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Southeast Alaska News
KENAI — As the bell rings at Kenai Middle School, the students in Tyler Schlung’s Northern Lights class file into their seats. Their task for the day is to watch their most recent show production and critique it.
KODIAK — For the past 20 years, Marsha Galloway has been trying to create a memorial to her father.
On Dec. 13, the state of Alaska will decide whether or not to name an unlabeled creek near Chiniak School in honor of Richard Weisser. If approved, Weisser Creek would immortalize the name of a 32-year Kodiak Island resident who fought to open Chiniak land to settlement.
KENAI — The Sterling Highway, which serves as the southern Kenai Peninsula’s road connection to the rest of the state, is inching closer to the edge of the bluff as soil falls away at a rate of about 1 foot annually.
While Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Jill Reese said the erosion at Milepost 153.3, between Happy Valley and Anchor Point, doesn’t pose as an immediate threat, DOT&PF plans to begin construction as early as spring 2014 keep the highway out of jeopardy.
ANCHORAGE — Replacing the troubled Tustumena ferry, which was out of commission for nearly a year, is the top priority of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, the group’s chairman says.
Chairman Bob Venables, of Sitka, said at a recent board meeting that the Tustumena is important to the transportation infrastructure of Western Alaska. The vessel returned to service last month, six months later than expected.
ANCHORAGE — Federal investigators on Sunday started documenting the wreckage of a plane crash in remote southwest Alaska that killed four people and injured six Friday night.
A break in weather conditions allowed two investigators — from the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration — on Sunday to reach the scene where a single-engine aircraft went down near the village of Saint Marys, said Clint Johnson, the chief of the NTSB’s Alaska regional office.
ANCHORAGE — An Anchorage home-health business has been stripped of its billing privileges as some of its caregivers are suspected of Medicaid fraud.
Thirty-nine caregivers with Good Faith Services are charged with counts including medical assistance fraud, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
John Skidmore, director of the criminal division with the state Department of law, said 10 people have been convicted and sentenced, 23 are still going through the court system and six have not yet appeared before a judge.
ANCHORAGE — A long-awaited snowmaking system covering cross-country ski trails at Kincaid Park is now functioning, but at much less than its planned capacity.
The system only can support about one-third of its 17 snow guns at one time, according to Dick Mize, a board member of the nonprofit responsible for the project’s construction. And it’s still not ready to hand it off to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, which will ultimately maintain and operate the system.
KENAI — A staffing shortage has prompted the state disaster office to push back the start date for October Kenai flooding victims to register for individual grant assistance.
The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said Tuesday they now plan to open disaster assistance centers, as well as online and telephone registration during the week of Dec. 8, the Peninsula Clarion reported. Officials had initially planned to do so the week of Dec. 2.
A new ballot group has been created to defend Senate Bill 21 against repeal efforts. The Make Alaska Competitive Coalition — which has advocated for changes to Alaska’s oil tax structure since 2011 — announced Wednesday the creation of Keep Alaska Competitive — Vote No on 1 group.
House democrats are hoping for a more thorough and public conversation about education funding in the upcoming session.
Rep. Harriet Drummond — a Democrat from Anchorage — said she’d like to see the issue of education funding, particularly a bill aimed at increasing the base student allocation (BSA), be dealt with during the first two weeks of the session.
“I’d call attention to it and get people to sit up and take notice,” Drummond said. “I can see that we waited too long last year.”
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in the Morris Communications series “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon.”
For a young state, Alaska has a long history with fisheries management.
Alaska’s desire to manage fisheries, and salmon in particular, was a driving force during the push for statehood, and more than a century before that, the commercial fishing industry was a major component of the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1857.
FAIRBANKS — After mushing dogs on the Tanana River for 20 years, both for trapping and recreational purposes, Knut Kielland decided to figure out why the river freezes — or doesn’t freeze — the way it does.
Over the course of four winters, Kielland, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology, solicited the help of other scientists, oral historians, and locals who live in villages along the river, to study changing ice conditions on the Tanana River.
FAIRBANKS — Ounce for ounce, methane has an effect on global warming more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and it’s leaking from the Arctic Ocean at an alarming rate, according to new research by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Their article, which appeared Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience, states that the Arctic Ocean is releasing methane at a rate more than twice what scientific models had previously anticipated.
North Pacific Fishery Management Council: A 16-member board comprised of 11 voting members and five nonvoting members from the fishing industry and government agencies that sets policy and creates regulations for federal fisheries three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska. The council has delegated management of salmon fisheries in federal waters of Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula to the state. Southeast king salmon troll fisheries are managed by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
ANCHORAGE — Visitors to Denali National Park and Reserve are seeing fewer wolves as the predators’ numbers continue to decline, according to the National Park Service.
Park researchers randomly sampled 80 bus trips this summer and found that bus riders only spotted wolves on three occasions, or about 4 percent of the trips, park officials said Wednesday.
