and firm.Their lettuces are wonderful too.
I was told by a coworker to go to the hospital for lunch.While initially a bit skeptical, I went anyway one afternoon and had a delicious caribou stew.
Saturday mornings, there is a birdwatching tour, leaving from the Fish and Wildlife Service office. On visits to the sloughs, we caught glimpses of a few songbirds and waterfowl.
Many thanks to Jason Sodergren and Betty Siegel of the Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, and Patrick Snow from the Yukon Kuskowkwim National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel.I hope our studies will be part of a larger body of research to help better understand the decline of bird populations and other species worldwide.
Event report filed by Poppy Benson, Friends Vice President
Art in the Arctic in its 4th year was a big hit once again drawing a younger and diverse crowd of 250 on March 7. Friends cosponsored this art show showcasing works highlighting the three northern refuges – Arctic, Yukon Flats, and Kanuti. This year’s theme was “Public Lands – Open to all Americans to Use and Enjoy“. Various works portrayed hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, river-floating, photography, sightseeing and other uses of public lands. Eight artists were selected to exhibit in the show which will be up for the entire month at the popular coffee house and art gallery, VENUE, located at 514 – 2nd Avenue Fairbanks, Alaska. Mediums ranged from wood carvings to oil to photography, fabric art, and large-scale watercolors. It was a lovely evening with great food, good messaging about the refuge system and high visibility for the three refuges. Featured artists included Lindsay Carron who has completed two Artist in Residence programs at the Arctic Refuge as well as spent time on the Yukon Delta Refuge. Special Tee shirts were created for the event – one Art in the Arctic Tee and one – Find Your Refuge Tee. Both are available for sale online and 10% of the proceeds go to Friends.
Fairbanks Friend Jeff Walters and Homer Friends Poppy Benson and Frank Cloyd were on hand to greet and orient attendees and recruit for Friends. Several new members signed up at this event and at the Alaska Bird Conference which was also held in Fairbanks earlier in the week. At the end of the week, plans were afoot for a face to face meeting of Fairbanks Friends during our April 16 monthly membership meeting. Contact Poppy Benson, firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
On the stunning, golden weekend of September 7, 14 Friends and 3 friends of Friends took part in the Kenai River Clean-up sponsored by the Alaska Fly Fishers , the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. About 60 people in all helped in the effort to clean beaches and roadsides around the Russian River Ferry. The Friends concentrated on Refuge beaches as everything downstream from the ferry is in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. We floated the river in two refuge rafts and a drift boat manned by Kenai Refuge staff. Along the way, particularly on the “combat fishing” beaches across from the ferry, we picked up loads of monofilament line, sinkers and hooks, all potentially deadly to wildlife and all likely to be swept downstream into the refuge.
Being on the river in such beautiful weather would have been reward enough but the Alaska Flyfishers know how to have fun. There was free food all day, door prizes, and three blue grass bands playing in the evening. We all camped right at the Russian River ferry where events centered around a big event tent with great silver salmon fishing right on our doorstep. On Sunday, we sponsored a hike on the Refuge’s Hidden Creek trail which leads to a sunny beach on Skilak Lake. We couldn’t keep our hands off of the high bush and low bush cranberries that lined the trail and several of us came home with bags full. And if all this wasn’t good enough, we recruited three new members, got an offer to speak at an Alaska Flyfishers meeting and bonded with Refuge staff members and our fellow Friends from Homer, Soldotna, Sterling and Anchorage. The Alaska Flyfishers want us to be a full partner next year and I think this should an annual event.
Field Report filed by Friends Member Christina Whiting
On a beautiful spring evening in May, a small group of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges members joined a handful of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employees aboard the FWS research vessel Tiglax on an overnight trip to visit the wild, remote Barren Islands. Located just 60 miles from Homer, between the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak, the Barren Islands are a part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and home to the largest seabird colony in the northern Gulf of Alaska. During this 24-hour trip, FWS employees installed bird cams on one of the islands, while Friends members rode a zodiac to another island and spent a couple of hours hiking across sand dunes, through tall grasses and up to elevation with 360 degree views of the surrounding rugged, surreal landscape.
Invited to join the ship’s crew and FWS staff to visit this seldom-visited area of the refuge, on what might typically be an evening and day of weather, we enjoyed calm seas, beautiful skies, spectacular views, tasty meals and lots of time interacting with crew and staff during this unique and special opportunity to learn about a FWS project and a little glimpse into life aboard the ship.
The r/v Tiglax, Aleut for Eagle, provides critical support for biological work, management programs, and village outreach and education. Thanks to Refuge Manager, Steve Delahanty and the ship’s crew for allowing us on board.
Joining Christina Whiting on the ship were Friends members, Brenda Dolma, James Dolma, Louise Ashmun, David Schroyer and Anthony Munter and FWS staff Arthur Kettle, Aaron Christ and Jaclyn Lucas.
(All photos by Christina Whiting; exception Bird Cam by Jaclyn Lucas)
It was my first time in Homer and a first-time experience for the shorebird migration in the Kenai area. I have to say, Homer is a great place to see shorebirds, moose, visit fun eateries and cafes as well as enjoy the phenomenal Islands & Ocean Visitors Center. The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival draws in a substantial number of people, with a town that can house you comfortably and provide lots of food and drink options. The event was well organized and I felt that the Keynote Speaker, Noah Stryker, gave a fabulous, comical and enticing talk encapsulating some unique and inspiring moments in his Global Big Year. For those really keen on birding, be sure to check their species board for updates on new or rare species sightings in the area. I had several lifer species including Eurasian Teal, which definitely bumped up the cool factor for our trip. Without the species list and where the bird was seen (at the Visitors Center) we probably would have missed this fun sighting. So, a big thank you to the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Committee in helping us collectively celebrate the wonder of shorebird migration in Alaska. Until next spring, Happy Birding!
Main photo: photo credit Nicholas Docken, Lisa Birding at Beluga lake; looking for the Eurasian Teal!
Bottom photo: photo credit Nicolas Docken Lisa giving her talk; Bears, Weather and Birds. Life in a remote Arctic field camp in Nunavut Canada.