Alaska News

Unhappy Public Speaks For First Time In Special Session

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 19:19

For the first time since the regular session adjourned in April, a legislative committee took verbal testimony from the public.

The House Finance committee allotted three hours for input on the state operating budget, and more than 80 people spoke. The meeting opened with a series of former foster children coming to the microphone, and asking for more funding for social workers at the Office of Children’s Services.

Robin Ahgupuk is 20 years old, and spent 15 of those years in foster care. He experienced the agency’s high turnover rate firsthand.

“While I was in care, I had over 56 social workers in OCS,” said Ahgupuk. “The reason I had so many social workers is they were overburdened, stressed out, and overworked.”

The topics that came up after were varied. Some called for increased education funding, others Medicaid expansion, and then there were comments on a smorgasbord of other cuts made to things like public broadcasting and domestic violence programs. They also asked the Legislature not to tap the Permanent Fund to plug the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit.

But there was one common theme: frustration. While many expressed their vexation with restraint, Frank Gold of Fairbanks did not hold back on his opinion of state government.

“Stop playing with Alaska’s money like it’s your own alone,” said Gold. “You were elected to make the hard decisions, the politically unpopular decision. No one’s going to come home unscathed after a cantankerous and ludicrous session in Juneau or Anchroage. There’s no doubt that at least some of you will be pilloried for the budget you finally develop.”

While most of the comment focused on restoring cuts and achieving a budget deal, the testimony turned in the final hour. About a dozen people came to the hearing to express their support for more budget cuts, after the president of the conservative political group United for Liberty sent out an action alert notifying members that “liberals are out in mass to force their spending spree on the legislators.”

Categories: Alaska News

Budget Battle: Republicans Search for Workaround In Lieu of Courting Democratic Support

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 17:43

For weeks, the Legislature has been at a stalemate over its budget deficit. The Republican majority has been trying to secure a three-quarter vote to tap the state’s rainy day account, but they need Democratic support to do that — which means increasing education funding and expanding Medicaid. Now that the Legislature is in its second special session, some Republican leaders are trying to find an accounting workaround that would let them plug the deficit without reaching a deal with the Democrats. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us from the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, where lawmakers are meeting.

Download Audio:

TOWNSEND: So, the annual costs of running the state are about $5 billion, but the Legislature has only $2 billion in revenue that it can apply to that amount. What’s the plan to find the rest of the money?

GUTIERREZ: Well, it’s not like the state is broke, even though we’ve got a budget shortfall. Beyond the state’s unrestricted general fund — which is the pot of revenue that the Legislature can use with no strings attached and which mostly comes from oil taxes — there are a few other accounts that count as state money. The traditional rainy day account is the Constitutional Budget Reserve, but there are some pretty weird rules for accessing it. It requires a three-quarter vote, unless there are no other accounts you can readily tap. If the budget reserves your only real option, then you can tap it with just a majority vote.

The rub is that the state does have another big pot of money it can access with just a majority vote, and that’s the permanent fund earnings reserve. To get easy access to the rainy day account, you need that money to go away.

TOWNSEND: So is the Legislature looking at using the Permanent Fund to fill the budget deficit?

GUTIERREZ: The short answer is no. They’re just looking at playing an accounting trick.

The way the permanent fund is set up, is there’s the corpus, which requires a vote of the people to access, and then there’s the earnings reserve account, which comes from investment earnings off the corpus. That earnings reserve is where dividends come from.

What the Republican leadership is considering doing is moving money from that dividends reserve account into the corpus.

The Legislative finance director, David Teal, describes it like this: “like moving money from checking account to savings.”

The Legislature would leave enough money to pay dividends, but they would move most of the money into the main fund itself, which lets them get an easier vote on the rainy day account.

TOWNSEND: Does the Republican leadership have the support in their caucus to do this?

GUTIERREZ: It’s not unanimous by any stretch. On Wednesday, a group of six members of the House Majority caucus — basically a mix of some of the moderate members and some of the Bsh Democrats who caucus with them — sent a letter to the House Speaker saying they didn’t like the plan. They’re worried that if you went through with it and then had a stock market crash, your dividends would be at risk. Rep. Jim Colver, a Wasilla Republican who signed the letter, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the group as the “musk ox coalition” and the approach they were taking to the Permanent Fund was like a bunch of musk ox circling around a baby to protect it.

Without these six members of the majority on board, you basically don’t have the votes to implement this plan. That empowers the Democrats more when it comes to negotiations, and makes the three-quarter vote look more necessary.

TOWNSEND: So, does it sound like they could figure out a solution to all this soon?

