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Conserving the Whole Lifecycle of Salmon: Gravel to Gravel in Alaska

Tuesday, April 16, 5-6 pm AKDT

Presented by Boyd Blihovde
Senior Advisor for Conservation, USFWS Alaska

This presentation was recorded.  Watch below:

Salmon have been in trouble in western Alaska and for a long time.  The people of the rivers who depend on salmon for much of their food resources and cultural identity are hurting.  Boyd Blihovde, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new Gravel to Gravel Initiative, will share with us this situation and his hopes for what this new approach will bring.  Boyd, then manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge,  was in the thick of it in 2022 when salmon conservation discussions reached a peak in the villages of Western Alaska and beyond.  Protecting Pacific Salmon’s entire lifecycle (from the spawning grounds to the ocean, and back to the spawning grounds) was not a new concept.  

Yukon River smokehouse.  Putting up salmon for the winter.  pc  S. Zuray

However, during several hearings and listening sessions with villages and tribes, it became clear that rebuilding salmon runs across Alaska was critical for indigenous people and other rural subsistence users. Leadership from the Department of Interior heard this message from the Tribes and responded with Gravel to Gravel.  It is one of nine “Keystone Initiatives” in the United States that are being prioritized by the Department of Interior to focus agency attention and resources on priority conservation issues. The primary goal of Gravel to Gravel is, through tribal engagement and participation, to restore salmon streams and ensure food security to subsistence users within the lower-Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim region of Alaska and into Canada.   However, Boyd added that “we hope our efforts just bring back salmon numbers for everyone and all users.”  Our vision is: “With Tribes centered, we unite to care for salmon, from gravel to gravel.

Fish drying racks and fishing boats are a key part of life in the salmon dependent villages of western Alaska pc USFWS

Bio: Boyd Blihovde is the Senior Advisor for Conservation at the USFWS Regional Office in Anchorage. He was the Refuge Manager at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge based in Bethel, Alaska, from 2020 to August 2023. Prior to moving to Alaska, Boyd was the Refuge Manager at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, located in Los Fresnos, Texas.  He began his Service experience in 1989 as a GS-3, Youth Conservation Corp member at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge eventually moving on to the University of Central Florida, receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology.  Boyd studied and researched sea turtles on Archie Carr Refuge Canaveral National Seashore, and Puerto Rico and conducted research and wrote his thesis on the terrestrial behavior and site fidelity of gopher frogs.

More recently, Boyd and his wife Gisela have focused more attention on their twins (Ava and Taylor). Boyd writes “The kids have been a lot of fun and have changed our focus from work and self to family and fun.”

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April Advocacy Report

by Friends Advocacy Committee

Out of Control Predator Control Imperils Refuge Wildlife

The mission of Friends is to support the 16 national wildlife refuges, which of course includes advocating for the wildlife that make these refuges their home. We are extremely concerned by the current predator control actions of the State of Alaska on state lands, which directly impacts adjacent federal lands and the animals that live on and migrate through wildlife refuges. 

Last year, the Alaska Board of Game expanded a plan for predator control in game units adjacent to Togiak and Yukon Delta national wildlife refuges to include wolves and both brown and black bears. The Mulchatna Intensive Management Operational Plan was developed in response to a very real problem: the collapse of the Mulchatna caribou herd.  It should be noted that the decline of the Mulchatna herd has continued despite the killing of over 450 wolves for predator control. Biologists are clear that the cause of the caribou population collapse is much more complex than the predator-prey dynamic and in fact, studies suggest a stronger link to forage quality and quantity resulting in lower pregnancy rates and higher caribou calf mortality.  These issues are compounded by higher incidence of brucellosis, causing higher abortions and stillbirth rates.  Despite these facts, an expanded predator control plan was implemented in 2023 with a plan to kill an estimated 15-20 brown bears. 

Sadly, in just the first year of the plan, 94 brown bears, including several year-old cubs and 11 younger still-nursing cubs, were killed.  This represents an estimated 74% of the brown bear population in the plan area, and significantly more than the planned take of 15-20 bears. In addition, five black bears and five wolves were killed.  While the control program may not have taken place on the refuges proper, bears don’t know boundaries and roam widely so it’s very likely that bears of Togiak and possibly Yukon Delta refuges were killed during this 17-day killing spree. 

