APRN Alaska News

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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 42 min 11 sec ago

Canada Approves Controversial Mine in Southeast

2 hours 5 min ago

A controversial mine near Southeast Alaska’s border has won approval from Canada’s federal government. That worries critics, who say the development could pollute salmon-bearing rivers.

Seabridge Gold’s Brent Murphy points to a valley to be dammed to hold tailings from the KSM mine during a July tour. The project just won Canada’s federal environmental approval. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News.

The Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell project’s environmental protection plan got the OK from Canada’s Ministry of the Environment.

The project, known as the KSM, is in northwest British Columbia, northeast of Ketchikan and east of Wrangell.

Brent Murphy, of mine owner Seabridge Gold, says the federal action is an important step.

“It means that the project can proceed. We’ve received both the provincial and federal Canadian governments’ approvals. Essentially, it’s an approval in principle and now we move forward in the permitting phase,” he says.

He says the project has about 100 of the 150 permits it needs. It’s also seeking investors to develop the proposed $5.3 billion mine.

The KSM is a copper, gold and silver deposit upstream of two rivers that enter the ocean within about 50 miles of Ketchikan.

Fisheries, tribal, municipal and environmental groups in Southeast Alaska oppose development, saying the mine would pollute those rivers and harm salmon and those who eat them.

The KSM project’s mine site layout during the operation phase, from its environmental assessment certificate application. Image courtesy Seabridge Gold.

Canada’s action disturbs Carrie James, who co-chairs Southeast’s United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group.

“I’m just really disappointed in the decision. It doesn’t surprise me. And we’re not going to stop. We’ll keep fighting and we can’t stop,” she says.

Opponents are asking the Obama administration to pressure Canada to use more stringent permitting standards. They’re also pressing British Columbia to give the project a higher level of review.

Right now, the KSM is an isolated work camp near exploratory drilling sites.

Murphy of Seabridge Gold says construction won’t start until it gets more permits and substantial financial backing.

“The next big regulatory challenge will be the (B.C.) Mines Act permit for the mine site. That’s a permit that … we require in order to start construction of our water storage dam and all the associated water-management structures,” he says.

The next big step would be a permit for its tailings storage facility, including dams to hold back rock leftover from processing ore.

Those dams are a key area of concern for opponents in Alaska.

James, of the tribal working group, points to August’s massive tailings-dam break at Mount Polley, in central British Columbia.

“It’s been called one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. The Mount Polley failure was a wake-up call for us. We can’t let Alaska waters be polluted by B.C. mine waste,” she says.

Seabridge Gold says its tailings dams will use a different structure than Mount Polley’s. Critics say they’re still worried about breaks spilling toxic metals and water.

Categories: Alaska News

Doctors Hope To ‘Reset’ Healthcare Model In Alaska

2 hours 18 min ago

A group of doctors in Anchorage hopes to do a better job caring for some of the sickest patients in the city. It may cost more money initially, but in the long run, the goal is also to save health care dollars.  The new group is called Alaska Innovative Medicine and the idea is based on a kidney dialysis clinic.

Cesar Jose gets dialysis 3 times a week at Liberty Dialysis in south Anchorage. Credit: Annie Feidt

Cesar Jose spends 12 hours each week sitting in the same brown recliner at Liberty Dialysis in South Anchorage. On a recent morning, he settles in with slippers, a blanket and breakfast – a donut and cranberry juice.

After a weight and blood pressure check, a technician hooks Jose up to the dialysis machine. A small tube will serve as his kidney for the next four hours.

Jose is 67 years old and has kidney failure. But he laughs as he explains his labs are perfect.

“That’s why Dr. Gitomer told me, ‘Oh you’re boring because every month it’s the same… Oh Cesar, you’re boring!’ ”

Boring is exactly what Dr. Jeremy Gitomer is hoping for. To get to boring Jose has a team of providers – a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a nutritionist, a primary nurse, a technician and a social worker. They work together to make sure Jose stays as healthy as possible. It sounds simple, but Gitomer – who co-owns the clinic – says it is a long way from the standard in dialysis care when he came to Alaska about a decade ago:

“The death rate for dialysis patients was 25 percent (every year), which is terrible. And the patients really didn’t have close supervision. In fact, it was kind of a survival of the fittest.”

Gitomer does things differently. Cesar Jose’s team understands his basic health stats, like his potassium level. But they also know Jose has a weakness for hamburgers, that he wants to visit his four kids and 11 grand kids in the Philippines and that his wife lost her job recently. To get that kind of information, the whole team sits around a sprawling conference room table with patients and their families four times a year.

Six months ago, Gitomer says he had a patient who kept telling him, ‘I’m fine.’

“I didn’t realize that her husband was dying of Alzheimers. There was a tremendous strain on her and her family who were caring for her and her husband. We were able during that family meeting to hear all of this information and get him plugged into many Alzheimers resources, remove the burden from the family and now she’s not just doing fine, she’s doing great. She’s thrived and it’s really been one of those simple things that we never would have done in the past, because we never would have figured it out.”

Gitomer estimates it costs his clinic at least 50 percent more to care for patients compared to more typical dialysis centers in Alaska.

In the long run though, he’s convinced his patients save substantial health care dollars. And data from Medicare back him up. His clinic has one of the lowest hospital admissions rates in the country.

A few years ago he started wondering if a similar model could work for other chronically ill patients in Anchorage. Gitomer began talking to other doctors about setting up a group that would coordinate care for some of the sickest patients in the city. Dr. Terry Lester was on board from the beginning:

“I think this can have dramatic impacts,” Lester says. “I think this can be very big. We have the ability to truly reset the thinking of healthcare in Alaska.”

