Muskox grazing near the airport in Nome. (Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome)Over the weekend, a hunter in Nome killed the first muskox since the Alaska Department of Fish & Game opened the hunt on August first.Tony Gorn, wildlife biologist for Fish & Game, said the department received a call about an animal in town and alerted the five permit holders in Unit 22(C) that a bull was available for harvest.“We responded to a musk ox that was close to town, and it was just a unique opportunity—now with the regulation change that we made—for the hunter to harvest this animal,” said Gorn. “The hunter became aware that it was there and went out and got it.”Gorn did not release the name of the hunter, but said the hunter used a shotgun to take the animal—a mature, lone bull—in lower Dry Creek. Some Nome residents have attributed much of the recent violence to one old bull, but Gorn said this musk ox wasn’t displaying aggressive behavior when it was killed.Kona, with 13 stitches in her backside, is resting up on a mattress outside Monica Gomez’s house in Nome. (Photo by Jenn Ruckel, KNOM – Nome)Four permit holders are still eligible for a muskox take until the season closes in mid-March. But Gorn said he’s skeptical about how effective the hunt will be in shifting the distribution of the herd.“It’s going to be very difficult to identify. With or without hunting, we’ve had muskox in the Nome area for several years and they come and they go all by themselves,” said Gorn. “It’s going to be very difficult to say we killed one muskox bull and now our problems are over, or we killed five muskox bulls and all our problems are over now.”While the hunt may be an opportunity to eliminate the immediate nuisance if permit holders target specific ‘problem bulls,’ Gorn said the true challenge is finding a long-term solution.“This idea—and I know there’s a lot of frustrated people in town but—this idea that Fish and Game can somehow create a muskox free zone around Nome—it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to do,” said Gorn.Gorn said keeping the herds completely out of Nome means having greater threats in town than they would face in the wild with their natural predators, like bears and wolves. For now, he said there’s no overnight fix to the muskox problem.Meanwhile, another dog is recovering after being gored by a muskox, this time on Anvil Mountain. Monica Gomez’s dog Kona is recovering from the attack that came late last week during a run on the iconic Nome hilltop.Gomez said her children and their friend Taylor McDaniel were taking the dog on a run when the dog ran into the fog. McDaniel said the kids piled into the truck to go looking for their pet.“About ten minutes later we heard yelping, and we were just honking, figuring she would come to the truck if she heard it,” said McDaniel. “About five minutes later, she came up to the truck limping with blood coming down her rear thigh.”Gomez said Kona got 13 stitches but seems to be recovering well. Now, she’s urging her children to take extra precautions since the muskox have been behaving unpredictably.
Elvi Gray-Jackson hugs First Lady. Photo:White HouseThe Municipality of Anchorage was honored at a White House ceremony today, as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, combating childhood obesity. Anchorage was one of 63 communities nationwide that met goals, like posting a healthy food guide at city buildings with food service, and offering school meal programs. But for one Anchorage Assemblywoman, the White House honor was up-close and personal.Download AudioIt’s almost like the White House has a crush on Alaska. First, President Barack Obama visits and gushes in social media about what a great time he had. Then, of the dozens of cities honored in the Let’s Move event at the White House, the person organizers chose to introduce the First Lady? Anchorage Assemblywoman and Vice Chair Elvi Gray-Jackson.“I’m not only honored to be here, but I’m absolutely thrilled,” Gray-Jackson said, in a three minute speech to about 150 attendees. She called Mrs. Obama an inspiration, and a “fierce and relentless advocate” for children.“It is my great honor and privilege to present to you, First Lady Michelle Obama!” Gray-Jackson said, as Obama walked on stage and gave her a hug.The first lady thanked Gray-Jackson by name, and then, Mrs. Obama essentially spread some love to the whole 49th state.“And thank you for hosting my husband. He has talked about his visit endlessly,” she said. She stressed the “endless” part, drawing laughter. “He says we’re going back, so I hope that me and the girls will come and visit. I hope so.”Gray-Jackson was already overjoyed.“It was so awesome. It was so awesome. I just admire that woman,” the Assemblywoman said.She said she hated to miss an Anchorage Assembly meeting to travel to the White House, but it was worth it. She and the First Lady had about 10 minutes together backstage.“She’s got charisma. She is unique,” Gray-Jackson said. Both women are about six feet tall, and, as it happens, both wore sleeveless ensembles to the event. “I’ve got pretty nice looking arms, too. And we’re both just about the same height. And she looks at me and she says, ‘Look at your arms!’ And we did an arm pose!”Gray-Jackson says she doesn’t know why she was chosen to give the intro. But she says if the Obamas do take an Alaska vacation, she’s already offered to show them around.
