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

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

Items of critical concern:

Proposed Changes would allow brown bear hunting over bait.   This has never been allowed for brown bears in the Refuge.  Hunters will be allowed to use human food to lure bears into bait stations up the Swanson River Road.  This affects visitor and oil field worker safety as only the largest bear to visit the bait station will be killed, leaving other bears to roam with their newly-acquired taste for doughnuts and cooking oil.

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

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

Other provisions of the Proposed Changes would allow bicycles, game carts, and ATVs on some roads and trails but these are less controversial.  However, allowing hunting with firearms along the Kenai and Russian Rivers from November 1 to May 1 seems ill-advised for public safety and would increase the take of watchable wildlife in this area. 

The conflict between State and Refuge wildlife management stems from the different mandates of the two agencies.  Federal laws and regulations require the Refuges to be managed for natural biodiversity and a balance of predators and prey.  The State mandate of maximum sustained yield of species such as moose and caribou is the justification for their predator control programs, especially killing bears and wolves. In contrast to the State, Refuges must consider user conflicts, such as trappers vs. hikers with dogs and hunters vs. wildlife viewers and recreationalists.

How You Can Learn More:

How You Can Help:

We need you to comment and share this information with your friends and any groups that you feel might be concerned through our Facebook posts or other means.  There will be no public meetings, and there has been scant public notice.  Comments must be submitted online or by mail by 7:59 pm Alaska Time on August 10.  Feel free to use our talking points but make comments based on your personal experiences and values.

Public Comments Processing

Attn: FWS-R7-NWRS-2017-0058

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

MS: JAO/1N, 5275

Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803

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

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Local Citizen Scientists Help Monitor Tree Swallows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Refuges in the Time of Covid-19:  July Update

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

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

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Tracking red-legged kittiwakes across the Bering Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advocacy Report June 2020

By: David Raskin, Friends President

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

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

We are still waiting for the Secretary of Interior to issue the Record of Decision (ROD). The biological issues and uncertainty of a successful lease sale may be causing rethinking at DOI. However, there has been no news to date.    

The ARDC campaign’s meetings with executives of oil companies and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts are now focused on pressuring Bank of America to join the other major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

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

Kenai Predator Control and Hunting Regulations

The proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations still have not been released, but we continue to expect them soon. Meanwhile the continuing intervention in the litigation by Friends and our conservation partners supports the effort to protect brown bears and reasonable hunting restrictions promulgated for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness in Alaska.

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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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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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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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