The group Lester and Gitomer came up with is called Alaska Innovative Medicine – or AIM. A health insurance company, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska is providing the initial funding. Premera won’t disclose how much, but describes the investment as ‘substantial.’ Starting in January, AIM will take Premera’s sickest patients and focus on doing a better job transitioning them from the hospital to home and providing more of their care at home. After a decade of working as a hospitalist in Anchorage, Lester has a long list of things he can’t wait to do differently.

“Physicians as a whole have not been very involved throughout a lot of reform in healthcare and I think that’s one of the biggest problems. We’re the ones who every day we see where things fall through the cracks, we see where the inefficiencies are, where the problems are, how we could do it better.”

Lester gives the example of a patient with a complicated case who is discharged from the hospital on a Friday afternoon. Home health services may not be available until Monday, which means the patient is on their own at a time when they’re at high risk for being readmitted to the hospital. AIM will have a case manager and a social worker to make sure the patient has help in those critical hours. They’ll also coordinate with the patient’s primary care doctor and specialists. Gitomer says one thing the doctors won’t do is focus on cost:

“Premera has guaranteed any home care that we have recommended for the first 30 days after hospitalization no questions asked, which is amazing when you think about that.”

Home care is not cheap. But it is a lot less expensive than a hospital. And long term, AIM’s goal is to save money… maybe a lot of it. The group wants to reduce hospital readmissions for their patients by 25 percent by the end of the three year demonstration project. They want to reduce ER visits by 6 percent. Gitomer thinks it’s going to work for one simple reason.

“We’re allowed to basically care for patients like we’d want to care for patients.”

If it is successful, AIM wants to use the same model to help the state’s Medicaid population. Gitomer says that’s where the group can have the most impact on the overall health of Alaskans and on the price tag of one of the biggest drivers of the state budget.

This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Goodbye, Campaigns. Hello, New Campaign Contributions

4 hours 38 min ago

The campaign for U.S. Senate is over, but the accounting is not. The latest batch of campaign finance reports show Democrat Mark Begich spent nearly $10 million, and Sen.-elect Dan Sullivan spent$7.6 million, pushing the total spent on the race to $60 million. 

Congressional campaigns often end in debt. Holly Robichaud, a Republican political consultant unconnected to Alaska, says she actually advises her clients to spend more than they’ve got.

“If you win you can raise lots of money. If you lose, usually people help bail you out if you don’t get into too much debt. You never want to lose a race because you didn’t spend the $500 that would’ve really made the difference,” she said.

But, after the most expensive election in state history, neither of Alaska’s U.S. Senate candidates appears to have taken that sort of advice. The campaigns aren’t closed out yet, but Sullivan reported no debt and $277,000 cash on hand on Nov. 24, the end of the reporting period. Begich showed more cash than debt, by about $7,000, on that date.  Without net debt, a candidate can’t accept contributions made after the election. But that doesn’t mean contributors aren’t eager to help.

Consider Altria PAC. Altria is the company that owns tobacco giant Philip Morris. Its PAC sent the Sullivan campaign $5,000 two weeks after Election Day. It had previously given $5,000 to Begich.

Kathy Kiely is a campaign finance expert at the Sunlight Foundation came up with a name for that: “strategic gift revision.”

“That’s the perfect illustration I think, that (of) the pragmatism of the big political players. Really, it’s all about influence. And so he’s a senator now and they are looking to make friends,” she said.

But, whatever AltriaPAC intended, a spokesman for Sen.-Elect Dan Sullivan says the campaign is sending that money back. Altria, he said, mistakenly believed the campaign had debt to pay off. According to FEC rules on post-election fundraising, a campaign must have more debt than cash on the day it receives a check in order to keep the money. (Sullivan reported to the FEC that he received some $44,000 between Election Day and Nov. 24. The campaign, though, says nearly all of that was actually sent before Election Day. Begich reported receiving $435 after Election Day. The only contribution large enough to be itemized — $100 from a Juneau physician – was received Nov. 5.)

Altria responded to our requests for an interview about its contributions in the Alaska race with an email describing the company’s commitment to transparency. It appeared to be lifted from the company website. But on the same day AltriaPAC contributed to Sullivan, they also contributed to a raft of other freshmen who won tough races, in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina. Those other candidates do appear to be able to accept the money to pay off their campaign debt. Kiely says that shows the incumbent advantage in fundraising starts early, even before a senator is sworn in.

“So you can see that right away, people who want to be the first in your door with a nice pleasant green handshake and hope that you’ll remember them when the time comes to cast your vote,” she said.

In any case, Altria and other would-be Sullivan supporters need not wait any longer to make their campaign contributions. Sullivan this month registered a new campaign committee with the FEC for his next Senate run. Just as Begich did, a few weeks after his election in 2008. In another rite of freshman passage in the Senate, Sullivan also established a leadership PAC this month: True North PAC. Leadership PACs allow senators to raise money from donors beyond the strict limits of campaign contributions. Lawmakers use them to fund certain expenses and to make campaign contributions to other candidates.

Now, since it’s the holiday season, let’s take a non-cynical view of money in politics. Despite widespread belief that campaign cash sways a lawmaker’s decisions, there’s little research to prove it.

“It’s just really hard to separate out the fact that people tend to give to those that agree with them,” says David Broockman. He’s a political science PhD candidate at Berkeley who ran a clever experiment that suggests contributions DO result in better access. He had emails sent to nearly 100 congressional offices saying they had a group from that lawmaker’s district who wanted to meet with the congress member, or top staffers. Broockman says the meeting requests differed in just one way: Half the offices were told the participants would be local constituents. The other half were told the participants would be local campaign donors.

“When the individuals were revealed to be donors they received access at that level almost 20 percent of the time. Whereas, when the group was only revealed to be constituents they received that access just over 5 percent of the time,” he said. “So we’re talking about a nearly four-fold increase.”

Even that could have a more innocent explanation, Broockman says: Lawmakers and congressional staff may think donors are savvier about policy and thus more worth their time.