Scientists flock to the Aleutians every summer to study the islands’ rich wildlife, long history and active volcanoes.University of Kansas archeologist Dixie West with Herbert and Cleveland volcanoes in the background. Photo courtesy Kristen Nicolaysen.For the past two summers, an interdisciplinary team has visited the Islands of the Four Mountains, in the central Aleutians, to study how resilient the earliest settlers had to be to live there thousands of years ago.Among many finds this summer, archeologists dug up two slate ulus (crescent-shaped knives) on one of their digs on Chuginadak Island. They think the find means these ancient seafaring people were somehow trading or acquiring goods from as far as Kodiak, 700 miles away. There are no known sources of slate in the Aleutians.“We think the source of slate is from Kodiak,” archeologist Virginia Hatfield with the University of Kansas said. “We know people of Kodiak were using slate to make ulus.”With their steep shorelines, limited freshwater and rumbling volcanoes, the Islands of the Four Mountains can seem a harsh place for human habitation. But what seems harsh to modern humans—like cliff-lined shores where landing a boat would be difficult—could have provided an advantage in the distant past.“You can stand on those high cliffs and you can survey for game. You can survey for other people,” University of Kansas archeologist Dixie West said. “It just depends on your point of view.”The earliest Unangan (or Aleut) people had to be resilient to survive volcanoes, tsunamis, fierce storms and a changing climate. Researchers are attempting to piece together how quickly people returned to villages once they were buried in volcanic ash.Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska president Tom Robinson said his ancestors picked their village sites carefully, facing away from the open Pacific Ocean, to avoid at least one kind of threat.“If you notice, all of our village sites are predominantly on the Bering Sea side and therefore were protected from tsunamis,” he said.Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska president Tom Robinson. KUCB/John Ryan photoThe Aleut RevoltArcheologists this summer also turned up likely evidence of one of the pivotal moments in Aleutian history: the Aleut revolt in the Fox Islands and the Islands of the Four Mountains and Russian fur traders’ brutal response.“The Russians came back in 1764 and, according to ethnohistory, they destroyed all of the villages in the Islands of the Four Mountains,” Dixie West said. “In one archeological site, we have found beads, we’ve found iron, and we’ve found a musket ball.”“We won the first round and they came back,” Tom Robinson said, “and that was the turning point of our history of what else happened to us along the way.”The Islands of the Four Mountains are uninhabited today, but they had been home to early Unangan people for at least 7,000 to 9,000 years. They remain sacred to people throughout the Aleutian chain.“It’s a regional spiritual area that we hold dear to our heart,” Robinson said.He said he had not heard about the researchers digging into his people’s past until asked about it for this story.“This is the first we heard about it,” Robinson said. “I checked with my staff, and we haven’t been consulted.”“If I was to dig up their ancestors, they’d probably have a problem with it,” he said.Virginia Hatfield with the University of Kansas said researchers got written permission from the landowner, the Aleut Corporation, and met with Ounalashka Corporation officials in Unalaska. She said they tried to contact the Qawalangin Tribe as well as people in Nikolski, the closest surviving village to the archeological sites, but received no response. Researchers also gave presentations at the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska before they started their work last year.University of Kansas archeologist Dixie West with Herbert and Cleveland volcanoes in the background. Photo courtesy Kristen Nicolaysen.Difficult FieldworkDoing archeology or geology is tough in the Islands of the Four Mountains—and not just because of the remoteness or the weather or the risk of a volcano exploding. You can’t use radio-carbon dating to pinpoint when something happened in the past if there’s no carbon-containing material around.“In the Aleutians, there are no trees, no shrubs in that area, so it’s very difficult for us to figure out when a particular volcanic eruption happened or when a particular tsunami happened,” geologist Kirsten Nicolaysen with Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, said.Nicolaysen said archeologists and geologists working together can answer those questions. They can find where ash covers an ancient village’s garbage pile—filled with organic material—and piece together enough carbon to date an eruption.The scientists have had to be a little resilient themselves. Cleveland Volcano on Chuginadak Island exploded while they were approaching it by boat. The big volcano kept rumbling while they were working in its shadow.