GUTIERREZ: Well, if they don’t figure something out by June 1, layoff notices get sent out to state employees, and if they don’t pass a fully funded budget by July 1, we get a partial government shutdown. Those are some pretty important deadlines that could spur lawmakers to action.

Categories: Alaska News

Dalton Flooding: DOT Digs Trenches to Keep Airport Open

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 17:40

Flooding in Deadhorse. ADOT&PF photo.

The northern stretch of the Dalton Highway is expected to remain closed into next week.

Download Audio:

Melt water from extensive overflow along the Sag River began flowing across the road last weekend, resulting in an initial closure Sunday effecting miles 375 to 410, south of Deadhorse, and the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. The closed area was expanded about 40 miles on the south end, and a few miles to Deadhorse on the north side, Tuesday, as water began impacting additional sections of the highway. Department of Transportation spokeswoman meadow Bailey says water no longer seems to be rising, but it will likely be several more days until the road re-opens.

“We’re still waiting for the water levels to go down, and after the water levels go down, we still have to go in and make some pretty significant repairs to quite a long stretch of road.”

Bailey says the DOT briefly had to shut down some electronic navigational aids at the Deadhorse Airport, as water came up. She says the DOT dug trenches to channel water away from the airport and some man camps, but some other lodging facilities remain flooded.

Gov. Bill Walker has issued a second disaster declaration in light of the ongoing flooding. The declaration enables DOT to request federal funds to help mitigate damage.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Friday, May 22, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 17:40

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

Download Audio:


Budget Battle: Republicans Search for Workaround In Lieu of Courting Democratic Support

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

For weeks the Legislature has been at a stalemate over its budget deficit. The Republican majority has been trying to secure a three-quarter vote to tap the state’s rainy day account, but they need Democratic support to do that, which means increasing education funding and expanding Medicaid.

For $1B Radar, It’s Clear

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

The Missile Defense Agency on Friday confirmed that it has selected Clear Air Station as its preferred location for a new type of radar system, called Long Range Discrimination Radar. The final decision will depend on the outcome of safety and environmental studies.

State Takes Control of Nursing Facility, Citing History of Violations

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

It’s been a week since the State of Alaska took the rare step of assuming control of Prestige Nursing home in Anchorage. State inspectors found dozens of violations during a visit to the facility. And the state says the nursing home had plenty of prior warning that it needed to improve.

Dalton Flooding: DOT Digs Trenches to Keep Airport Open

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The northern stretch of the Dalton Highway is expected to remain closed into next week.

Museum of the North Rolls Out A New Exhibit: DINOSAURS!

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Museum of the North opens a new exhibit Saturday. “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs” gives visitors the opportunity to experience paleontologists quest and what they’re finding in an underexplored region.

AK: A 12-Year-Old Cultural Ambassador

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

Imagine you arrive in a world where it rains all year round, and daylight swings from 17 hours in summertime to a paltry six in winter. And you’re only seven years old. That’s the situation Jasmine Molina found herself when she first got to Sitka, over 5,000 miles from her native city of Manila in the Philippines. Sitka’s Filipino population has grown substantially in the past five years, but there remains no formal system to help new students transition to school. That is, until Jasmine came to town.

49 Voices: Jean Aspen of Homer

This week, we’re hearing from Jean Aspen- a writer of wilderness books and a nurse who lives in Homer.

Categories: Alaska News

Museum of the North Rolls Out A New Exhibit: DINOSAURS!

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 14:42

UA Museum of the North head of production Roger Topp and “Snaps.” Photo: Dan Bross/KUAC.

The University of Alaska Museum of the North opens a new exhibit Saturday. “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs” gives visitors the opportunity to experience paleontologists quest and what they’re finding in an underexplored region.

Amid the stapling, drilling and cutting of the dinosaur exhibit going up, Museum of the North earth science curator Pat Druckenmiller reflects on the aberrant natural environment Arctic Alaska dinosaurs roamed 70 million years ago.

Druckenmiller has spent the last eight years working in Alaska, looking for and finding evidence of dinosaurs in a part of the world where the creatures once walked, but few paleontologists have explored.

The museum exhibit includes casts of footprints as well as fossilized bone fragments Druckenmiller and fellow scientists are using to identify and even discover dinosaur species.

Druckenmiller is working with Alaska Native speakers to come up with names for the new Alaska dinosaurs. The exhibit takes visitors into what it’s to be paleontologist exploring for dinosaur evidence in Alaska’s backcountry.

Roger Topp heads up production at the museum and has accompanied the paleontology team to shoot photos and video. He’s also involved in fleshing out an exhibit, which includes dinosaur models, even one that moves.

Other kid friendly parts of the exhibit are a big orange tent fashioned after one paleontologists use in the field, and tubs of silt visitors can paw through to try and find fossils. Seeing it all come together, and connecting scientific field work with the public is gratifying for Druckenmiller.