Categories: Alaska News

Shop with a Cop highlights family homelessness in Anchorage

Sun, 2014-12-21 21:43

Lilly shops with Officer Bonnie Charles for Christmas presents for herself and her family. Hillman/KSKA

For the past 15 years, the Anchorage police and firefighters have donated money to the Shop with a Cop program. It gives disadvantaged children the chance to buy gifts for themselves and their family members for Christmas. But  it also highlights a problem in Anchorage – families experiencing homelessness.

 

http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/22-Shop-With-A-Cop.mp3

A group of police officers and fire fighters wait near the entrance of Fred Meyer in Anchorage as dozens of children file in. The adults are about to take the kids Christmas shopping. Eight-year-old Lilly pairs up with Officer Bonnie Charles and they push their cart toward the toy aisle.

“What kind of toys do you like?” Charles asks Lilly.

Lily thinks for a bit, glances at her grey Hello Kitty t-shirt and says, “Hello Kitty toys.”

“I think we can find some of those,” Charles responds confidently.

Lily is shopping for herself and her three siblings. First she picks out a Nerf gun for her brother Connor but as soon as they move to a different aisle of toys, she quickly changes her mind.

“Cause Connor really, really, really likes cars,” she says after choosing a red remote controlled pickup truck.

Many things tempt her, and Lilly jumps from one shiny object to the next. She picks out a Barbie pool for herself, Hello Kitty long forgotten. Moments later she changes again and settles on a child-sized guitar.

“I had a guitar once and then my dad had to put it back because we were running out of food so he had to put it back. Then he got a lot of money and then he could buy food. Yay!”

Lilly lives at the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House with her siblings and their father. The emergency shelter is the only temporary housing that takes in single dads and their kids. It provides hotel-like rooms, meals, and a group playroom and lounge. They also teach classes on financial literacy and parenting skills.

Diana Gomez is the administrator of the house. She says families are only supposed to stay in the 16 units for 30 days, but many stay longer so they can save up money for permanent housing.

“Our goal is always that they will not go from shelter to shelter but they will go to their own apartment.”

Carmen Springer with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness says 80% of the homeless population is only homeless for a short time. The most common reason is the cost of housing exceeding people’s incomes. Other causes are one-time events, like major illnesses in the family or lost jobs.

“More people than often like to admit it live only a couple pay checks away from homelessness and we have a very limited safety net both here and across the country.”

Springer says different programs, like rapid re-housing and rent subsidies, help get people back into homes quickly, and they usually don’t become homeless again.

She says it’s hard to have an accurate count of how many families and individuals are homeless. Some services count how many people they help and report it to a common database. Others don’t. And the numbers fluctuate by season as well.

Back at the store, Lilly finishes her shopping then thinks about the absolutely perfect gift for her family.

“A Barbie house that you press the button and then it turns in a real house that you can actually go in. It’s a clubhouse. But it’s not real life. Though.”

She and Officer Charles set off to get their gifts wrapped.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Do I Need to Rinse This?: The economics of recycling

Sun, 2014-12-21 21:33

A pile of mixed recycling in Anchorage. HIllman/KSKA

Cans and bottles clink and crash as  KSKA’s Anne Hillman dumps her recycling into a bin. The rules about what you can and can’t put in there can be confusing, but they have a reason. So Anne hopped in a recycling truck to sort it out.

 

http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/19-Recycling-pkg.mp3

A black nine-foot-long arm extends out from the lumbering red truck and its claw clamps down on a blue recycle bin. The arm hoists the bin into the air, and recyclables tumble into the truck. Empty, the bin is placed back on the ground and the truck moves on.

Solid Waste Services employee Garret Fairclough guides the maneuver from inside the cab.

“It’s pretty much just one big video game. And that’s what I say, ‘Can you play video games?’ when I train people. Because if you can play video games, you can pretty much do this job.”

Fairclough has been picking up trash and recyclables for about three years. He says it’s simple, but he can talk continuously about the intimate details, like swaying motions of different trucks, the problems of open cans filling with water and ice, the flurried mess of loose grass clippings. He winds his way down a narrow neighborhood alley.

A recycle truck grasps onto a bin in Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA

“It’s cool. It’s fun. I love going past schools cause they’re all like ‘Garbage man, honk your horn!’” he says in an awkward falsetto.  ”And I’m like ‘Alright.’”

In the back of his truck he’s carrying comingled recyclables — that’s paper, cans, and plastic bottles. But not all plastics.

“All plastics are not created equal,” says Mary Fisher, executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention & Recycling.  ”Let me just say that first. All plastics are different.”

Fisher says people in Anchorage can only recycle plastic bottles with necks that are marked #1 and #2. And bottles are not the same as plastic containers called clam shells, even if they are marked with the same numbers.

“And that’s because in the plastic world, #1 PET is just the name for the resin that’s used. And then chemicals are added to that resin to form it in certain ways. So a different chemical is used to form a bottle than is a clam shell.”

Which means they melt at different temperatures. Mixing the two reduces the value of the plastic. Fisher says that’s a problem, especially now when the prices for recyclables has been low for about a year.

“The recyclers are very nervous because they’re profit margins are very, very low right now.”

So they can’t take low value items, like #5 plastics. Fisher says the recycling center in Palmer can take some of them because they are a volunteer-driven non-profit.

Fisher says a couple of inappropriate recyclables mixed in with a bale of ones and twos may not make a huge difference, “but you reach a point very quickly that the contamination really lowers the value of the material.”

So does food contaminate a recycle load? Not really, but Fisher says you should rinse all of your bottles and cans because it’s more sanitary for all of the people who handle them in the sorting process.

And what about plastic caps? First it was no- now it’s yes…

“We have changed because the technology that manages this material has changed, so you can recycle your lids with your plastics.”

Fisher says many of the changes have happened because it makes people more likely to recycle.

