Open post

Moving forward, slowly. May Advocacy Report

By David Raskin, Friends Board President

Appointments to Department of the Interior (DOI) and the United States Fish and WIldlife Service (USFWS) are moving through the Senate very slowly. It is not clear how long it will take for nominations and confirmations of key personnel, including the Director of USFWS. We are particularly concerned about whether there will be an appointment of a Special Assistant for Alaska. If these processes drag on for too long, it may be difficult to achieve important conservation goals for Izembek, Arctic, and other Refuges.

Sturgeon Decision
The most recent action following the Supreme Court decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, 139 S. Ct. (1066) 2019 was the announcement by the State of Alaska concerning federal waters on the Kenai Peninsula, including the Kenai Refuge. Based on this ruling and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) Sec. 103, the State of Alaska asserted primary jurisdiction over navigable waters on federal lands in Alaska. They can apply for quiet title through the courts or to BLM for a disclaimer of interest. If they succeed, they will be able to manage navigable waterways in refuges and parks that might include many rivers and lakes and wild and scenic rivers. This would require a determination of which are navigable waters, which have never been clearly defined. This creates a frightening potential for access to mining, motorized recreation, and oil and gas development on refuge rivers, lakes, and lands. We need to work with DOI and refuge staff to minimize these potential impacts.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The moratorium on all oil and gas activities in the Arctic Refuge continues under President Biden’s executive order that directs the Interior Department to review the oil-leasing program for the Refuge, and “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” to do a new analysis of its potential environmental impacts. The Arctic Refuge Defense Coalition (ARDC) continues to monitor the impacts of President Biden’s Executive Order, including what it means for seismic exploration in the Refuge and the leasing program overall. In the meantime, the 60-day stay in litigation which was to end in mid-April has been extended until June 11. We are waiting for an announcement from BLM that they have denied or not acted upon the seismic application following the Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) not being acted upon. 

The lease holder 88 Energy may be planning to do directional drilling from the adjacent State land on which they hold a lease. The ARDC continues to put pressure on 88 Energy to halt their plans. We will watch for any news on threats to the Refuge.  

The potential damage to the Arctic Refuge by the recent claim by Kaktovik that they have an established right to use off-highway vehicles (OHV) for subsistence hunting in the Refuge is the subject of a year-long study under contract to USFWS to be completed by December 23, 2021. The study is gathering information to determine if there is a factual basis for their claim that there are established traditional uses of OHVs in the Refuge. In the meantime, the solicitor’s opinion issued under the prior administration determined that the Refuge is currently open to OHV uses for subsistence because no formal policy prohibits such uses. We are hopeful that Robert Anderson will be confirmed as DOI Solicitor and will re-examine that decision, which many believe was an incorrect interpretation to allow OHV use in the Refuge.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The Alaska FWS is working on the State of Alaska’s four revised applications to do summer work to support resubmitting their application to construct a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness. There is extreme political pressure to approve these permits for wetland delineations, endangered species, and cultural resources. The State plans to use helicopters to access the designated Wilderness, which could complicate the permit process and possibly result in litigation. If the process does proceed, it will likely take at least a year for the required NEPA process. The State also needs a Clean Water Act 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and is seeking other ANILCA temporary permits. There are also National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and other ANILCA permitting requirements that apply to this process. We hope that the new administration will ultimately rule that this latest assault on the Izembek Wilderness by the State and King Cove is not allowed under ANILCA. In the meantime, we await the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning the defendants’ appeal of our second successful lawsuit that stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. We are hopeful that the new administration will abandon the appeal.

Other Refuges
We have no no significant update on oil exploration on Doyon inholdings in the Yukon Flats Refuge, the Mulchatna caribou herd and possible predator control in Yukon Delta and Togiak Refuges, and the BLM Central Yukon Plan.


(pc: Becky Hutchinson)

Open post
Kenai Refuge grooms 10 KM of trails at Headquarters Lake. pc:Leah Esklin.USFWS

Changes! 2021 February Advocacy Report

By David Raskin, Friends Board President  
The last month has witnessed many developments and actions by the outgoing Trump Administration and the incoming Biden Administration, many good and some bad! The good news includes many replacements at the upper levels of the Department of the Interior(DOI) with the nomination of Representative Deborah Haaland to be Secretary of the Interior and the return of Cynthia Martinez as the Chief of Refuges for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).


