By Matt Bowser, Entomologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
In early June, I received multiple accounts of abundant black caterpillars stripping foliage along the Marsh Lake Trail on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Dark caterpillars were subsequently reported from Cooper Landing to Sterling to Kasilof. These larvae consumed leaves of aspen, highbush cranberry, birch, willows, roses, soapberry, and almost any other broad-leaved plant. Steve Swenson of the USDA Forest Service tentatively identified them as caterpillars of the battered sallow moth (Sunira verberata). This identification was confirmed when caterpillars my kids and I raised in canning jars eventually emerged as adults in July.
Battered sallow moth caterpillars finish off a leaf on Marsh Lake Trail on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Multiple years of defoliation can lead to tree and shrub mortality. Credit: Cynthia Detrow
We periodically see outbreaks of these caterpillars in southern Alaska. The last event was in 2017, when they were seen in numbers along the Richardson Highway and in the Mat-Su, Anchorage, and Kenai Peninsula. The largest recorded outbreak of battered sallow moth caterpillars happened during 2003–2006 on the Alaska Peninsula, when up to 20,000 acres of alders and willows were damaged annually. That outbreak, which may have included speckled green fruitworm moths, killed alders on mountain slopes over large areas. Deciduous trees and shrubs like alders and willows can usually withstand multiple years of their leaves being consumed without suffering lasting damage, so the severity of that event was notable.
Although the battered sallow moth naturally occurs from Alaska to central Canada and south to Colorado, there is no record of outbreaks of this species outside our state. I wonder why battered sallow moths become so abundant in Alaska but nowhere else. As with other forest caterpillars with periodic cycles of abundance, declines are likely caused mainly by diseases and parasites that pass through the populations. At least one other sallow moth species is attacked by short-tailed ichneumon wasps. The female wasp deposits an egg into a mature caterpillar, and the developing wasp larva will eventually kill its host during the moth’s pupa stage.
A Forest Service report links the 2003–2006 outbreak to higher than normal temperatures, but there’s not enough information yet to explain why higher temperatures might lead to increased populations. In related moths, outbreaks are often terminated by “zombie viruses” that rapidly sweep through dense caterpillar populations. The virus alters the caterpillars’ behavior, causing them to stop feeding and climb to the tops of trees. There the caterpillars die and disintegrate, spreading virus particles over the foliage below, where they can be eaten by other caterpillars. In some species the infected cadavers become attractive to other caterpillars, which cannibalize them and then become “zombie caterpillars” themselves.
An adult battered sallow moth that emerged from caterpillars raised by Matt Bowser (Kenai Refuge entomologist) and his kids this summer. The caterpillars were provided by Dan Thompson (ADF&G biologist)
Adult battered sallow moths began emerging in late July, continuing into this fall when they presumably lay eggs. The life history of this species has not been worked out, so we do not know when the eggs hatch and larvae begin feeding. The larvae may hatch in the fall, feed and grow some, then overwinter as small caterpillars. Alternatively, the eggs may hatch in early spring. We do know that the caterpillars are out by the beginning of June.
I will pay attention to what happens on the Kenai Refuge this year and next. In general, we would expect trees and shrubs to recover quite well from this year’s damage unless there are high numbers of battered sallow moth caterpillars consuming leaves for multiple years. It’s also possible that other defoliators, like the recently introduced green alder sawfly, may have additive effects on mortality events, an increasing problem as nonnative insects and a warming climate collide.
Want to “Live Your Wild” in a refuge cabin? Kodiak, Kenai and Tetlin all have public use cabins and Kodiak just added a new one. There are now nine public use cabins scattered across the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The most recent addition to the cabin system came “online” in September, and graces a serene site along the Chief Cove shoreline.
Since all of Kodiak’s cabins are remotely located, the logistics were a bit more involved to get construction crew and materials on-site. Success was enhanced by all of the pre-planning and preparations that took place prior to leaving the refuge headquarters. In most years, support could also be provided by refuge pilots, but this year because of COVID-19 concerns, gear and personnel transportation depended entirely on using the refuge vessel Ursa Major II.