Druckenmiller says some of the special exhibit materials will be incorporated into the museum’s permanent dinosaur display, which hasn’t been updated in 30 years.

Categories: Alaska News

For $1B Radar, It’s Clear

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 14:38

The Missile Defense Agency today confirmed  Clear Air Station as its preferred location for a new type of radar system, called Long Range Discrimination Radar. The final decision will depend on  safety and environmental studies.

The selection of Clear helps solidify Alaska’s role as host to the ground-based mid-course missile defense system, designed primarily to shoot down warheads from North Korea. Clear is on the Parks Highway, 80 miles from Fairbanks. It is already home to an upgraded early warning radar system that will be part of the missile defense system.

Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance,  says LRDR improves the view of the target, giving interceptors a better chance.

“You want to see it, just like a baseball player playing outfield. You want to be able to watch that ball once it gets hit off the bat all the way into the mitt, to make the best chance of catching the ball,” says Ellison, whose organization accepts money from the defense industry. “Right now, we can’t see it all the way through. We have to close our eyes for a good part of it, and then we have to look up and find it.”

That’s the “long-range” part of the name. Ellison says the “discrimination” part is also vital to defeating an enemy missile.

“When it goes though space, there’s a lot of junk. There’s a lot of parts. There’s a lot of stuff in that, including countermeasures, including decoys and maybe a couple of warheads in there, he said.  “So this radar is able to pinpoint exactly what the actual vehicle is, the target vehicle that’s carrying the weapon.”

George Lewis, a visiting scholar at Cornell University and a long-time critic of missile defense, says the discrimination is crucial. Lewis says existing radar will likely spot a North Korean launch right away, or when it clears any cloud cover in a minute or so.

“We will see it quite early in flight. This radar would probably be the first one that can begin to make serious discrimination measurements, and the earlier you do that, the better off you are,” said Lewis.

Existing radar, Lewis says, has a range resolution of about 30 feet.

“That means that at about 30 feet apart — if there are two objects that are about 30 feet apart — that’s the distance at which it would being to be able to tell that there’s two objects, instead of one,” he said.

A typical warhead is about 6 feet long, so Lewis says the current system would see lots of stuff as a possible warhead. Lewis says LRDR’s range resolution would most likely be about 18 inches. Even with LRDR, Lewis says it won’t be easy to pick out the warheads from the debris, but he calls it a necessary component.

LRDR is estimated to cost about $1 billion. Much of that will be spent on hardware and technology, though the system would require construction on site. The Missile Defense Agency says it hopes to have the new radar system operational by 2020.

Categories: Alaska News

49 Voices: Jean Aspen of Homer

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 14:31

This week, we’re hearing from Jean Aspen, a writer of wilderness books and a nurse who lives in Homer.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

Y-K’s Facebook Phenom Helps Kick Off Arctic Council Chairmanship

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 14:20

Photo: Facebook

A Tooksook Bay teenager who became a singing sensation on Facebook performed for ambassadors and Arctic VIPs at the State Department in Washington D.C. last night.

Byron Nicholai was introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry at a reception to mark the beginning of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The two-year rotating chairmanship gives each arctic country an opportunity to set priorities. The United States has selected ocean safety, security, improving living conditions and climate change. Kerry described the balance:

“We have to implement the framework that we’ve developed to reduce emissions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic, and at the same time we have to foster economic development that will raise living standards and help make renewable energy sources the choice for everybody.”

Alaska leaders have urged the State Department to focus beyond climate change and recognize the needs of Arctic people. That message came through in Kerry’s speech.

“As beautiful as it is, (the Arctic) is not just a picturesque landscape,” Kerry said. “It’s a home. It’s a lifestyle. It has a history, and those folks deserve as much respect for that as anybody else in any other habitat on the earth.”

Nicholai was the only performer at the reception in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room of the State Department. He is 17, and has more than 16,000 followers on his Facebook page “I sing. You dance.”

See video of his performance.

Categories: Alaska News

State Takes Control of Nursing Facility, Citing Repeated Violations

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 13:34

It’s been a week since the State of Alaska took the rare step of assuming control of Prestige Nursing home in Anchorage. State inspectors found dozens of violations during a visit to the facility. And the state says the nursing home had plenty of prior warning that it needed to improve.

Over the past two years, state inspectors have spent a lot of time inside Prestige Care and Rehabilitation Center of Anchorage. The facility has logged four times the number of complaints as Providence Extended Care, a similarly sized nursing home in the city.

So for the nursing home’s annual recertification review earlier this month, state and federal inspectors decided to show up on a Sunday morning, unannounced. Margaret Brodie is the state’s director of health care services.