“At night, when we were sleeping in our tents, we could hear that volcano moaning and groaning,” Dixie West said.She said it was unnerving, but there were no problems.“We’d been around volcanoes enough doing the research that we do to know when we should run or when we should hunker down,” West said.Once they were camped on the island, a big earthquake struck.“We’d just finished dinner, and suddenly this earthquake starts happening. It was incredibly exciting,” geologist Nicolaysen said.She said they very quickly turned their attention to the steam plume rising from Mt. Cleveland.“It was crucial for us to know, was that earthquake affecting the volcano or related to the volcano because if so, we needed to respond to that very quickly,” Nicolaysen said.Quick communication by satellite phone with the Alaska Volcano Observatory revealed that no evacuation was needed: The quake was driven by plate tectonics, not by the volcano they were having dinner on. Nor did it cause any ocean tsunamis.“It was very long lasting where we were and actually caused water in ponds and the fuel in the fuel drums to seiche back and forth, to shake back and forth, and we could hear this,” she said. “Little pond tsunamis.”Aftershocks kept giving them some trouble. Nicolaysen said the researchers couldn’t even feel some of them directly, but they’d get dizzy.“Sometimes when I was on quite steep cliffs, trying to obtain our geologic samples,” she said. “That was a little strange, writing in my notebook, “Very dizzy, feeling sick. Time to go.”Last year, members of the same research team helped AVO put the first seismic monitoring instruments on Cleveland Volcano. Now the region can have better warnings when that volcano explodes, as it did this summer.Still, very little is known about the volcanoes of the Aleutians. Mt Carlisle, Mt. Tana and Mt. Herbert—the other three main volcanoes of the Islands of the Four Mountains—had never been studied before the summer of 2014, when the interdisciplinary research team arrived there, according to Nicolaysen.“This is completely undiscovered territory and very exciting science to do,” she said.This summer, AVO scientists put a dozen new sensors on Cleveland Volcano and the first instruments ever on Herbert and Carlisle.The Qawalangin Tribe continues to aim for resilience in the face of environmental threats of uncertain severity. In September, the tribe advertised to hire a climate change planning coordinator. The goal: to help the tribe adapt to a climate that is changing much more rapidly than it did in prehistoric times.
Download AudioThe Division of Insurance announced an agreement with insurer Moda Health Monday, that will allow the company to stay on the individual and group markets in Alaska. Division director Lori Wing-Heier says Moda’s CEO signed the consent agreement this weekend.“We worked very hard to get to this agreement, to protect consumers but also to get them back into the marketplace to take care of those who enjoy doing business with Moda,” she said. “To provide competition on the exchange and that the company doing business is solvent.”The agreement requires Moda to sell some assets to raise capital. The company will also have to establish a reserve account in Alaska with $15 million, to pay claims if Moda runs into financial trouble again.Late last month, Oregon and Alaska placed Moda under supervision and suspended the company from selling plans because of excessive operating losses.At that time, the company thought it would have to exit Alaska’s individual market. Jason Gootee is director of Alaska sales and service for Moda.“Our first thought on that was in order to remain financially sound it was going to be a necessary step we would have to take,” Gootee said. “But we were able to work out a deal with the regulators in Alaska and Oregon to maintain the individual market in those two states for at least the rest of 2016 which I think is certainly a win for consumers.”Gootee says it’s too soon to tell whether the company can continue on Alaska’s individual market for 2017. Moda is working with Premera Alaska on a plan to stabilize rates on the state’s individual market. That proposal will require legislative action.The open enrollment period for individual plans on healthcare.gov closed January 31st. Wing-Heier says she’s asking the federal government to open a two week special enrollment period to accommodate Alaskans who were unable to buy Moda plans.“We know there are people that had finished their enrollment and then got to a point where they could not pay or couldn’t finalize it,” she said. “And for those people who are kind of in a limbo, we’re hoping CMS will give us a two week window to… choose Moda as their insurer.”Wing-Heier says if Moda does not follow through on the consent agreement, Oregon, where Moda is based, will put the company into receivership.This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.The state answers a list of frequently asked questions about the Moda situation here.