“It’s the only industry that I know of that depends on people doing the right thing in their household in order to get the basic material to make the new product. What other industry in the world that depends on you doing the right thing?”

Back on the road, Fairclough’s truck is full. He takes the recyclables to the Anchorage Recycling Facility off of Dowling and dumps them in a massive pile.

The truck beeps and rumbles. “So pretty much we use a packer blade to shove it all out,” he explains.

When the area is full, the recyclables are crushed together into square bales, packed into shipping containers and sent off to Seattle. There they’ll be sorted and sold and potentially turned into things you’ll later recycle.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Canada Approves Controversial Mine Near Southeast Alaska’s Border

Fri, 2014-12-19 16:41

A controversial mine near Southeast Alaska’s border won approval from Canada’s federal government on Friday.

The Kerr-Sulphurets – Mitchell project’s environmental protection plan got the OK from the nation’s Ministry of the Environment.

The project, known as the KSM, is in northwest British Columbia, northeast of Ketchikan and east of Wrangell.

Brent Murphy, of mine owner Seabridge Gold, says the federal action is an important step.

“It means that the project can proceed,” Murphy said. “We’ve received both the provincial and Canadian governments’ approvals.”

“Essentially, it’s an approval in principal and now we move forward in the permitting phase.”

He says the project has about 100 of the 150 permits it needs. It’s also seeking investors to develop the proposed $5.3 billion mine.

The KSM is a copper, gold and silver deposit upstream of two rivers that enter the ocean within about 50 miles of Ketchikan.

Fisheries, tribal and environmental groups in Southeast Alaska oppose development, saying the mine would pollute those rivers and harm salmon and those who eat them.

Canada’s action disturbs Carrie James, who co-chairs Southeast’s United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group.

“I’m just really disappointed in the decision; it doesn’t surprise me. We’re not going to stop. We’ll keep fighting and we can’t stop,” James said.

Opponents are asking the Obama administration to pressure Canada to use more stringent permitting standards. They’re also pressing British Columbia to give the project a higher level of review.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 19, 2014

Fri, 2014-12-19 16:32

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

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Grand Jury Indicts Man in Alaska Prosecutor’s Shooting Death

The Associated Press

An Alaska grand jury has indicted a 47-year-old man accused of shooting a prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

Walker Considers Delay in Legal Marijuana Sales

The Associated Press

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker says he’s considering a 90-day delay in implementing legal marijuana sales. Alaska voters in November approved legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

University President: Budget Cuts Will Require Downsizing to ‘Core’ Missions

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble is anticipating budget cuts that will force the institution to downsize, and focus on its core missions.  Gamble plans to retire at the end of the 2015 school year, but he’s looking beyond his tenure to help the university prepare for the future.

Omnibus Spending Bill Increases Money for Wildfire Management

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

The one trillion dollar spending plan passed by Congress last weekend and signed by President Obama includes money for wildfire mitigation and management. That budget is up from prior years.

Coastline Search Leads To First Residents’ Camps

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

The Earth’s crust is more flexible than you think – especially in Southeast Alaska. Growing and shrinking ice fields and glaciers, and rising and falling oceans have altered the region’s coastline over time.

Understanding those changes is helping scientists to learn more about the area’s early human habitation.

How the Alaska Native Brotherhood Changed Alaska History

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

In “A Dangerous Idea,” author Peter Metcalfe looks at the crucial role the Alaska Native Brotherhood played in securing Native rights and land claims before, during and after statehood. The recently published book explores an often overlooked chapter in Alaska’s story.

Lonnie Dupre Makes Fourth Winter Solo Attempt on Denali

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

Climber and arctic veteran Lonnie Dupre left Talkeetna yesterday for his fourth attempt to be the first person to summit Denali in January.

AK: Hockey Homecoming

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Anchorage has a close knit hockey community. But if players want to continue on to college hockey or eventually play professionally, they have to move away from Alaska at a fairly young age…leaving friendships behind. They use their short breaks back home to relive some of those childhood memories on the ice. And the 5th Annual Christmas Classic gives them that opportunity.

300 Villages: Kipnuk

This week we’re heading to the Bering Sea community of Kipnuk. Jimmy Paul is the tribal administrator in Kipnuk

Categories: Alaska News

Grand Jury Indicts Man in Alaska Prosecutor’s Shooting Death

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:39

An Alaska grand jury has indicted a 47-year-old man accused of shooting a prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

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Ronald Fischer is charged with first- and second- degree murder in the Dec. 8 shotgun death of 48-year-old Brian Sullivan, who was an assistant district attorney in Barrow, the country’s northernmost community.

Authorities say Sullivan was shot at the home of a woman who had children in a past relationship with Fischer. The indictment also charges Fischer with assault by placing the woman in fear with a shotgun.

The indictment was handed up Thursday by a grand jury in Nome because Sullivan had been presenting cases to a grand jury in Barrow.

Fischer is represented by public defender Mark Billingsley, who did not immediately comment Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Considers Delay in Legal Marijuana Sales

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:38

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker says he’s considering a 90-day delay in implementing legal marijuana sales.

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Alaska voters in November approved legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

Walker told the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce he’s exploring a delay in the part of the measure that allows for commercial sales.

The ballot measure specified that adults no longer would be arrested under state law for possessing up to an ounce of pot outside their homes 90 days after election results were certified. That date is Feb. 24.

The state has nine months more to produce regulations for commercial sales, three months to begin accepting applications and three months after that to issue permits.

Commercial growers could produce marijuana for sale in May 2016 under the timeline.

Categories: Alaska News

University President: Budget Cuts Will Require Downsizing to ‘Core’ Missions

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:37

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble is anticipating budget cuts that will force the institution to downsize, and focus on its core missions. Gamble plans to retire at the end of the 2015 school year, but he’s looking beyond his tenure to help the university prepare for the future.