“We typically don’t go in on a Sunday but we did in this instance, because anything that was wrong would show on a Sunday,” she says.

The inspectors talked to administrative staff, they pored through patient records and interviewed every single one of Prestige’s 98 residents. The investigation took about a week. And the results were alarming. Brodie says inspectors found 50 violations, eight in the most severe category: immediate jeopardy.

“We were surprised at the number,” she says. “It was extremely high.”

At the end of the inspection the department decided to take the unusual step of assuming temporary management of the facility. The inspection report is not yet public. In the past, Prestige has been cited for things like inadequate nursing care, failing to provide medication to patients, and for numerous problems with call lights and call light response times. Given the volume of complaints against Prestige the health department has investigated over the past two years, Brodie says the company had plenty of warning to correct problems before they escalated to the point of state management.

“What’s happened with Prestige is we write up what their issues are, they put in a corrective action plan, and they work it for a while, and then they kind of stop and then they go right back to where they were,” she says. “And I think the reason for that is that they bring in outside help to correct all the deficiencies and then the outside help leaves.”

Prestige Care is a for-profit corporation based in Washington state. They own 36 nursing homes across the western U.S. and 42 other senior facilities, like assisted living and independent living homes. They bought the Anchorage facility in 2009, after the state took over management from RainDance Healthcare Group following an inspection that likewise revealed potentially dangerous conditions.

Buffy Howard oversees ten nursing homes for Prestige Care in the west. She wouldn’t address whether the company was concerned about the number of complaints the facility has received over the last two years.

“There’s not a way to say that there were more complaints than normal but it’s something we continue to look at in quality improvement,” she says. “Each state is different in the amount of citations that are average. Each building is different on what is a normal amount of ‘tags’ so I can’t really comment on the specifics on that.”

Prestige has already corrected five of the eight violations the recertification inspection uncovered in the ‘immediate jeopardy’ category. The company has until June 4 to correct the other three, which Howard describes as “overarching” administrative problems. She is confident Prestige will meet the deadline.

“We do take these findings very seriously and the safety and welfare of our residents is our priority; it’s always our number one,” she says. “This is a big deal and we understand, and we’ve heard the state and we’re working together, very closely together, to fix and improve.”

Margaret Brodie, with the state, says one thing inspectors found is that Prestige didn’t have enough staff to adequately care for patients. In response, she says the company has added another nurse at night. Overall, she’s pleased with the progress Prestige is making. So is Noel Rea, the interim administrator hired by the state to oversee the facility.

“Prestige has marshaled a lot of resources in here in terms of training and education and that’s been impressive. And I’ve seen a very clear and visible response to the survey and the decision to put in interim management,” he says.

Prestige will be subject to state and federal fines and is paying for Rea’s salary.

Brodie and her staff want to ensure the changes Prestige puts in place to get its full license back won’t evaporate when corporate leaders return to Washington. They’re focusing on making sure local staff are adequately trained to maintain high quality care.

Categories: Alaska News

The Legislative Special Session

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 12:00

Lawmakers have gaveled out of the Governor’s special session without acting on his requests of fully funding the state budget, expanding Medicaid and passing sexual abuse prevention legislation, known as Erin’s law for schools. Legislators have now called themselves into special session. What changes when lawmakers make the call?

HOST: Lori Townsend


  • Governor Bill Walker
  • Representative Chris Tuck
  • Callers statewide



  • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
  • Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, May 26, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.


Categories: Alaska News

AK: A 12-Year-Old Ambassador

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 11:04

Jasmine Molina

Imagine you arrive in a world where it rains all year round, and daylight swings from 17 hours in summertime to a paltry 6 in winter. And you’re only seven years old. That’s the situation Jasmine Molina found herself when she first got to Sitka, over 5,000 miles from her native city of Manila in the Philippines.

Sitka’s Filipino population has grown substantially in the past five years, but there remains no formal system to help new students transition to school. That is, until Jasmine came to town.

“Hello – ang pangalan ko ay Jasmine Molina.”

There’s something about Jasmine that makes you want to talk to her.

“It’s a pretty big school compared to the Philippines,” she said, walking down the hallway.

Maybe it’s her big brown eyes or her silky black hair, which she quickly tucks behind her ear while dialing her locker combination.

But it’s probably her smile , which turns her face into a huge pair of parentheses.

“I just like want to go up to them and be like, “Hey, do you want to be my friend?” And they’ll be like, “Yeah.” And I’ll be like, “Cool,”’ Jasmine said. “Everyone says I’m weird. But weird is awesome. I think weird is awesome.”

Oh, and she’s got killer self-confidence. Again, not your typical middle schooler.