We have maintenance workers Danny Hernandez, Darrel Fox, and Kyle Coleman to thank for their efforts and expertise in building the Chief Cove cabin over two weeks in early September. The construction crew is happy that their work will allow increased access to and appreciation of refuge lands.
The previously established cabins are in Blue Fox, Deadman, and Viekoda bays, North Frazer, South Frazer, and Uganik lakes, Uganik Island, and Little River. Each cabin allows visitors to spend extended time exploring the beautiful and breath-taking Kodiak NWR lands and wildlife. While the cabins are sturdy, nicely appointed, and comfortable, they will, no doubt, also serve as safe shelters from the elements. All are priced at $45/night, and all have bunk beds to accommodate 4 people (except the Deadman Bay cabin that accommodates 8).
To browse refuge public use cabins and what they have to offer or reserve a cabin follow these links for Kenai and Kodiak on recreation.gov and this link to the refuge website for information on Tetlin’s. All refuge cabins are very popular so plan ahead.
Melanie is a long time Homer resident and well connected in the Homer environmental education community. She will be able to hit the ground running on the Shorebird Festival. Melanie has this to say about her new job. “I am so excited to be working with all of the Friends! Sharing the natural wonders of our Refuges and the incredible birds who make the journey to our shores each year is so important for conservation of the same and the gifts that those give to each person who walks on this land, Alaska. I look forward to both sharing new ideas and implementing steps that will assure success and sustainability of Friends of Alaska National WIldlife Refuges.”
By David Raskin, Friends President
The proposed Kenai Refuge public use, hunting, and trapping regulations and the environmental assessment were released. We submitted comments for Friends (see link on our website). The extensive efforts of many conservation organizations, including Friends, helped to produce more than 35,000 comments to USFWS. Many of us also requested public hearings to rectify the flawed way in which the USFWS minimized the visibility of the release of this program and failed to schedule public hearings. We have been told that these requests are pending approval of a Federal Register notice drafted by the USFWS Alaska Regional Office that would extend the comment period and schedule public hearings. This is a highly political issue, so the bureaucrats in Washington, DC may not allow these to go forward. We will let everyone know what they decide. The Humane Society scientific poll of Alaska residents shows overwhelming opposition to the proposed regulation. This is a very important issue that not only affects the Kenai Refuge but could set undesirable precedents that would negatively impact other refuges.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Secretary of Interior issued the Record of Decision (ROD) on August 17. The next steps are a call for nominations for a lease sale and an actual lease sale. In their rush to sell leases before the November election, the Administration may shorten the call for nominations from the usual 30 days and proceed quickly to selling leases. The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign (ARDC) is closely monitoring developments.
On August 24, Trustees for Alaska filed suit in Anchorage Federal District Court on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Friends, and 11 other conservation organizations that challenge the Administration’s leasing plan. Read the press release here]. This was followed by a similar lawsuit by other conservation organizations that challenged the administration’s application of the 2017 federal tax overhaul that orders oil leasing in the wildlife refuge.
ARDC released the results of a national poll that showed overwhelming national opposition to the Administration’s plan to drill in the Refuge. The ARDC campaign’s highly successful meetings with executives of oil companies, insurance carriers, and financial institutions concerning the dangers of Arctic drilling and the financial risks of supporting such efforts. They have continued their pressure on Bank of America and oil and gas development companies to join the major financial institutions in refusing to fund oil development in the arctic.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Since the June 1, 2020 Federal District Court decision nullified the proposed land exchange with King Cove, road proponents appealed to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court. Trustees for Alaska is handling their appeal, which used similar arguments that were soundly rejected by the district court. We expect the district court decision to be upheld and will be monitoring this closely. If the appeal fails, any new attempt to resurrect the road would require an act of Congress and a signature by the president. Trustees for Alaska and all of our conservation partners remain vigilant for any attempts by the Alaska delegation to have a rider added to other legislation.