Senators introduced four new bills Monday that would require local governments and schools to pay more for pensions, end two college scholarship programs, and cut the amount that municipalities receive in state funding.Download AudioSen. Pete Kelly speaks on the floor of the Alaska Senate, (Stock photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)Towns and schools are concerned about the effect on taxes and services.The first measure, Senate Bill 207, would shift much of the costs of teacher pensions from the state onto local school districts.Fairbanks Republican Senator Pete Kelly, who supports the change, said he wants to ease the impact on districts.“Obviously, the state is in pretty difficult times,” Kelly said. “There are some things we simply can’t do anymore. And it’s important though, that as we recognize those things the state can’t afford to do anymore, that we mitigate the impact on communities and provide as many shock absorbers as we can.”Association of Alaska Schools Boards Executive Director Norm Wooten said districts fear the effect of the higher costs.“My members are very concerned,” said Wooten. “There’s some short term and some uncomfortableness about this. The short term is that districts have already issued teacher contracts. They’re putting the final touches on their budgets and they still don’t know not only what they’re not going to get, but what they’re going to lose.”In the long term, Wooten said districts could cut programs and lay off staff.The increased costs would be offset in at least the first year by the second measure, Senate Bill 208. This would phase out two college funding programs: Alaska Performance Scholarships for students with high grades and test scores and Alaska Education Grants for students with financial need.These programs would be wound down by 2022. A portion of the fund that paid for these programs would be used to lower school districts’ pension contributions.The third piece of legislation, Senate Bill 209, would also increase local pnsion contributions. Municipal and other government bodies that contribute to the Public Employees’ Retirement System would have to pay more. They currently pay 22 percent of salaries, but would have to pay 24.5 percent starting in July and 26.5 percent by 2018.Anchorage Democratic Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a former legislator, said the bill was poorly thought out and didn’t include municipal perspectives.“When they say that everything’s been put on the table, that doesn’t mean you’re carving up the, the municipalities and treating them like cash cows, and that’s what they’re trying to do right now,” Berkowitz said. “That’s not acceptable … This has not been a process that has included municipal governments. It’s not been a process that’s included taxpayers. It has been a group of legislators operating in a closed room, without adequate input, just trying to solve a math problem.”The fourth bill, Senate Bill 210, would cut the total amount the state pays to communities to offset their costs in half. But it would increase the minimum payments, which would shift payments from larger municipalities to small and rural communities.Bethel Senator Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat who caucuses with the majority, said the state can’t afford to continue the program in its present form.Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, during a Senate Finance Committee meeting, March 29, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray, 360 North)“Assisting those communities – primarily smaller communities throughout the state of Alaska that rely heavily upon the program, that may have 80, 90, 95 percent of their revenues to continue to keep their doors open,” said Hoffman. Whereas larger communities, they may only — this program may be less than 5 percent of their revenue and can make – probably make better adjustments.”The last bill also eliminates state mandates that towns provide seniors and disabled veterans with property tax exemptions. However, removing the mandated exemptions also increases the amount that school districts are expected to contribute to their costs.Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Kathie Wasserman said the cost of this change could be large. And it would be in addition to the shift in pension funding – which she estimates at more than a billion dollars over the next 25 years.“All I know is that it’s going to be a huge impact,” Wasserman said. “You can’t hand a state bill over to the municipalities, lower the amount of money that they get, and then hand them an extra bill, and not have a huge impact.”Eagle River Republican Senator Anna MacKinnon said the bills were a necessary step to help close a state deficit of more than four billion dollars. The four bills could provide about a hundred million, although the fiscal analysis must be completed.“This suite of bills is attempting to address, you know, a huge hole in Alaska’s budget, and it is a suite of bills that work together and there is criticism to be had for any of the bills individually,” said MacKinnon. “But our goal is taken as a whole, that these bills will provide an opportunity for communities to understand the magnitude of the problem that the state is facing.”MacKinnon and Kelly co-chair the Senate Finance Committee. The committee plans to announce opportunities for public testimony on the four bills.