In an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News on August `14, 2023, 34 retired Alaska wildlife managers and scientists including several of our members said they did not believe the Mulchatna predator control decision was underpinned by the best available science, nor was it adequately vetted with the public prior to implementation.

This expanded predator control plan is scheduled to continue through 2028. The wildlife of Alaska is its most precious resource and this indiscriminate killing can’t be allowed to continue. 

We urgently ask our members who are Alaska residents to contact your state representatives and

     1) express your outrage that the implementation of the Intensive Management plan for Caribou Units 9B, 17, 18, 19A and 19B has resulted in the deaths of nearly 4 times the projected number of bears in the plan and that the Board of Game should scale back the plan accordingly and:

     2) that Legislators ensure new members better represent the diverse interests of Alaskans and wildlife as the current Board of Game (BOG) is heavily weighted to hunting and trapping interests (the Governor appoints and Legislators approve all BOG members).  

You can read the profiles of the Board of Game members here.  There are no working biologists on the Board of Game. The opportunity to remedy this situation could lie with the two members of the BOG whose terms are up this June.  You can also express your concerns to Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang or ADFG Director of Wildlife Conservation Ryan Scott regarding the problems with this specific Intensive Management plan.

We will continue to update you on this situation.

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Three Amazing Rivers of the Central Yukon Watershed with Refuge Manager David Zabriskie

Friends Membership Meeting
This event was held on Tuesday, March 19, 5-6 pm AKDT

Friends joined us at the following locations: 
– Watch Party at Alaska Maritime Refuge Visitor Center, 95 Sterling Hwy.

Soldotna – Watch Party at Kenai Refuge Visitor Center on Ski Hill Road

Anchorage– Watch Party at BP Energy Center, Spruce/Willow Room,1014 Energy Ct.

Three wildlife-rich refuges along the central Yukon River are named after the rivers that define them – Koyukuk, Innoko and Nowitna.  Ecologically speaking, these rivers are the heart and lifeblood of the three National Wildlife Refuges.   They are also the primary access to the refuges for the people of the central Yukon and beyond. Refuge Manager David Zabriskie who is the manager for all three refuges, will share with us his work to protect the Nowitna River, a National Wild and Scenic River, and more broadly the role all three of these rivers play in the lives of the wildlife and the people of the Central Yukon River Watershed.  For a preview of this beautiful river David will be sharing with you, check out this two minute video.
The Nowitna River with the Kokrine Hills in the background.  pc: USFWS

David Zabriskie’s Bio: After working as a U.S. Navy Aviation Electronics Technician for four years, David pursued his passion for conservation, completing a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife/forestry and began his Fish and Wildlife Service career through the Student Career Experience Program at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. From there, he gained valuable experience working in the diverse landscapes of Mississippi, remote Pacific Islands, Tennessee, Alaska, and Arizona before returning to Alaska to work in Galena as the Deputy Manager and now Refuge Manager.  

David Zabriskie on the Selawik Refuge

David’s travels have provided him with the opportunity to work with diverse partners and communities across the country on amazing rivers like the Tennessee River and Colorado River. He has also led the Alaska Region’s first Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Nowitna Wild and Scenic River. In his spare time, David’s interests in photography and herpetology often lead him to remote locations around the planet for new discoveries.

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March Advocacy Report

by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

Fish and Wildlife Service Funding Passed

Fish and Wildlife Service Funding Passed  and  Proposed Rule:  National Wildlife Refuge System; Biological Integrity, Diversity, and Environmental Health. Two big things regarding refuges have hit this week- news regarding federal funding for all refuges across the country, and our advocacy for a proposed rule change strengthening protections for biological integrity and diversity in the refuge system.  

Five months into the fiscal year, Congress finally passed a budget for the Department of the Interior last Friday night, and it was signed into law by the President on Saturday. This bill was not, however, great news for refuges. Friends  has lobbied for a significant budget increase for the Refuge System, for a near tripling of the current, ridiculously low budget that barely allows refuges to keep staff on the ground, never mind do the ground-breaking biological and scientific wildlife work the Refuge System is known for.

While funding for Alaska’s 16 refuges is still to be determined, we know that the National Wildlife Refuge System as a whole took a 14.5 million dollar cut, down about 2% from the previous year budget. This cut, combined with a 5.5% employee pay increase, stresses an already underfunded system of public lands. This dramatically underfunded system is at risk of being unable to accomplish its critical conservation mission.  