Janelle Farvor was Jasmine’s language arts teacher last year.

“She’s funny. Sensitive. And she’s generous,” Janelle said.

Janelle remembers the very first time she saw Jasmine. At the grocery store, with a bunch of other Filipino kids, talking.

“I thought, ‘What is this little girl doing?’   She’s talking so fast, and I just kinda observed a little bit and then I saw her pointing out things and showing things, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this little girl is explaining how this store works,’” Janelle said.

Janelle saw her again a few years later. She’d grown a bit taller, but was doing the same thing.

“I thought, I wonder if she’s an ambassador,” Janelle said. “These kids all look very new. They’re just wide-eyed and mouth agape, wondering what this is about, what this can is of. And there was Jasmine, explaining it all.”

And last year, when Janelle met her 6th grade class, Jasmine was in it – all grown-up. Jasmine’s dad is a fisherman and came to Sitka five years ago. Jasmine and her mom followed, a month later.

“I was really shy,” Jasmine said. “I didn’t really know anything about Sitka until my cousin showed me around the next day. There was a lot of tall people.”

And not only that, but it was several degrees colder than in Manila, where Jasmine grew up.

“I only had one jacket and it was really cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground,” Jasmine said.

As she got used to the cold, one thing that made a big difference to Jasmine was meeting other kids her age.

“On the first day I went to second grade they’re like, ‘Hey what’s your name?’ I’m like my name is Jasmine. I came from the Philippines.’ They’re like, ‘Cool.’ I wanted to do the same thing and make people comfortable where they are,” she said.

And it’s something Jasmine has been doing ever since. Greeting new families and showing their kids the ropes, from how to open a locker to getting around the building. It’s more than middle school survival tactics. Jasmine is helping her classmates succeed in a Western school.

“And for her to do it on her own volition, and to just see a need and to step up to fill a need, I think that says a lot about her character,” Janelle said.

At Blatchley Middle School, there are 29 Filipino students and in the whole district, 121, making up 9% of the Sitka student body. At the bottom, the school district doesn’t have a designated Tagalog speaker or support group to help students orient themselves. But for now, Jasmine fills that gap.

“I’ve had her – even I’ve brought her down to help me scold,” Janelle said. “They need to not be so chatty or whatever, I have her talk to them in Tagalog to hear a lecture in the mother tongue. There’s nothing like it.”

Now, it’s hard to imagine Jasmine yelling at anyone. And if you asked her if she’s an ambassador or a leader, she’d probably say no. She’s just being a friend. Antonete Partido remembers meeting Jasmine in dance class.

“When I first got here, she talked to me instead of just ignoring me.,” she said.

The two girls chatted in both English and Tagalog. Antonete lives with her grandmother, who adopted her. She hasn’t seen her parents for five years and describes her family as broken apart.

“I don’t really get to call them because I have school. My grandma has work. So we don’t really have time to call them,” Antonete said. “I don’t think other people know that my parents aren’t here because I don’t show my feelings to them.”

But Jasmine knows. And when we finish the interview, Jasmine takes Antonete aside and says, “you’re my one.” She says it again, “Don’t forget. You’re my one.” And with that, Jasmine turns on her heels and heads out the door to go to her next class.

This year, Jasmine Molina won a Spirit of Youth award, which recognizes teens making a difference in Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Chemical tags in ear bones reveal Chinooks’ life histories

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 10:22

The otolith, or “ear bone,” is located just beneath a salmon’s brain.
Credit Brennan / UW

New research on the Nushagak River – one of the largest Chinook salmon runs in the world – used chemical tags in a fish’s ear bones to tell where it was born and raised. Sean Brennan is a post-doc at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. He and his team hope the study research will help managers better understand how their fisheries work.

When you catch a salmon in the bay, how do you know where it came from? That’s long been a challenge put to fishery managers, who need that information to make decisions about catch and escapement.

A new study, published May 15 in Science Advances, hones in on habitats where chinook salmon are born and raised by tracking chemical tags in the fish’s otolith.

Sean Brennan, then a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, led the research in Bristol Bay’s Nushagak River, home to one of the world’s largest wild chinook salmon runs.

In June of 2011, Brennan spent several days on the docks of Peter Pan Seafoods in Dillingham, dissecting the heads of chinooks that were on their way to be processed. He collected 255 otoliths, or “ear bones,” using tweezers to pull out the thin white discs.

Sean Brennan doing research on the Nushagak River.
Credit UAF

Brennan wanted the otoliths because they contain a chemical souvenir of the fish’s travels: the element strontium. And as he puts it, “not all strontium is created equal.” Some of the strontium in earth is heavier, and some is lighter. Those different weights, called strontium isotopes, are found in the bedrock of Bristol Bay. Water flowing over these rocks picks up dissolved strontium, which makes its way into the bodies of fish.