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Categories: Alaska News

Omnibus Spending Bill Increases Money for Wildfire Management

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:36

The $1-trillion dollar spending plan passed by Congress last weekend and signed by President Obama this week includes money for wildfire mitigation and management and that budget is up from years prior.

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A helicopter drops water on the fire near Soldotna Monday night (Ariel Van Cleave photo)

The omnibus spending plan includes $1.4 billion dollars for wildfire management and mitigation.

“That’s about 64 million dollars above fiscal year 2014 enacted level,” said Kent Slaughter, Manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service.

“So, there is definitely an increase in the amount appropriated,” he said.

The money is based on a 10-year average funding level but, it is not allocated by state. It will be split between the US Forest Service and the Department of Interior, which oversees the BLM.  Slaughter said 804 million dollars will go to the DOI, but it will be another month or two before he knows exactly how much funding will go to the Alaska Fire Service.

“I think the process went as the process is going to go. It’s nice to have a budget to know… where we’ll be for the rest of the fiscal year,” said Slaughter.

The federal budget for wildfire management has been strained in recent years. According the Forest service, the wildfire season in the United States has increased by between 60 and 80 days in the last 30 years.

When the President proposed his Fiscal Year 2015 budget earlier this year, it included a proposal to create an emergency fund for catastrophic wildfires. The goal was to decrease the amount of money that is pulled from other programs like forest restoration and management as well as research. But during the congressional process, that proposal was scrapped.

Categories: Alaska News

Coastline Search Leads To First Residents’ Camps

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:35

A computer-generated map of Southeast Alaska shows additional land (in brown) beyond today’s shoreline. (Courtesy Jim Baichtal)

The Earth’s crust is more flexible than you think – especially in Southeast Alaska. Growing and shrinking icefields and glaciers, and rising and falling oceans have altered the region’s coastline over time.

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Understanding those changes is helping scientists learn more about the area’s early human habitation. A Southeast geologist talked about what’s been discovered during a Nov. 25 Sealaska Heritage Institute Native American Heritage Month lecture.

We’ve all pretty much grown up with the assumption that the land we live on is when it’s been for thousands of years.

Sure, we have volcanoes and earthquakes and, if you paid attention in school, plate tectonics. But the big stuff happened millions of years ago, right?

Wrong. In this part of the world, drastic changes have happened in the past 6,000 to 15,000 years.

Forest Service Geologist Jim Baichtal explains.

“The ice came out on the landscape. It pushed down on that land. The sea reinvaded as the ice started to melt. And now that land has risen up,” he says.

He knows that because he – and others – have been mapping shell beds. They’ve been found from below today’s shorelines to hundreds of feet above.

Once you figure out where the shore used to be, you can make an educated guess of where early inhabitants lived – and what they saw.

“If you and I would have been, 10,000 years ago, on the shoreline and we lived to be 50 years old, sea level would have risen 10.2 feet in our lifetime,” he says.

And that matches some oral history.

Some of the settlements moved up and down rivers and streams as the ocean rose and fell, flooding coastal waterways, then receding.

Scientists have found campsites with tools and other signs of occupation.

Baichtal says they include agate and obsidian, which is only accessible in a few areas.

“So these people had been on the landscape long enough to find all those sites, and develop trade back and forth from those sites throughout all of Southeast Alaska by 10,500 calendar years ago,” he says.

The findings have larger implications for the region’s human history.

For example, Baichtal says flooding could have made it easier for early inhabitants to travel.

“So [when] people were coming into Southeast Alaska, they might not have been paddling down rivers. They were coming down the fjords,” he says.

And once here, travel would have continued on the water.

“Admiralty Island was a multitude of islands. If you look at the Cleveland Peninsula, it was a multitude of islands. The same [is true] for Gravina Island and Annette Island outside of Ketchikan,” he says.

Baichtal and other scientists have continued expanding their discoveries. He says before 2009, only five early settlement sites had been located. Since this type of research began, 17 more have been added to the list.

Excavation has also provided a look at Southeast Alaska’s climate history.

“Throughout 10,000 years to about 6,000 years, I’ve got a lot of evidence out of these muds that suggests that we were as much as 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, with half the rainfall, and that fire was part of our ecology,” he says.

Baichtal says weather patterns settled down around 5,500 years ago. That’s when human settlements really began to grow.

“The sea level balances, fish probably started getting established in big numbers in the streams, the streams no longer were being as dynamic and down-cutting and the sea level was no more rising, and I think people began to greatly flourish at that time,” he says.

As they’ve found more sites, Baichtal and his fellow scientists have developed more detailed maps of past Southeast coastlines.

He says other coastal areas could do the same.

“I’m sure all the way along the Gulf of Alaska, when you get out to Kodiak and up north, the same processes are going on. We’ve just not taken a look at applying this strategy on the landscape,” he says.

Another type of early settlement research still needs to be undertaken.

That’s exploration below current tidelines. Researchers in nearby northern coastal British Columbia have found evidence of settlements – 300 to 500 feet below the ocean’s surface.

Categories: Alaska News

How the Alaska Native Brotherhood Changed Alaska History

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:34

The book was published by the University of Alaska Press in November and is widely available. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

In “A Dangerous Idea,” author Peter Metcalfe explores the crucial role the Alaska Native Brotherhood played in securing Native rights and land claims before, during and after statehood. The recently published book explores an often overlooked chapter in Alaska’s story. Metcalfe suggests, without the ANB, the Alaska of today would be a very different place.

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When the Alaska Native Brotherhood formed in 1912, Alaska Natives were not U.S. citizens, couldn’t own title to land and couldn’t send their children to local schools. The aim of the group was citizenship and equality.

Peter Metcalfe says ANB was starting to make progress in the 1920s.