Sitting at just above $500 million in annual funding, Congress expects these monies to cover 570 units of the Refuge System across 95 million acres of land and 750 million acres of ocean. 80 million of the land acres are in Alaska, yet staffing and project shortages mean there are so few biologists and pilots that on-refuge research and wildlife surveys frequently do not happen.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently directed its staff to do a study of all refuge acres and come up with a realistic number for how much is actually needed to operate the Refuge System in a way that would maintain healthy lands and waters, robust wildlife populations, and recreational access for people. That number was $1.5 billion, triple the current funding. 

Senator Lisa Murkowski is the Ranking Member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior lands. She has the ability to assert her desire to see Alaska’s refuge lands funded. Her Anchorage office is (907) 271-3735. Friends are sure that if enough people call her office and ask for increased funding for Alaska’s refuges, she will follow through. 

Proposed Rule:  National Wildlife Refuge System; Biological Integrity, Diversity, and Environmental Health

Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges submitted comments in collaboration with other Alaska-based conservation groups in support of this proposed rule. We expressed our support for (1) policy updates to better protect wildlife species threatened by climate change, (2) a prohibition on predator control on refuges in Alaska and nationwide, and (3) a requirement for refuges to cooperate with and coordinate with tribal entities and local communities. You can read the entirety of our comments in the attached letter.  

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February Advocacy Report

by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

For the last few months, we’ve outlined the funding challenges facing wildlife refuges in Alaska. Congress is now four full months into the new fiscal year (FY2024 runs October 1, 2023-September 30, 2024) and has yet to pass a full-year funding bill. The chaos caused by a failure to ensure adequate and timely funding to government agencies means that refuges and regional offices don’t know if they will be able to afford to fill vacant positions or complete refuge projects. 

Some deputy positions at refuges across the state have been filled recently, including deputy managers at Koyukuk, Alaska Peninsula, Arctic, and Selawik National Wildlife Refuges, but many biology, visitor services, and other positions remain vacant. Congress needs to act soon to avoid a government shutdown in March. 

On a local refuge front, news is quiet. Refuge staff are working through a supplemental environmental impact statement at Izembek Refuge, and we don’t expect to see anything from that plan until the end of the year. We are watching a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Industrial and Development Export Authority (AIDEA) to challenge the dismissal of their leases in the Arctic Refuge.  We will be in touch with Friends members in the next month or two when that suit starts moving through the courts. 

And finally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has hired Karlin Itchoak, formerly with The Wilderness Society, as the new Chief of Refuges in Alaska. This position supervises all the refuge managers in Alaska.  We look forward to working with Karlin as he gets settled into his new role this week!

Thank you for your advocacy and your support for all of Alaska’s wildlife refuges!

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2/20/24 What We Think We Know: The Deep Past of the Ancient Unangan Aleut. With Archeologist and Author Debra Corbett

Tuesday, February 20, 5-6 pm AKT

Friends Membership Meeting, ALL welcome.
The Zoom Recording of this event can be viewed below.

We ALL thank you so much Debbie for sharing your experience and knowledge with ALL of us.  It was great! 

Since then, exploring and trying to understand the ancient human history of these islands has been an all-consuming passion.  Along the way I worked with amazing people and experienced transcendently beautiful land and seascapes. The past and old ways lie close to the surface if you listen. Ever so gradually we learned about the people, the culture and the rich history tied to this place.  I will talk about my experiences working in the islands for 30 years and hit some of the highlights of our research. 

Debbie Corbett photographing a site on Hawadax in 2001. pc WAAPP

For 9000 years people flourished in the Aleutian Archipelago, a 1000-mile chain of islands stretching from mainland America nearly to Asia.  The rich marine environment supported 40,000 people before the coming of the Russians compared to a scant 8000 today.  In spite of this long human history and complex and interesting social organizations of the ancient Unangax, very little archeological work was done in the Aleutians perhaps because of the remoteness or the weather.  Debbie’s work was pioneering, and she is considered the foremost Aleutian archaeologist today.  Most all of the Aleutians are in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  

Debbie’s hot-off-the-presses book that she coauthored with Diane Hanson, Culture and Archaeology of the Ancestral Unangax/Aleut of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, will be available for purchase and signing at the talk in Homer.  The book is available online from multiple sources. 

Biography by Debra Corbett

At age seven I decided I would be an archaeologist; no other option ever entered my mind.  I got my BA at the University of Arizona, and worked for a few years in Idaho and Arizona before heading north in 1983, to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  The job was investigating historic sites claimed by the newly created Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Native Corporations.