Over a fish’s life, strontium isotopes are deposited onto the tiny ear bone in layers. “The different stretches of rivers the fish are in are essentially tagging the otolith at that particular time in that fish’s life,” explained Brennan. Co-authors Diego Fernandez and Thure Cerling at the University of Utah analyzed these chemical tags, reading the strontium layers like rings on a tree stump.

Using ear bone data from juvenile fish in the upper Nushagak, researchers put together a map of the strontium isotopes in different areas of the watershed. By comparing that map to the strontium in ear bones, Brennan and his team were able to reconstruct each fish’s life history.

One exciting result of the research, Brennan says, is that he can now identify seven distinct zones – seven strontium isotope groups – in the Nushagak watershed. “So when we catch chinook salmon in Nushagak Bay,” he explained, “we now have the ability to determine which of those seven groups produced that particular fish.”

This is a big deal to scientists like Brennan. Other tracing methods, like genetics, paint broader strokes; there’s just not enough genetic variation between chinook populations in Bristol Bay. But the strontium isotope method can tell the precise tributary where a fish hatched in the Nushagak, and how long it stayed there.

Brennan’s results indicate that 70 percent of Nushagak chinook stay in their natal streams until they make a beeline for open ocean. But 20 percent, he said, move earlier, spending an extended period of time in the lower main stem Nushagak before migrating to the ocean. It’s like a small group of teenaged salmon have a hangout spot that scientists didn’t know much about before.

“What’s interesting about that,” Brennan says, “is the common thought is that the lower Nushagak doesn’t produce that many fish.” The new research shows that, in fact, the lower Nushagak is home to a fifth of juvenile chinook for a significant time period before they leave the river.

Researchers found 7 distinct strontium isotope zones in the Nushagak watershed.

These results also indicate the life histories of Nushagak-born chinook are more varied than previously expected; some juveniles stay in their natal streams longer, while some move out earlier.

It’s this variety of behaviors and life histories that make the Nushagak chinook population so resilient to changes in the environment, says Christian Zimmerman, a USGS ecologist who advised and co-authored the study. “Say it’s a really cold winter – that might benefit fish that leave later,” he explained, “but a warm winter pays off for fish that leave sooner.” This new tracking tool is just another way to understand that resilience.

On a broader scale, Zimmerman says, the strontium isotope method could help fishery managers – in Alaska and beyond – better understand year-to-year changes in productivity. Knowing where a catch comes from, he says, gives you more power in determining how many fish you can sustainably harvest.

“One of the things we hear throughout Western Alaska is that when we see declines [in salmon returns], it’s a bit of a surprise,” Zimmerman said. Scientists hope this tool will take some of that surprise out of the equation, helping predict changes to the environment that may affect salmon runs.

“Our hope is to better understand how freshwater habitats relate to productivity, Zimmerman said. “So you wouldn’t suddenly find a year where commercial or subsistence fishing would have to be regulated, like it has on the Kuskokwim River. You would have some idea that it was happening beforehand.”

That may be a few years off, but Zimmerman says researchers intend to use isotope tracking on the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers soon.

For now, Brennan is working with Daniel Schindler at the University of Washington, where they will expand their research to include sockeye salmon on the Nushagak. They plan to collect three years of Chinook data and two years of sockeye by the end of the project.

But it doesn’t end with fish. Brennan says strontium isotopes could help track migratory mammals like caribou or seal as well. “Being able to link highly mobile species to the critical habitats that they use in the critical times of their life is a fundamental piece of information when you’re trying to come up with some sort of conservation strategy,” said Brennan. This tool provides a reliable way to do that.

Note: Other co-authors on the study were Matthew Wooller and Megan McPhee at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Tribes, Forest Service partner on climate change research

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:58

At the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society Conference in Juneau this week, a panel of five discussed climate change and traditional knowledge.

Jay Kazhe is a student at Eastern New Mexico University. He represented the Native “youth perspective” at the panel. (photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Rick Edwards is the research aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He likened the observations of indigenous people to scientific models.

“If we focus on that part of this integrated body of spirituality, culture and knowledge, and if we focus on observation-based natural history parts of that, then indeed, that looks a lot like science to me,” he said.

In 2010, the Forest Service partnered with tribes nationwide to study the effects of climate change. Alaska Native tribes are also participating.

Ida Hildebrand is the tribal natural resource program director for the Chugach Regional Resource Commission, a nonprofit that oversees the stewardship of natural resources in the Chugach region. Hildebrand cautioned Native people to exercise sovereignty over their traditional knowledge.