That continues a downward trend documented in recent years. Wolves were seen during 44 percent of bus trips in 2010, 21 percent in 2011 and 12 percent in 2012, the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.
KENAI — Escalating erosion is eating away at river beaches around Ninilchik, wiping out shoreline campsites.
The Ninilchik State Recreation Area has been eroding for about 20 years, but a 2010 storm took out enough beachfront to force closure of the campground.
State parks officials and the Southern Kenai Peninsula State Parks Citizens Advisory Board toured the Ninilchik area and Deep Creek State Recreation Area last week, the Peninsula Clarion reported.
Michael Satre’s phone started ringing early on Sunday morning last week because co-workers feared it would not be long before there were reports of someone trapped or hurt in one of Juneau’s hundreds of abandoned mines.
The calls and text messages corresponded to a Juneau Empire story about a local explorer who spends his days off work trekking Juneau’s forests searching for and venturing into abandoned mine shafts around the capital city.
Safety and justice systems in rural Alaska are the worst in the United States, according to a recently released report by the Indian Law and Order Commission. Alaska is the only state in the report to be singled out with its own section detailing inadequate justice systems and law enforcement in rural areas.
The commission harshly criticizes the State of Alaska in the report for failing to provide law enforcement resources in villages across the state. The commission also calls on the state to make quick and meaningful changes in how it deals with crime in rural communities.
FAIRBANKS — It took a while but now that winter finally looks like it’s here to stay — that might be an understatement after the past week, eh? — it’s time to unveil my annual winter list of outdoor things to do.
In Sitka, a project in its second year is studying the seasonal movement of juncoes and some other sparrows. It started as a way to involve kids in science, and to answer some basic questions about a species so common that we haven’t taken the trouble to study it.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey spent some time last week with a bird bander, learning something we never knew about juncoes.
Report a sighting of color-banded bird here.
Rob – I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed somebody at a whisper.
Gwen – Sorry, I hope it comes out.
I find Gwen Baluss a couple of blocks up the street from where I live. She’s sitting just inside a downstairs window in the home of Scott Harris, who works for the Sitka Conservation Society.
“Yeah. It’s not looking good out there.”
Juncoes tend to arrive at backyard feeders in waves, and the latest flock took flight after a cat stopped by.
Harris’s 7-year old son, Tomy, has been kneeling by the window all morning. He understands the hall trap, and what it’s like to be a few inches away from a creature that most of us only ever see at a distance.
“And when it’s in the middle, you let go of this. You let go of the string, and then the trap comes down on the bird, and then you just go out and get them. It doesn’t hurt them.”
The cat’s visit has pretty much ended trapping this morning. This is a setback, but only a small one. Baluss’s project has a very limited scope.
“I’m not color-banding any other birds in Southeast Alaska, so Sitka’s actually getting a lot of colors. If you see a color-banded bird in Southeast chances are that it came from Sitka, if it’s a junco, chickadee, or song sparrow. Those are the three species that I have the color bands for.”
Baluss is attaching tiny, colored bands to the legs of juncoes — only in Sitka. Anywhere from 1 to 4 bands per bird — like color-coding. Various combinations of white, green, red, blue, and light blue. It’s an inspired strategy.
“That’s the nice thing about color-banding. A bird-watcher, or anyone, who happens to see a color-tagged bird could report those, and we would know which bird that was with a fair level of confidence.”
Baluss is a wildlife technician for the Forest Service in Juneau. Her agency, the Sitka Conservation Society, and the University of Alaska Southeast co-sponsor her research.
[Sound: Rain drumming on shed roof.]
As I arrive, Baluss and Harris have just bagged a bird — literally. They’ve released the trap, and Baluss reaches in, grabs the junco, and stuffs it into a little cloth sack.
After she attaches the bands, she measures the length of its primary feathers, and checks its fat content. Earlier, she told me you can see right through the skin of small birds. She holds up the junco and starts to gently blow apart the downy feathers on its breast.
Gwen – So, looking at his fat, I’m kind of doing the see-through skin trick again. (Blows feathers.) The kind of yellowish stuff you see there is fat. (Blows feathers again.) Well, actually some of it is corn that he just ate. Stuff in his crop that you can see.
Rob – I’ve been interested in birds since I moved to Sitka but I never knew that they were see-through. That you could actually see their last meal heading down the pipe.
Gwen – Yeah, if they’ve eaten a lot.
And these few birds have already taught us something important. Except for a few slate-colored juncoes that move in each winter from Canada, our local juncoes were always thought to be year-round residents.
144 banded birds say otherwise.
Gwen – In that last year, of all the birds that we color-banded, none were seen in Sitka in the summertime at all. So they moved somewhere. Perhaps just out of town where people weren’t hiking. Perhaps much farther than that.
So does this mean an entire population of songbirds moves out of Sitka in winter, only to be replaced by an identical population moving in? That’s a pretty big conclusion, even for small science.