“They had won rights for education, voting rights, but what is consistent throughout the history of the Alaska Native Brotherhood is their demand that they be equals with the white establishment, that they have what we now call civil rights and that wasn’t even a term at that time,” Metcalfe says.

Two important leaders of the ANB in the 1920s were Peter Simpson and William Paul. Cultural expert and storyteller Ishmael Hope recounts an exchange they had during the 1925 ANB convention. Hope says Simpson “went up to William Paul who was one of the very prominent young leaders of the time and he just quietly said to him, ‘Hey Willy, who owns this land?’ And there was a little bit of a pause as William Paul thought of it and then he said, ‘Well, we do.’ ‘Then fight for it!’”

By the 1929 ANB/ANS Grand Camp convention in Haines, Paul was grand president. Metcalfe says Paul invited James Wickersham, who had served as a district judge and Alaska’s delegate to Congress.

“Judge Wickersham made a presentation to this convention in which he told the assembled delegates of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood that they could sue the U.S. government,” Metcalfe says.

During his time in D.C., Wickersham had seen Congress pass different jurisdictional acts allowing various Native American groups to sue the government over lost lands and rights. ANB and ANS voted to do just that.

Kathy Ruddy helped Metcalfe with research for the book. She says that moment in history was the genesis of the book’s title.

“The dangerous idea is suing your own government when you’ve only been citizens for five years. Citizenship was extended to the Native people in 1924 and this is just five years after that,” Ruddy says.

Metcalfe says it was a landmark decision. At the time, the white establishment was just getting used to the idea of Native Alaskans as citizens. Racial discrimination was entrenched in society.

In the early 1930s, ANB began fighting for aboriginal land claims in D.C.

Metcalfe says members of the ANB set aside traditional ways in order to achieve their goals. Leaders spoke English and adapted to Western ways of dress and social activities.

But Hope says, despite what they wore at the time, leaders of the ANB, like his grandfather John Hope, retained their Native culture, which helped them in their fight.

“My grandpa talked about how we used parliamentary procedure, we used the English language as a tool, but not a means of identity,” Hope says. “Many of the ANB founders, you look at them and you think, the stereotype is that they’re assimilated Indians, but you actually look into the history and you see deeply retained cultural knowledge, cultural experiences.”

Hope’s father, Andrew Hope III, was the impetus for “A Dangerous Idea.” It was his idea to apply for a grant through the Alaska Humanities Forum, which funded the research. Hope passed away shortly after the grant was awarded in 2008.

One important case stemming from that 1929 decision – Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States – took about 40 years to resolve. In 1968, a federal court held that the land was owned by Native people from time immemorial.

Metcalfe says without the ANB and the ANS, there wouldn’t have been an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, or the Alaska of today.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Hockey Homecoming

Fri, 2014-12-19 13:36

Tanner Sorenson takes aim at the net at the Bonnie Cusack outdoor rink in Anchorage. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Anchorage has a close knit hockey community, but if players want to continue on to college hockey or eventually play professionally, they have to move away from Alaska at a fairly young age – leaving friendships behind.

They use their short breaks back home to re-live some of those childhood memories on the ice. And, the 5th Annual Christmas Classic gives them that opportunity.

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Tanner Sorenson is flying around the ice at Anchorage’s Bonnie Cusack’s Outdoor Rinks, moving with a well-practiced stride that has been perfected over many years of skating at Anchorage’s ice rinks.

He rings a shot off the goal post, watching it sail high over the boards, narrowly missing a car parked nearby.

Tanner Sorenson skating at the Bonnie Cusack outdoor ice rink. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Tanner flew into Anchorage early this morning from Michigan State University, where he’s playing his final year of college hockey.

Though Tanner enjoys playing on the larger stage, with high pressure to perform in front of thousands of fans, he says getting back on the outdoor ice is relaxing.

“Just get to have fun, do whatever you want, mess around, no one’s gonna get too upset,” he said. “I mean, obviously everyone’s so competitive with hockey and sports in general. But, outside of that, there’s no systems, no pressure, I think it’s just everyone having kind of a good time and kinda getting together with your buddies when you come back from school and whatnot, which is always fun.”

Tanner has been living halfway across the country since he started high school. As he was entering 9th grade, he was recruited to play hockey at Minnesota’s Shattuck St. Mary’s – a prep school with a reputation of churning out future college hockey and professional stars.

Now on Michigan State’s roster, Tanner says the transition to living away from home during his early teenage years wasn’t too difficult.

But, it meant leaving behind a lifetime of friends. So, whenever he makes it back up to Alaska, he takes advantage of the time he has to reconnect.

“We always get together, come out here, have some fun, mess around, kind of enjoy being back,” Tanner said. “I mean, it’s nothing serious, we just like to – I guess it’s a time to get away and hang out, rest, catch up on what we’ve missed, how school’s going, how we’re doing, and all that.”

Dennis Sorenson coaches Dimond High School’s varsity hockey team. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Of course, leaving the state to play high school hockey also meant leaving his family. Tanner’s dad is Dennis Sorenson, who is well known in Alaska’s hockey community. He’s been coaching in the state since 1984, after finishing his collegiate hockey career at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

I meet Dennis at another local ice rink, where he’s coaching Anchorage’s Dimond High School.

During his time coaching, Dennis has helped hundreds of players go on to compete at hockey’s highest levels. And he says it’s important for the players to get back on the outdoor ice where they started, to put a smile back on their face and to remind themselves why they love the game.

“Sometimes the team game, the team takes over for the fun, because winning is real important,” he said. “So, they get out there, and it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, they’re out there doing moves they haven’t done in years, and they just feel like, the best thing is going on in the world.”

“Nobody is yelling at them nobody cares, they’re just having a good time with their friends and doing something positive.”

Dennis Sorenson confers with another coach at Dimond High School’s hockey practice. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

The Sorenson’s story is common in Alaska’s hockey community. Bryce Christianson is another player who grew up in Alaska, but eventually had to leave to further his hockey career.