That summer BIA sent two crews to Adak Island.  Since I had actually been in a small boat, I was picked for one of the crews.  Of the 12 of us, ONE, not me, knew anything about the Aleutians and none of us had been there before.  My crew spent three months in a rat-infested cabin with an inflatable boat, in the Bay of Islands one of the most beautiful spots on earth.  I was completely enmeshed in the magic of the islands.

I worked for the BIA until 1989 then went on to get an MA in Fairbanks, studying–you guessed it–the Aleutian Islands.  One day my advisor approached me with a phone number on a scrap of paper and said “This crazy bird biologist in Kansas wants to find an Aleutian archaeologist.  Call him!” and my future was set.  After completing my degree, I went to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), largely because the agency manages the islands as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  Unusual for any agency, FWS allowed me to participate in a multi-year research project with the crazy biologist, Dr. Douglas Causey, and some of his colleagues.  From 1997-2003 we were the Western Aleutians Archaeological and Paleobiological Project (WAAPP).  Along the way we experienced the best and the worst the Aleutians have to offer, shipwreck, injury, laughter, frustration, fear, transcendent joy, and unbelievable archaeology.  

In December 2012 I discovered I was eligible for retirement and left the best job in the world so I could spend more time doing research and writing on the prehistory of the Aleutian Islands.  Long time friend and colleague Diane Hanson here at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) talked me into writing a book on the prehistory of the Aleutians Islands.  We finished that book and here I am, to tell you all about 30 years in the Best Place in Alaska

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January Advocacy Report

by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

With the holidays wrapped up, and Congress back in session, talk has returned to the budget and potential budget cuts. We as Friends can’t do much about whether or not Congress argues itself into a government shutdown, but we DO have the ability to advocate and lobby– yes, lobby– on behalf of wildlife refuges.

Two budget deadlines are upcoming. The first is January 19, includes four of the twelve appropriations subcommittees, but it does not include wildlife refuges. The second deadline is February 2, and includes the remaining eight subcommittees, such as the Interior Department and refuges. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed this week to a top-line budget number, or basically a cap of what can be spent government-wide this year. We have not seen an Interior-specific number yet. This top-line agreement is a good first step towards preventing a government shutdown, but it is no guarantee.

The biggest concern Friends have regarding the budget for the rest of this fiscal year (FY2024, which ends September 30) is that the House is determined to cut funding. Refuges are already badly understaffed and desperately in need of additional funding. The only way we can get more is to lobby for it. The House included a 10% cut to refuges in their FY2024 budget bill, which would hollow out the System and close dozens of refuges. The Refuge System did an examination of their 568 refuge units several years ago, and determined the true need of the Refuge System (nationwide, not just in Alaska) at $1.5 billion. Current funding is ⅓ of that– $541 million.

The best way you can help Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges in the next few weeks is to ask Senator Murkowski , Senator Sullivan , and Representative Peltola to keep refuge funding strong. Tell them a personal story about how important these refuges are to you and ask them to keep funding strong, at least equal to the current funding levels of $541 million. The links attached to each of their names will take you to the email form on their websites.

Thank you for your advocacy and your support for all of Alaska’s wildlife refuges!

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It Takes a Village: To Articulate a Moose!

by Lee Post

This year, Friends gave $1000 to help Innoko Refuge bring “boneman” Lee Post to McGrath to articulate a moose skeleton with the local school. Lee is well known for his work and has articulated a grey whale skeleton for the Kodiak Refuge Visitor Center and has done numerous other projects with parks, colleges, museums and schools.  

As a boneman, my fantasy was to fly to the interior village of McGrath and jump into working with local students walking them through the construction of a moose skeleton.  Not a free-standing skeleton, due to time constraints, and missing bones, but a “Moose on a Half-Shell”.  This is half a moose taking one side of the skeleton and fastening the bones to a plywood panel cut in the correct anatomical shape of a moose. In this way, students get to do an art and science installation and learn where and how all the bones fit. The finished skeleton could be outlined, mounted to a wall, and finished in a couple of days.