Kenai Regulations
The Kenai Refuge survived the possible adoption of the revised regulations pushed by the outgoing DOI. The strategic submission by the Refuge of a “skinny version” of the proposed regulations that omitted the baiting of brown bears and the removal of the Refuge trapping regulations delayed the process long enough to prevent their adoption before the inauguration. Friends and other conservation organizations played a major role in helping to slow down and ultimately stop those destructive regulations. The remaining issue is the proposed restriction of firearms on the Kenai River corridor that the Court sent back for FWS to provide a basis for this aspect of the 2016 regulations that were unsuccessfully challenged by the State and Safari Clubs. That is being prepared for submission to the Court. This leaves the most important provisions of the 2016 Kenai regulations in place.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The great news was the executive order by the Biden administration on his first day in office that declared a moratorium on all oil and gas activities in the Arctic Refuge along with other areas. It was wonderful to see this as a headline event on Day 1. Kudos to the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign! The next step is for the Administration to explore avenues to nullify or buy back the leases that were bought by the Alaska AIDEA and two small companies. Meanwhile, U.S. Representatives Huffman and Senator Markey on February 4 introduced the Arctic Refuge Protection Act  that would provide Wilderness designation to the Coastal Plain, prevent oil, gas, or other development, and safeguard the subsistence rights of the Indigenous people.
The latest threat to the Arctic Refuge is the recent claim by people in Kaktovik that they can use off-highway vehicles (OHV) for subsistence hunting in the Refuge. They based their assertion on unsupported statements that there is an established traditional use of OHVs in the Refuge. Without any evidence to support their claim, the Trump era DOI Solicitor in Washington issued an opinion that Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) allows the Refuge to be open for such use in the absence of a contrary regulation or law to prevent it. This appears to be a forced and incorrect interpretation of the law and is being re-evaluated by the new administration. We are monitoring this situation as it develops. 

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
In the final days of the Trump administration, Interior Secretary Bernhardt overturned the FWS determination that the State of Alaska application to construct a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness was incomplete in major respects and could not be considered until they provide considerable information and correct serious deficiencies. Bernhardt arbitrarily overrode the requirements and ordered the FWS to proceed “expeditiously” with the approval process. However, the Biden Administration instituted a 60-day pause in all FWS permitting processes, which  allows a complete re-evaluation of the legal basis for the State’s theory that they are entitled to access to inholdings under ANILCA 1110(b). If the permit process does proceed, it will likely take at least a year for the required NEPA process. The State also needs a Clean Water Act 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and will seek other ANILCA temporary permits for site investigation. There are also National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and other ANILCA permitting requirements that apply to this process. We expect that the new administration will ultimately halt this latest assault by the State and King Cove on the Izembek Wilderness.

Central Yukon Management Plan
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has developed a Central Yukon Management plan that includes a vast amount of public land that borders seven Alaska National Wildlife Refuges in the northern and central areas of the state. BLM has released a Central Yukon Draft Resource Management Plan and Draft EIS that affects 56 million acres of public lands, which include 13.1 million acres of BLM-managed lands along the Dalton Highway and Central Yukon areas. Their proposed plan could open up many areas to mining and other developments that would negatively impact wildlife, habitat, and fisheries of many tributaries that flow into the Yukon River and several refuges. Comments are due by March 11, 2021.

Mulchatna Caribou
The latest development is the postponement of the Alaska Board of Game meeting that would consider the State’s desire to extend its current, unsuccessful predator control activities to federal lands within the refuges. We will be watching for any developments.

Open post

Insects Matter: Battered Sallow Moth Outbreak on the Kenai Refuge

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.

Open post

See a Refuge Cabin Trip in your Future? Kodiak has a New One

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 and this link to the refuge website for information on Tetlin’s.  All refuge cabins are very popular so plan ahead.

Open post

Friends Hire New Program Director

We are happy to announce that Melanie Dufour will be starting work for us this month as our part-time Program Director.  Melanie is replacing two part time employees, Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Coordinator Mallory Primm, who left for a full time job, and media specialist Chessie Sharp who has left the state.  Thank you Mallory and Chessie for your great work for Friends.  We are hoping that by combining the jobs, both Melanie will be better supported with more hours and Friends will have more of her attention.  It is a huge job attempting to manage the largest wildlife festival in the state and support 16 National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska with just a volunteer Board, a few committee members and a part time employee. 

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.”

Welcome Melanie!

Open post

Advocacy Report September 2020

By David Raskin, Friends President

Kenai Regulations

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.

Ambler Road

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.

Pebble Mine

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.

Open post

Tracking Lynx Across Alaska:  What have we learned?

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.

Open post

Refuges in the time of Covid 19; August Update

The uptick in covid cases and deaths in Alaska in the last month has kept Refuge Visitor Centers and offices closed and most employees working from home.  The campgrounds, trails, and land are open as they have always been.  All the trails that were closed on the Kenai Refuge due to fire damage from last summer’s Swan Lake Fire have now been repaired and reopened except for the Surprise Creek Trail.  Kenai Refuge continues to experience record visitation so please come prepared to be more self-sufficient as there are no campground hosts and fewer seasonal staff. 
Covid 19 has reached some of the villages in the Interior, SouthEast, SouthWest and Yukon Delta heightening concern about visits from outsiders.  Many villages have travel restrictions.  Check before you go.  If you are thinking of coming from outside Alaska, be aware that within the last two weeks travel restrictions have tightened for travel through Canada and for arrival in Alaska.  Check Canada and Alaska’s websites for the latest as this is a very fluid situation. 

Open post

Our Conservation Hero Turns 85

By: Poppy Benson

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. 

Open post

Striking a Balance Between Competing Mandates for Salmon on the Kuskokwim River

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?

Posts navigation

1 2 3