He’s the founder and organizer of the Christmas Classic outdoor hockey tournament. Bryce says it started off small – as a way to get some friends together who had gone their separate ways for junior and college hockey.

“The first year, the idea was just to see how many guys we could together to come out and play some hockey,” Bryce said. ”And the first year we went on Facebook and got 20 guys together; the next year we got 40 guys and then it started to progress; and the third year we ended up having 60, and at that point it’s like, hey all these guys together, we’ve gotta do it for something more, we’ve gotta do it for a cause.”

A team from last year’s Christmas Classic Tournament. (Photo courtesy of the Bryce Christianson, organizer of the Christmas Classic tournament)

That cause ended up being Toys for Tots. Last year, the tournament fielded 96 players and contributed 208 toys. This year, it’s even bigger, with more than 125 players signed up to play.

Both Dennis and Tanner are participating in this year’s tournament. Tanner says it’ll be nice to get back out on the ice with old friends, even if he already plays against some of them in college.

“It’s kind of funny, we’ll get there, line up against them, give them a nice little slash on the back or whatever and kind of laugh it off, but definitely when the pucks going, it’s kind of all in,” Tanner said. “Everyone’s so serious, you don’t even realize that’s your buddy until the end of the game.”

“So, it’s definitely fun when we get back and talk about the games we’ve played against each other and whatnot. I know everyone’s pretty excited to come to this tournament.”

As the tournament expands, its goal is to be a family event. This year there will be a heating tent, free food and drinks. Bryce is even trying to get a Santa for the kids and some live music for those who stop by. There will also be Marines standing by for toy dropoffs – and of course some great hockey.

The tournament is on Saturday, Dec. 20 at Anchorage’s Bonnie Cusack outdoor rinks near the Sullivan Arena. The heating tent, food, and registration tables should be ready by 10:30 a.m. and hockey will begin at 11:00 a.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Annual Statewide Holiday Greetings Show

Fri, 2014-12-19 12:00

It’s not to be missed!  The annual state-wide holiday greeting edition of Talk of Alaska is on its way.  Good wishes will be flying across the great state of Alaska, re-connecting friends and families and extended families in a two-hour wave of greetings. So make your list and get ready to call on the next Talk of Alaska.

HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network

GUESTS:

  • The People of Alaska

PARTICIPATE:

  • 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, December 23, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

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

TALK OF ALASKA ARCHIVE

Categories: Alaska News

Lonnie Dupre Makes Fourth Winter Solo Attempt on Denali

Fri, 2014-12-19 10:29

On Thursday, climber and Arctic veteran Lonnie Dupre  left Talkeetna for his fourth attempt to be the first person to summit Denali in January.

Climbing Denali is hard.  Even in peak season, temperatures dip below zero, and frostbite is a real concern.  In fact, this summer saw one of the lowest summit rates in decades, owing largely to weather.  Not many people attempt North America’s highest peak in winter.  Lonnie Dupre is one of the few who has.  He is beginning his fourth attempt to summit the mountain in January.  His previous attempts were all thwarted by the weather.  Dupre says he’s surprised at how mild the Alaskan winter has been so far.

Lonnie Dupre during his 2012 attempt on Denali. (Courtesy Lonnie Dupre)

“I’m surprised on how little snow and how warm it’s been in Alaska, overall.  That opens up a whole new bit of news, maybe, on climate change and what’s been going on with the weather these days.”

Lonnie Dupre takes climate change seriously.  Many of his expeditions have been to raise awareness for the changing environment.  Despite the warmer-than-normal temperatures in the lowlands of Alaska, however, Dupre says it will still be very cold on Denali, with temperatures potentially dipping to fifty-below-zero.  Under those conditions, Lonnie Dupre says the body requires a lot of calories just to keep going.

“It’s like throwing a log on the fire, right?  You’ve got to keep the firewood coming…”

Lonnie Dupre estimates he’ll be taking in about 4,500 calories per day to keep his internal furnace running.  He says that hydration is even more important, and that he plans to drink four or five liters of melted snow-water each day.

Daylight is also a major factor affecting winter climbs.  Lonnie Dupre will only have a handful of hours each day to try to make progress.

“A big challenge, aside from the cold, is you only have a limited time to travel, because it’s dark.  I’m leaving at the darkest time of the year, so it only leaves you maybe five hours of useable light in mid-December.”

Crevasses present a challenge to Denali climbers regardless of the season.  Without team members, Lonnie Dupre will be on his own should he find himself in an area where crevasses have opened.

“A preventative measure to not drop into one of those bad-boys is to take a big, long pair of skis, and I’m taking…about a thirteen foot long spruce pole with me.”

Like much of his gear, Lonnie’s eight-foot long skis are custom.  In fact, he made them himself.  This year, he is also bringing along a tent, sleeping bag, and down suit that should help him stay warm.  Overall, Dupre feels good about this year’s attempt.

“You always get those butterflies in your stomach right before you go, but I’m excited to get moving.  I’m feeling really good about this year; I’ve trained hard.  I’ve got all the equipment I could have wished for for this trip.”

As with his previous attempts, Lonnie Dupre’s primary goal is to get back safely, though reaching the summit of Denali would be a definite plus.

Categories: Alaska News

Interior Dept. Appoints New Leader for Offshore Energy

Fri, 2014-12-19 10:17

The federal agency that regulates offshore oil drilling is about to get a new leader.

Abigail Hopper has been named director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, according to a report from FuelFix.

Hopper has spent several years running the Maryland Energy Administration. She recently worked on a project to set up wind energy farms off Maryland’s shore — leading to a federal lease sale in August.

Now, BOEM is turning its attention to building a new five-year plan for selling oil and gas leases offshore. The agency’s been under pressure to include the Atlantic Ocean. But they say new seismic research is needed before they can make a decision.