We are following the progress of the federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups to stop this damaging road from being built. It would invade the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and have the potential to disrupt wildlife and habitat that could have major negative impacts on the national park and nearby wildlife refuges. We hope that the lawsuit will halt this costly and destructive project.
Army Corps of Engineers performed an unusual about-face, issuing a finding that the Pebble Project failed to provide satisfactory mitigation plans for the proposed mine. This unusual flip-flop b the Corps followed public statements by Donald Trump, Jr., Nick Ayers, former chief of staff to Vice president Pence, and other wealthy mine opponents. All are avid fishermen who want the Bristol Bay salmon protected from this destructive mine. The Corps gave the Pebble project 90 days to propose stream and wetland mitigation plans, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to put together such a plan because of lack of options.
By Mark Bertram, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
In recent years, you may have seen a Canada lynx, heard of a lynx sighting from a friend or read about one in your local newspaper. Lynx populations have been high in much of Alaska, so they have been out and about. That population high is fueled by snowshoe hares, the primary prey for lynx. Every decade or so, hare populations skyrocket and then crash. Lynx populations follow the same cycle as hares but lag by one or two years. Interestingly, this predator-prey cycle occurs in sync across boreal Alaska.
Dr. Knut Kielland, with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has studied this intimate predator-prey relationship since the 1990s. In 2014, he teamed up with Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge to examine a long-standing scientific theory that the peak of the 10-year hare cycle acts in a synchronous “traveling wave” across the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forest, similar to a rippling wave in a pond.
But just what is it that sets the wave in motion and carries it over thousands of miles through the boreal biome? Weather patterns have been suggested, perhaps related to cyclical sunspot activity, but these patterns are inconsistent. The most likely explanation is long distance movements by predators. Both lynx and great horned owls disperse over 700 miles in search of food. Predators moving great distances from food-poor to food-rich areas could explain these 10-year patterns across the landscape.
Photo by Lisa Hupp, FWS
Kanuti, Koyukuk, and Yukon Flats Refuges and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve have since partnered with Dr. Kielland and Tetlin Refuge to collectively examine lynx movements across the northwestern reaches of North America’s expansive boreal forest. Our goal is to identify which habitat characteristics are critical as dispersal corridors so land managers can maintain viable lynx populations across Alaska conservation units. To follow lynx movement, we capture lynx in walk-in live traps and attach a radio collar that records location every 4 hours. Every few days, the collars upload stored locations to a satellite, from which we can subsequently download data.
In the past four years, 163 lynx were captured and fitted with radio collars near Tok, Fort Yukon, Bettles, Galena and Wiseman, providing hundreds of thousands of locations. Some lynx stay close to home while others disperse in all directions over great distances (Figure 1). For instance, Tetlin Refuge biologists collared an adult male near Tok in 2017 that took a year-long sojourn through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, eventually settling west of Great Slave Lake, 2,100 miles away! In February 2019, another adult male was collared near Bettles. That April, he headed northwest 550 miles through the Brooks Range to the Chukchi Sea coast near Icy Cape. In May, he beachcombed south for 200 miles, double-backed along the North Slope for 500 miles to the Dalton Highway at the Sagavanirktok River, and then meandered southwest through the Brooks Range. Since October 2019, he has taken a respite in a secluded stretch of the Killik River headwaters.
Movements of 163 telemetered Canada lynx across Alaska and northwestern Canada, 2018-2020
We have recorded long distance dispersals for both young and old, male and female, with daily travel averaging 10 miles and up to 27 miles per day! There appear to be no natural barriers to movement as lynx have trekked across the Brooks and Alaska ranges, and the Wrangell, Cassier and Mackenzie mountains while crossing the formidable waters of the Yukon, Tanana, Porcupine, Copper, Kuskokwim and Mackenzie rivers. Collectively, this collared sample of Alaska lynx from four refuges and one park have traveled from the Chukchi Sea to British Columbia to the North Slope to the Yukon Delta, traversing through 20 conservation areas thus far.