“That is your tribal choice. You have that knowledge, you don’t have to share it. Or you can share parts of it and not all of it. There’s sacred knowledge. There’s common everyday knowledge. There’s all kinds of traditional knowledge,” she said.

The research is funded with federal money which means information gathered could become public record. The goal of the project is to preserve tribal culture in the face of changing climate.

Categories: Alaska News

Majority members outline concerns with budget option

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:55

Six members of the Alaska House majority have sent a letter to Speaker Mike Chenault expressing serious concerns with the potential use of the Permanent Fund earnings reserve to help balance the state budget.

This could create a new wrinkle in efforts to pass a funded budget.

Use of the earnings reserve has been seen as a possible alternative if agreement cannot be reached with minority Democrats to tap the constitutional budget reserve fund. There has been no apparent movement toward such an agreement in recent weeks.

The letter was signed by Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Louise Stutes, Neal Foster, Gabrielle LeDoux, Jim Colver and Paul Seaton. They said they would not intend to vote for use of the earnings reserve.

The letter was first reported by the Alaska Dispatch News.

Categories: Alaska News

Robert Mumford named to Board of Fish

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:55

Alaska Governor Bill Walker late Tuesday night appointed Robert Mumford to the seven-member Board of Fish. The governor was required by state statute to make the appointment by May 19th.

Mumford’s appointment cannot be formally approved by the Legislature until next year’s regular session.

Mumford is currently serving out a term on the Board of Game, which expires June 30.

According to a press release from the Governor’s office, he worked for 18 years in sport and commercial fishing enforcement.

Members to the Board of Fish set allocations and approve management plans for the state’s fisheries.

This is the Governor’s third attempt to fill the seat.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s popular walrus cam streams again after a decade

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:47

A popular webcam showing large male Pacific walruses lying on the beach is once again streaming on the Internet.

The high-definition stream from Alaska’s remote Round Island had been dormant for nearly a decade after private funding ran out.

But thanks to the philanthropic organization, the cam is again up and running.

Every summer, up to 15,000 walruses haul out on the island about 400 miles southwest of Anchorage in northern Bristol Bay.

There are four cameras pointed at two beaches on the remote island.

But like in 2005, the camera will be offline for a week in the fall so Alaska Natives can take part in a legal subsistence hunt of the walruses.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska wildfire responders keeping eye on dry conditions

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:28

Interior Alaska and other parts of the state are experiencing conditions ripe for forest fires and natural resources officials are urging caution in outdoor activities heading into Memorial Day Weekend.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center says a fire along the Alaska Highway 50 miles northwest of the Canada border grew Thursday to 500 acres.

Spokesman Tim Mowry says trees may be green with leaves but grasses below remain brown and dry.

He says that grass can easily ignite. With low humidity and temperatures reaching the low 80s, conditions are perfect for sparking a wildfire.

Mowry says the same weather system is drying out southcentral Alaska and even making coastal rainforest on the Panhandle susceptible to forest fire.

Twenty-seven wildfires this year have burned five square miles.

Categories: Alaska News

Construction starts on Alaska Native Medical Center housing

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 09:27

Tribal, state, and private sector leaders Wednesday kicked off construction of housing at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

They say it will improve services for Alaska Native and American Indian people who travel to Anchorage from across the state for health care.

A state Senator who helped get the project financed says it will also save the state millions of dollars a year for decades to come.

The new six-story patient housing facility, with 202 private rooms, will be located behind and linked by sky-bridge to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, which serves some 150,000 patients a year.

More than half of those patients travel to Anchorage for health services. But many can be served as outpatients. They may need to be monitored or receive care for high-risk pregnancies, for instance, or for chemotherapy, or post-surgical follow-up.

Andy Teuber is board chair and president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He says the new facility will cut down on the cost of putting up patients in hotels, and make it easier for patients to receive services:

“This is one of many barriers that we look forward to breaking down and improving access for our patients across the state to health care here at ANMC,” Teuber said.

Teuber says Congress approved a land transfer from the Indian Health Service, and the Consortium worked with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and with legislators on financing.

“At a number of occasions we found that the enthusiasm around the project was sufficient to carry it through,” Teuber said.

That enthusiasm is due in part to the fact the state of Alaska will see an estimated jump of almost $9 million in Medicaid reimbursements, annually. Medicaid patients who stay at a tribal facility allow the state to receive 100 percent of the federal match. If those patients are being seen at a non-tribal facility, the state receives only half the federal match.

That’s one reason Anchorage Republican and Senate President Kevin Meyer co-sponsored a bill in 2013 that authorized the state to issue bonds to loan ANTHC $35 million, a big chunk of the $41 million price tag for the housing facility.