Hopper will be the second director at BOEM since it was established by the Interior Department in 2010. Former director Tommy Beaudreau left in May to become chief of staff to the Interior Secretary.

Categories: Alaska News

Unknown Oily Sheen off Shishmaref Coast Returns

Thu, 2014-12-18 17:18

Unknown product visible under nearshore ice on Dec. 12, 2014. (Photo: Sharon Nayokpuk, Shishmaref Environmental Program via Alaska DEC)

An oily sheen of unknown origin discovered along the northeast coast of Shishmaref this summer has returned.

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The sheen was first discovered in June on the nearshore icepack by the Shishmaref Village Public Safety Officer. The VPSO reported the yellow liquid smelled like gasoline. That led to cleanup efforts and an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine exactly what the substance was, and where it came from.

Samples of the sheen—and from the community’s fuel tanks—were collected for testing at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Lab in Connecticut. But the summer cleanup efforts ended with results still pending, and no source for the sheen ever identified.

Now the sheen is back—noticed by a local store owner and the VPSO last week. DEC officials say the unidentified substance again has the strong scent of gasoline. The unknown petroleum product was visible under nearshore ice as early as last Friday.

DEC spokesperson Ashley Adamczak said the agency is sending someone to Shishmaref Thursday to investigate. Adamczak said those samples collected over the summer will come in handy.

“We will be able to do a direct comparison with the substances that were leaching from the shore line last summer, and this event, and compare [them both] to the tank farm,” she said.

Adamczak said locals in Shishmaref have offered input on where the oily substance is coming from, and DEC is following up.

“There’s a lot of people there that have a lot more history of that site than we do,” she said about the investigation just now getting underway. “There’s a couple different floating theories that we have, and we are actually taking a metal detector device out there to do some investigation, to see if there’s any subsurface tanks or buried drums that are in the area.”

Adamczak said the idea of forgotten oil drums or fuel tanks was offered over the summer. “We’ll be working very closely with the people who reported that those might be there to determine those exact locations.”

The Coast Guard has hired waste treatment company Emerald Alaska to perform an on-site assessment.

Last summer’s cleanup resulted in about 30 bags of oily waste from absorbent materials laid out over an area of 1,200 square feet. About 100 gallons of the fuel-like substance were recovered, according to DEC officials on the ground in Shishmaref in July.

Categories: Alaska News

Governor Walker Shares Upbeat Message With Fairbanks

Thu, 2014-12-18 17:17

Governor Bill Walker is striking an optimistic tone despite tanking oil prices that are reducing state revenue.  Speaking to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Walker pointed to opportunity.

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Categories: Alaska News

Scientists ID Two Bat Species Never Before Seen In Alaska

Thu, 2014-12-18 17:16

(Image via FIRST RECORDS OF YUMA MYOTIS (MYOTIS YUMANENSIS)
IN ALASKA)

Scientists are in a race to learn as much as they can about bats in Alaska. And that race has led to the discovery of two new species previously unknown in the state. The Hoary bat and the Yuma bat were both found in Southeast Alaska.

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Bat research in the state has been accelerating over the last several years as scientists anticipate the spread of white-nose syndrome in bat species and the effects of climate change.

This surge in research uncovered two different bat species never-before-documented in Alaska.

Specimens of the Yuma Bat – or Yuma Myotis – have actually been in museum collections for nearly 30 years. But, they were incorrectly identified.

Link Olson is the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. He says that’s largely because, on the surface, the Yuma Bat looks very similar to a more common, well-documented species called the Little Brown Bat.

“If I were to go down to Southeast Alaska and catch a bat that could either be a Yuma Bat or Little Brown Bat, without any other information or evidence, if I were to look at it, then let it go, or even if I were to take the measurements that you can take from a live bat in the hand, I would not be able to confidently identify it as one or the other,” Olson said.

And Olson doesn’t believe his colleagues would claim to be able to make the distinction either.

Though the two species might look alike, he says they aren’t closely related, which gives scientists other avenues to identify the bats.

“What we can do is collect tiny bits of tissue, and we usually do this from either the wing or the tail membranes because they heal very rapidly, and with that tiny little punch – or biopsy – of tissue, we can use very straightforward genetic techniques to identify these two particular species,” Olson said.

The second species previously unknown in Alaska is the Hoary Bat. Scientists don’t have any physical specimens of the species from within the state. But, they were able to detect the species by using ultra-sensitive audio equipment that can pick up the bat’s echolocation signals, which are typically outside of the human hearing range.

“These ‘bat detectors’ will record those and either display them in a typical sonogram so that we can compare them to known reference calls and hopefully identify them to species, which is what was done in this case, or they will divide that echolocation call by a denominator that literally breaks it down and divides it so in our hearing range,” Olson said.

Though the identification was successful in the case of the Hoary Bat, Olson says species can’t always be accurately identified by their echolocation alone.

The range of the bats is not known, but in the case of the Yuma Bat, Olson says specimens from other collections are from as far north as Baranof Island, and he suspects it might extend even further north.

“There’s no clear bio-geographic barrier that I can think of to this species until you get up to the Malaspina Glacier north of Yakutat,” Olson said.

There are plenty of other unknowns regarding Alaska’s bats – including where they spend their winters. Olson says that question still looms even for the better-documented Little Brown Bat.

This question is particularly pressing because bats are most-susceptible to White Nose Syndrome while they are hibernating.

As bat research progresses, Olson says citizen science has become a critical component, because many of the museums specimens were discovered by citizens, not scientists.

“Those old, dead bats are incredibly valuable scientifically,” he said. “Even if it looks rotten and crushed, there’s scientific value in that specimen.”

Olson says if you do run across a dead or dying bat, alert Fish & Game or a local biologist rather than picking it up yourself.

Categories: Alaska News

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