Hare populations are now decreasing across Alaska. In response, we expect more collared lynx will disperse in search of food across the landscape. As more than 1,000 lynx locations are downloaded daily, university, refuge and park biologists will look closely at these dispersal movement patterns in search of terrain that dispersing lynx prefer. Identifying landscape corridors that link conservation units in Alaska and Canada will prove valuable in future land use planning.
Want to learn more and see more stunning lynx photos? Author Mark Bertram will be our speaker at our October membership meeting, October 20 at 5 p.m. on zoom. Put it on your calendar and watch next month’s newsletter and our web site meetings page for the zoom link.
Long time Friends President and Advocacy Chair David Raskin celebrated his 85th birthday last week and his 61st Anniversary with his wife Marga. It is timely to reflect on his long involvement with Friends and the conservation struggle.
David came to conservation through fishing. He developed his love of the outdoors by fishing with his dad as soon as he was big enough to hold a pole. Decades later, when he was a professor at the University of Utah, it was fishing that brought him to his first conservation fight. Hiking out after a great day of fly fishing for brown trout on Rock Creek in the Uinta Mountains, he encountered a stranger who remarked, “Enjoy it while you can because they are going to dewater that river.” That’s when he learned about the Central Utah Project Plan to dewater all the trout streams on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains and transfer the water to develop desert agriculture. David jumped into the battle against the Bureau of Reclamation plans as conservation chair for the Sierra Club. This fight lasted years and some rivers were lost but many saved. Although a dam was built on Rock Creek, this was the last proposed inter basin transfer of water in the country.
Meanwhile, Marga challenged the 5 coal power plants proposed for southern Utah’s red rock country, playing a major role in stopping the infamous Kaiparowitts Power Plant Project. Both Raskins worked with the Escalante Wilderness Committee that helped to establish Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
A three-month camping trip brought the Raskins to Alaska in 1975, and David bragged that they spent all but two nights sleeping out. When they arrived in Homer and lookied down on Kachemak Bay, David exclaimed “Brigham Young was wrong. This is the place”. They promptly bought land in Homer, but it was 20 years later before David could retire from the University and build their home overlooking the bay.
David’s first involvement in Alaska conservation was as Board President of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. A chance meeting with Evan Hirsche, then head of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, was his first exposure to wildlife refuges. David was invited to attend the organizing meeting of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges in November of 2005 at the Kenai Refuge. At that meeting, he was chosen as our first president. Except for two years, David has served as president and advocacy chair ever since.
For someone who knew little about refuges prior to that meeting, David jumped in with his usual enthusiasm. He says the best way to learn refuges is to visit them. He has visited 6 of the 16 refuges, including 16 days on the Alaska Maritime’s research vessel the Tiglax, rowing a raft on the Canning River in the Arctic Refuge on a week long trash cleanup, and eradicating invasive plants at Izembek. He has testified before Congress several times on behalf of refuges, written most of our position letters on Environmental Statements and federal actions and formed strong working relationships with other Alaska conservation organizations. David has waged many conservation battles for Friends of which he thinks Izembek has been the most gratifying. That fight to protect the Izembek Wilderness and globally significant eel grass beds from road development has gone on his entire tenure with Friends. The recent court decision that preserved the Izembek Refuge was a sweet victory, although it may not be the last word.
Is David slowing down? Well, he just decided to quit the contract work he has done for 50 years. When I called him about this article, he was busy working in the engine room of his 36-foot boat. He was thinking of selling it but decided he would miss the water so much that he is repairing it instead. He just churned out five pages of thoughtful and technical comments as the Friends response to the proposed Kenai Refuge regulations. I think we can expect to have his tenacious advocacy on behalf of National Wildlife Refuges for some time. Happy Birthday David, and Happy Anniversary Marga and David. Thank you so much for all your efforts on behalf of the wild and the beautiful.