The reality of this morphed into, let’s have the bones fastened to three panels on a wheeled stand such that each panel can come off and be transported. This way the finished moose could be moved to various places around town. When I got there late on a Wednesday afternoon, the students had yet to see the bones, the stand was still being constructed, and there was only a day and a half before the weekend. The next day students came in waves. Group after group.  I tried to give them a quick introduction to bones and got them sorting the bone puzzle and drilling holes in the vertebrae. But no sooner did I get them really started when they had to leave and another group came in. I had hoped the oldest students would get enthused and come in for the weekend. They didn’t, and suddenly it was the weekend and we had two days to get the moose walking as I was scheduled to fly out on Monday.

Two super students, Eva Welch and Kierra Egrass, did the touch up painting of the repaired and the replacement bones of the “Moose on the Half-Shell”. pc: Lee Post

Over two long days, the village came together to get the project done.  John Gray, the local fix it guy, brought tools and parts and fancy fasteners and stayed to make jigs and slice the bones to fit flat on the panels. Tim Yoder, carpenter and Fish and Game employee, finished construction of a wonderful three panel stand. The upper half of the moose was cut out of the plywood in silhouette.  The skeleton got articulated in sections that fit onto the panels without overlapping such that the panels could be removed with the bones.  We learned a few things such as: a moose is a big animal, and old buried moose bones can be surprisingly delicate. We repaired many of the broken and chipped bones and broke a few more ourselves. The skull came broken in half and was coming apart. Clarence, a teacher, brought in a skull with antlers, but it was too big and heavy to use for this. John brought in another, younger skull that was a better fit. Kellie Peirce from the Innoko refuge, had saved replacement bones from a moose she harvested. We all met and heard from Ephrem and Angela Andrews how they found and collected the bones five years ago over a couple of rainy days from under the silt and sand of the river. It is still not clear to me what motivated them to work so hard in the river in the rain probing for bones under the water.

The whole school and some community members turned out to celebrate the completion of the moose articulation.  Bone finders Ephrem and Angela Andrews are in the back row under the moose ribs.  Boneman Lee Post is under the American flag and Innoko Visitor Services Manager, Kellie Peirce, is on the far left.

The project got finished, thanks to all.  It did take a village, starting with the collection of the bones by the Andrews and one person, Francis, from the Sally Jo Collins Museum in McGrath with a dream to do something with them. Kellie Peirce, Innoko Refuge Visitor Services Manager, applied for the funding, created partnerships and became the mother of the project from there to completion.  WELL DONE!

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December Advocacy Report

by  Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

Happy Holidays! With Congress scheduled to go into recess at the end of this week (December 15th), we are looking at a slow pace on Capitol Hill for the next month. 

On November 30th, a hearing was held in the House of Representatives on a bill introduced by Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and supported by both Senators Murkowski and Sullivan that would reinstate the oil development leases in the Arctic Refuge which the Biden Administration recently canceled. Members from the environmental community testified against such a bill, and while it is likely to pass the House, it will probably not be brought up in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The more critical issue happening right now for wildlife refuges is the defunding of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. The System has lost nearly $200 million in capacity over the last twelve years, and this loss of funding is eating away at the ability of refuge managers in Alaska to keep and hire staff. Most Alaska refuges have half the number of staff they had a decade ago, and when folks retire or change jobs, their positions are not filled. And without adequate staffing levels, it is extremely difficult to maintain the programs that benefit the communities in and around refuges.  

For example, Yukon Flats and Kanuti Refuges are likely going to be complexed under one management team. As staff retire or move to different jobs, their positions remain vacant or are being taken off the books. These remote refuges, 12.7 million acres total (larger than the state of Maryland), will only have a few staff members. Other refuges are losing biologists, there are not enough pilots, and visitor services staff are in short supply. These Refuge staff members bring environmental education programs to schools and the community and  biological expertise and research ability. The loss of pilots and budget for flights means that remaining staff are unable to access the vast majority of their off-road refuges and wildlife surveys become impossible. 

Congress is in a budget-slashing mood, but we can’t let them eliminate all management on refuges. Staffing levels are so low right now that Alaska’s refuges are functioning at a bare minimum, with visitor centers only open for a few hours per day and programs are getting canceled all the time. Any more cuts are going to close visitor centers and eliminate wildlife surveys that are, in some cases, decades old. The situation is dire.  

Senator Murkowski is the Ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that determines funding for the Refuge System. She can change this, if she wanted to. She responds to her constituents. Can you take a few minutes to write to her to ask her to increase funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System to add at least $100 million to current budget levels? Her office address in Anchorage is 510 L Street, Suite 600, Anchorage, AK 99501.

Thank you!

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