“It was kind of a unique concept, and at first we had some hesitation as to how it would work and how much it would truly cost, but it’s going to pay itself back in a short time,” he said.

Meyer says knowing the Indian Health Service is a major source of funding for the Consortium reassured legislators, who, he says, gave a close look at the level of risk the state was taking on in funding the project.

“We did, because ultimately if the funding source doesn’t come through, it falls back on the state,” Meyer said. “The federal government for the most part is pretty trustworthy. It’s a good deal for the state and residents of Alaska. So it’s truly a win-win, and I’m happy to be part of it.”

The new housing facility is expected to be completed in the fall of 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

The Legislature’s Second Special Session

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-05-22 08:00

With the state legislature now gaveled in to a second special session in the new Legislative Information Office in Anchorage,  major state issues are under debate, namely the state’s operating budget.

HOST: Ellen Lockyer


  • Pat Pitney, director, State Office of Management and Budget
  • Jim Duncan, executive director, of the Alaska State Employees Union Local 52

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, May 22 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 23 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 23 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Adjourns Special Session, Only To Call New One

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-05-21 17:46

The Alaska State Legislature has gaveled out of special session, without voting on any of the items on the governor’s agenda. But almost immediately, lawmakers called themselves back — but on their own terms. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that the Legislature has formally relocated to Anchorage, and that they have set aside Medicaid expansion.

As Yogi Berra might have put it, it was déjà vu all over again.

Download Audio:

SEN. KEVIN MEYER: Sen. Stevens, will you please lead us in the pledge of allegiance?

REP. MIKE CHENAULT: Rep. Gruenberg, will you please lead us in the pledge of allegiance?

MEYER: Sen. Stoltze, will you please lead us in the pledge of allegiance?

CHENAULT: Rep. Lynn, will you please lead us in the pledge of allegiance?

The Legislature was gathered at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, where a single protester marched outside with a sign reading “You should be in Juneau doing your damn job!”

The Senate held two nearly identical floor sessions, and then the House did the same. Over the course of three hours, there were four pledges of allegiance, four roll calls for attendance, and so on. But not a single bill was taken up.

When Senate President Kevin Meyer rolled through the floor calendar and asked if there was any unfinished business, an aide to Gov. Bill Walker, watching the whole affair, muttered, “a lot.”

The purpose of these repetitive ceremonies was to gavel out from Gov. Bill Walker’s special session, where he had asked them to advance a budget, a bill creating a sexual abuse prevention program, and Medicaid expansion — and to do it all in Juneau.

Senate Majority Leader John Coghill led his caucus in ending the Juneau session that had been called for, and officially reconvening a session in Anchorage, where they had been meeting for two weeks anyway.

<<”I would say that the best thing to do, practically speaking, is to meet where we are able to practically assemble the requisite amount of people to do it both economically, and practically … here.”

A poll had been taken, and more than two-thirds of lawmakers wanted to end the governor’s special session. They would keep at the budget and the sexual abuse prevention bill known as Erin’s Law, but they would scrap work on Medicaid expansion entirely.

“The action taken today is at this point to tell the governor that no action is the action at this point,” said Coghill, a North Pole Republican.

Democrats in the minority pushed back. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, of Anchorage, said his caucus had not been polled on the action. If they had, they would have opposed it, and found any vote taken to be against the rules that they meet in Juneau. Wielechowski cited a memo from the Legislature’s attorney.

“As much as I enjoy being in my hometown, Mr. President, this session violates the Alaska Constitution,” said Wielechowski.

Wielechowski added that it was inappropriate to end the session when nothing on the special session agenda had been completed.

“We have had very little work done on any of these bills, Mr. President. We have not done our job,” said Wielechowski. “We should not be adjourning this special session before we complete our jobs. We’ve had no public testimony on any of these items.”

But Coghill pushed back, noting that lawmakers had held meetings on each of the three agenda items. He said that with the Legislature still trying to find a way to plug a multi-billion-dollar deficit, they would keep working on the budget to avoid a government shutdown. Plus, Coghill said, the Legislature always had the ability to gavel out without doing anything.

“We had the right the very first hour that he did it,” said Coghill.

The Legislature voted to end the first special session and call a new one on caucus lines. The rest of the session was mostly uneventful. But when Coghill led one of the four prayers said on Thursday, the invocation took on a special significance.

“Creator of the world that we get to see, and the people we get to know, and the work that we get to do — we sure could use your guidance,” prayed Coghill.

If that guidance were granted, the governor might appreciate it. In a written statement, Walker said he was disappointed that the Legislature had not voted on any of his three agenda items before adjourning, and that he was “deeply concerned about the legislature’s lack of progress on a fully funded budget.”

Categories: Alaska News