Protesters camp at Standing Rock. (Photo by Amanda Frank/KUAC)A delegation, made up of indigenous women from across Alaska, is at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to support opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.Faith Gemmill, originally of Arctic Village, said that she couldn’t watch what was happening in Standing Rock from Alaska and felt she needed to support the water protectors.“Every nation from Alaska is represented with our women,” Gemmill said.Gemmill and other organizers said they decided to take a delegation of women to Standing Rock because women often take the front line of environmental issues and are the backbone of the communities and their struggles.“Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunties, daughters; we have a very critical role as caretakers,” Gemmill said.Members of the group were chosen because of the skills each brings to the camp. Some are spiritual leaders and healers. Gemmill said some will work in the medical tents or in the kitchen. Some might even be in strategy sessions and on the front lines of the conflict.“We’re going to be doing whatever is needed to relieve the people who have been here,” Gemmill said.Some of the protectors have been at Standing Rock for several months and Gemmill said they are hoping to help relieve those who have been camped out.“Any kind of fights like this, you need reinforcements behind you to come in and take the line when you’re tired,” Gemmill said.Gemmill also said this movement is important to Alaskans.“The ground is literally melting beneath us; the permafrost is melting,” she said. “We have communities that are looking at being relocated – they need to be relocated like right now and no one is helping these communities.”Gemmill works with the non-profit Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Land, based in Anchorage.REDOIL is a sister organization of Indigenous Environmental Network and it also works with Indigenous Peoples Power Project. Gemmill said the group is working with many ally organizations who help with training and direct actions on the front line.“So that’s the capacity I’m here, but mainly as mom, grandmother,” Gemmill said.
A pallet of raw surimi at UniSea’s plant in Unalaska. UniSea planned to export about 500 tons of raw surimi to Russia this season. (Photo by Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)When people think of Alaska seafood, salmon and halibut come to mind. But the state also produces a lesser-known fish product sought after all around the world: surimi, the base for imitation crab.Listen nowNow the guy who helped establish surimi in America — more than 30 years ago — is on a mission to improve how it’s made.Tyre Lanier is a food scientist at at North Carolina State University, where he’s been since the 1970s. He has a background in the science of hot dogs.So, working on seafood initially was a bit of a stretch for him.“I started off trying to make hot dogs out of fish believe it or not,” Lanier said. “Then I heard about surimi.”Or as Lanier refers to it, “the hot dog of sea.”For thousands of years, surimi seafood has been part of Japanese cuisine. Sometimes referred to as kamaboko, it comes in a variety of flavors and shapes.You probably know it as the fake crab meat in most California rolls. But until just a few decades ago, you could scarcely find surimi seafood in the United States.Lanier says there were a few reasons why early 1980s America seemed ready to adopt a version of the food. One of them was the king crab fishery in Kodiak was on the verge of collapse, and the food industry was in a race to supply an alternative.“So they said, ‘OK, here’s this imitation that looks very much and tastes very much like king crab. We can’t get king crab. Let’s bring this stuff from Japan and flood it into that market.’” Lanier said.There was also huge potential to produce surimi domestically from pollock in the Bering Sea. But first, the state’s fisheries would have to come on board. Lanier visited Alaska to talk about the possibility.Surimi didn’t get a warm reception.Tyre Lanier says fish bologna also didn’t work out. So he turned to surimi. (Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University)“It was basically like ‘what is that stuff?’ and ‘we’ll never do that in the United States’,” Lanier said. “And I knew that it was going to be done here because we were buying all this imitation crab from Japan and it was taking off like a rocket.”Eventually though, companies came around to Lanier’s way of thinking. And the first surimi processor opened in Kodiak in 1985. Lanier credits the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation for taking an early lead.And now, decades later, Lanier has another big idea for Alaska. He says surimi plants are losing profits down the drain, literally. Around 40 percent of the soluble protein — from the surimi making process — winds up in the water.“Whether it’s good or bad for the environment, I’m not qualified to say,” Lanier said. “But whether or not it’s good for food waste? It’s terrible.”Lanier says that wasted product could account for upwards of $60 million dollars of savings each year.Then, there’s the impact on the ocean. According to Alaska Sea Grant, the surimi wash water can form an “oxygen-depleted goo” and “smother marine life.”“You can look at Google Earth and look down on the vicinity of any surimi plant, and some of these are quite large, and on a given day you’ll see a big white cloud in the water,” Lanier said.So, to reduce waste, he helped develop a technology to recapture the solids.“Imagine making cheese. You make cheese and you get curds and whey, like Little Miss Muffet” Lanier said. “Well, we’re doing the same thing. We basically have surimi whey.”And that “surimi whey” can be turned into a lower-grade surimi product. Lanier says the water that filters into the ocean would run crystal clear.Trident Seafoods has already shown interest.Lanier thinks, for surimi producers, this technology is a win-win.“It solves many problems and it creates much more product for them,” Lanier said. “For the same amount of fish, the same amount of money they’ve spent catching those fish, they can now make more product.”Lanier doesn’t think America’s love affair with imitation crab will go away anytime soon, and now there’s a more efficient way of getting it to market.