By John Morton, retired USFWS wildlife biologist
Dr. Lew Coggins, the supervisory biologist at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, sent me an article he co-authored recently entitled Incorporating harvest–population diversity trade-offs into harvest policy analyses of salmon management in large river basins. The body of the paper was as technical as the title, so I called Lew to get more context about his research.
Like other Refuges in Alaska, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act mandated that Yukon Delta Refuge conserve natural diversity, but also provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents. In this case, Lew tells me, he initiated the study to help current and future refuge managers evaluate this trade-off and address the concern that current harvest levels based on escapement goals could be impacting the stock diversity of Chinook salmon in the Kuskokwim River.
Federal and local managers discuss Kuskokwim River fisheries management during a KYUK radio program
Chinook spawn in at least two-dozen tributaries of the main-stem Kuskokwim. Monitoring of harvest, escapement and age composition for Chinook has occurred since the mid-1970s with a focus on 13 stocks (Figure 1). Recent declines in Kuskokwim Chinook abundance have sharply reduced subsistence harvest, closed commercial fisheries, prompted widespread stakeholder concern about the future of subsistence, and led to disagreement among managers and stakeholders about appropriate management.
Spawning distribution of 13 Chinook populations in the Kuskokwim River basin for which spawner abundance estimates exist based on weir or aerial surveys
The Yukon Delta Refuge has helped host several workshops since 2015 with influential community members as well as USFWS and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists and fishery managers. These workshops, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, included discussion of existing and potential Kuskokwim Chinook fishery and biological objectives and alternative management actions associated with them. Lew and his colleagues developed a team that used these capacity building workshops to inform two other, more technical projects funded by the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative.
Capacity-building workshop with Kuskokwim River stakeholders in Aniak, Alaska
This research considered three contrasting harvest policies that emerged from the workshops: (1) the “MSY policy” maximizes potential harvest by setting a basin-wide escapement goal and target harvest to produce maximum sustained yield under equilibrium conditions; (2) the “subsistence policy” evaluates a fixed harvest where the harvest goal is equal to that required to meet minimum subsistence needs; and (3) the “conservation policy” maximizes yield from the system but only once biological risks of extirpation to the least productive populations are minimized. The current management policy seeks to ensure that the total number of Chinook making it to the spawning grounds fall within the range predicted to provide annual harvest greater than 100,000 to fully meet subsistence needs.
Using computer simulation that captured both biological and fishery dynamics, their study shows the trade-offs of these three alternative policies on harvest (a) and harvest stability (b), stock equity (c), and conservation (d). Figure 2 shows that the policy which focuses on MSY (1) provides the greatest harvest but poor stock equity and a chance that some populations may be extirpated. In contrast the subsistence policy (2) provides the smallest harvest but greatest harvest stability, whereas the conservation policy (3) provides a middle road with respect to harvest, less harvest stability, but good stock equity and protection. “The bottom-line”, as Lew explained to me, is that “under current levels of harvest and escapement goals, our modelling suggests the existing levels of stock diversity are protected.” This is precisely the kind of information that the Yukon Delta Refuge Manager needs to know.
Modeled trade-offs among three harvest policies: maximum sustained yield (1), subsistence (2), and conservation (3) to meet fishery (a: harvest and b: harvest stability), equity (c: proportion of population tributaries with spawner abundances that exceeded a tributary-specific spawner goal) and conservation (d: proportion of populations extirpated) objectives. Each bar is the median performance of a given policy over the last 20 years of each simulation
The larger significance of this study is that it scientifically addresses the trade-off between harvests and the protection of diversity, known as the “weak stock problem” in fisheries management. This problem can be acute in large river basins with low levels of management control, like the Kuskokwim, where fisheries for multiple species and stocks in the marine environment or lower river overlap both spatially and temporally. Doesn’t this sound like many of the salmon fisheries systems in Alaska?
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.