The partial government shutdown continues — 19 days and counting. It’s affecting hundreds of U.S. Forest Service workers all over Southeast Alaska. In Petersburg, most of the 75 agency workers are furloughed.The lights are out for most of the Petersburg Ranger District. Interim District Ranger, Ted Sandhofer, is still reporting to work but he says he’s not allowed to talk to the media during the shutdown. And all Forest Service media offices are closed including at DC headquarters.“When we’re on furlough, we’re basically not doing any of the agency’s work,” said Ken Dinsmore of Sitka. He’s the Local 251 Union President for forestry workers in Alaska and has worked for the Forest Service for decades. He represents about 200 workers in Southeast along with others throughout the state. He says the furlough doesn’t just affect federal workers but also local economies.“Say, for example in Petersburg, 75 employees, here in Sitka, maybe 50 aren’t getting paid, you’re taking that revenue not only out of the employees hand but you’re taking it out of the community as well from what they might have spent,” Dinsmore said.The partial shutdown means workers considered essential are on the job without pay and non-essential workers aren’t working at all. Dinsmore says there are circumstances when some employees could get called back in to work but it would be on a limited basis.“Such as a timber sale that may be still active and needs to have the contract administered and payments made and collected, that sort of thing,” he said.For right now though it’s a wait and see for dozens of Petersburg workers. KFSK approached several of them for their thoughts on the furlough but most wouldn’t comment. A few did.“It’s really an uncertain time,” said Carin Christensen, a part-time employee whose husband also works for the Forest Service. “We don’t know when we’re going back to work, how it will happen, you know, how this will get resolved.”So far, her family has been okay financially but all of that depends on how long the shutdown lasts and if the government decides to pay workers back pay afterwards.The timing hasn’t been the worst. Winter is a low production time of year for the Forest Service. There is less field work outside and more paper work inside. But Christensen says workers are missing time to prepare for their next projects.“It’s a good time to plan, it’s a good time to do maps, it’s a good time to do any of the office work that you don’t have time to do during the summer,” she said.Another furloughed Petersburg Forest Service couple is Heath and Marina Whitacre. He’s a hydrologist and she’s a writer-editor.Heath says they hope the furlough doesn’t last too long and really impact their finances. But he says they’re trying not to let themselves get worked up about it because they can’t change anything.“There’s nothing we can do about the shutdown,” he said. “Just kind of letting go of that and stressing about something you can’t influence. That’s happening in Washington DC at an entirely different level. Locally, we can’t do anything about it.”He says the shutdown will affect science-based projects that include data collection like snow surveys. Marina says hiring seasonal workers for summertime field work will be backlogged.“We were supposed to have selections or working on it before a certain that’s already passed,” Marina said. “And I think that one week–the week we’ve been closed already–was a critical week for that.”The Whitacres went through a previous extended shutdown in 2013, which lasted for 16 days. They received back pay after that. Heath says some people don’t understand what it’s like to be furloughed when they call it a paid vacation for the feds.“That doesn’t feel good,” Heath said. “I want to give the people — the tax payers — their money’s worth. I want to be at work, working, if I’m getting paid. And so, that part of it doesn’t really sit well with me … but what am I going to do about that also?”Dinsmore has been through many furloughs in the past and Forest Service workers received back pay for the time they were off. But he says this time could be different.“I don’t see that as being any sort of a guarantee this time around,” Dinsmore said. “So, I just caution employees to not count on that.”For now, all they can do wait on decisions being made thousands of miles away in the country’s capital.As for the U.S. Coast Guard, they are not part of the furlough. All of Petersburg’s 27 Coast Guard employees are working without pay. They conduct search and rescue missions and aid navigation.
Canned goods on the shelf at the Southeast Alaska Food Bank in March 2015. (Photo by Kevin Reagan/ KTOO)As the partial government shutdown enters its second month, more people than usual are stopping by the food bank in Juneau.Darren Adams is the manager of Southeast Alaska Food Bank. He said the shutdown took a lot of people by surprise.“There have been some individuals who have told me they never thought they’d be in this position,” he said.On Monday he will open the food bank beyond its regular hours. Between noon and 4 p.m., he’s inviting federal workers to come by and take home up to 50 pounds of food. All they need to show is federal identification.Adams said the longer the shutdown lasts, the greater the need becomes.“A lot of people think, okay I can make a week’s worth of groceries stretch for ten days if I need to, but you can’t make a week’s worth of groceries stretch for a month,” he said.He added that since the shutdown began, he’s heard from more people in Juneau who want to volunteer their time — including federal workers on furlough.Adams said he will continue to open the food bank to federal workers every Monday until the government is reopened.
The two species of ice seals that were declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act are, so far, doing well with less sea ice.“We’re seeing fat seals,” said Lori Quakenbush, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic Marine Mammal Program. “They are reproducing earlier than they have in the past, which says they are getting enough nutrition at this point to grow quickly and become reproductive at an earlier age.”Quakenbush studies marine mammals and monitors their condition. She says that so far, the evidence indicates that ice seals are getting plenty of food.“We’re looking at stomachs and we’re seeing pretty similar diets to what they have done in the past. So we’re not seeing those big changes either. They’re still eating arctic cod; they’re still eating saffron cod,” Quakenbush said.First polar bears, then ringed and bearded seals were listed as threatened, even though they were not showing any population declines at the time. Bearded and ringed seals were listed because the Arctic was warming so fast that their ability to use sea ice to raise young would disappear by 2100, setting the stage for being endangered. Quakenbush is among the biologists watching for warning signs to show up in the seals.Along the North Slope coast, ice is forming a month later in the fall and disappearing earlier in the spring. Both ice seals in threatened status raise their young on the ice, but ringed seals have a unique behavior. They build snow caves above the ice to protect their pups from polar bears. It was thought that without thick ice for snow caves, ringed seal numbers would plummet, but now Quakenbush is not so sure. She points to populations that are now making do without snow caves in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk.“Its far enough south that the ringed seals don’t build lairs. They pup on top of the ice, so they don’t have to have snow caves to produce pups. There are no polar bears there, so there may be some reasons why they are successful in doing that. We’re starting to see ringed seals haul out on land. We know how they behave when there’s lots of ice, and we’re just beginning to see what they are capable of without that. And I think they might more flexible in that behavior than we’ve given them credit for,” Quakenbush said.Quakenbush says that her data for the ice seals has only been analyzed up to 2016. This was before the spike in warm water two winters ago, which does seem to have made more major changes in the region, according to data presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.“So we might see something upcoming here soon in the data that we have that might make us change our minds about how they are responding, but right now, up through 2016, we’re not seeing any major alarm bells,” Quakenbush said.Ice seals are not the only marine mammals adjusting to changes in the ice. Pacific walruses are doing so as well. They also used to raise their calves on sea ice, but recently started coming to Alaska’s shores to haul out in record numbers. New haul-outs include Point Lay on the Chukchi coast, which historically didn’t have many walruses. Now there are thousands there most summers, and initial predictions were that that would be bad news for those animals. At first it was not pretty. Walruses spook easily, and stampeded over everything in their path to get to the safety of the sea. They plow right over small calves, and the first few years there were lots of dead calves on the beach.“And we were worried about that going into the future, and after a few years there were less calves that got trampled,” Quakenbush said. “So either females with young calves figured out where in the herd to haul out or not to, we don’t know, but there were fewer calves after the first couple of years of that.”The other prediction was that hunters would have more access to walruses, but apparently near-shore ice and stormy seas are a bigger problem for humans than walruses, and harvests have declined.“So two predictions that we made about what could be bad for walruses, just within a couple of years turned around and were sort of the opposite,” Quakenbush said.Quakenbush has been watching marine mammal throughout her long career, and she has given up predicting the future for these animals. She says that biologists know what the animals do with ice because they have studied that, but we don’t know what they do without it.“It’s an absolutely fascinating time to be an arctic marine mammal biologist,” Quakenbush said. “Things have changed so much since I started. So, right, that makes you think all over again about what might be going on, and it wasn’t even in the list of possibilities last year.”Lori Quakenbush has an almost childlike sense of wonder as she talks about and puzzles over the capacities of Arctic marine mammals to adjust to rapid changes in their ocean. Biologist Lori Quakenbush monitoring arctic marine mammals. (USFWS photo)Ice seals thought to be most affected by the disappearance of arctic sea ice seem to be doing well, according to data presented at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium last week.