Greetings from Alaska!
I am here for over a week to see how our team is doing up here.
After arriving in Juneau on Friday, I joined staff from Senator Murkowski’s office along with staff from Senator Begich’S and Congressman Young’s offices, representatives from Alaska, the conservation NGO community, Alaska Native tribes, the commercial fishing industry and others to talk about sea otter issues in southeast Alaska.
Sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1700s and 1800s through commercial harvest for their luxurious furs. Once commercial harvest ceased, sea otter numbers rebounded and they re-colonized much of their former range.
Sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1700s and 1800s. Credit: USFWS
The rebounding populations, though, have raised concerns about impacts on commercial and subsistence shellfish (and other) fisheries. In addition, there is concern in the Alaska Native community about USFWS enforcement of the section in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that states that any handicraft made from a sea otter pelt must be “significantly altered” if it is to be sold to a non-Native.
It was a good discussion that allowed a lot of voices to be heard and offered opposing sides a chance to maybe find some common ground. On Saturday, I went to Sitka to attend a second sea otter meeting. Everyone left the meetings with some concrete steps forward.
While in Sitka, I got out on the water and saw a large group of more than 40 sea otters, and later visited a tannery where subsistence-harvested sea otter pelts are tanned before being made into handicrafts by Alaska Native craftspeople.
On Sunday, I met with our Juneau staff, and had the pleasant surprise of chatting and comparing notes with two other former National Wildlife Refuge System chiefs (Bob Scott and Alaska Regional Director Geoff Haskett). I also got caught up on Alaska issues, including polar bears, subsistence, the Unimak caribou herd, Endangered Species Act petitions regarding Alaska species and more.
I got a chance to chat with two other former National Wildlife Refuge System chiefs (Bob Scott and Alaska Regional Director Geoff Haskett (left)).
On Monday, I met with Alaska Department of Fish and Game Director Cora Campbell. With all the wild land in Alaska, this state partner is an important key to conservation up here. I also participated in a conference call regarding various polar bear issues, before flying to Anchorage.
On Tuesday I began the day at our Regional Office for briefings on subsistence salmon issues on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers before addressing regional employees. It was a constructive chat. I reminded them that my Dad always characterized Service employees as a culture of "doers," capable of and ready to meet the immense challenges the agency faces. And we do face a lot.
On a beautiful and sunny Tuesday afternoon, I was able to get out of the office and, with Alaska Region staff and Senator Begich (AK) and Senator Wyden (OR) visit the Campbell Creek Estuary Habitat Protection Project, which is designed to protect and preserve 60 acres of coastal habitat at the mouth of this unique urban salmon stream.
Refreshed by a beautiful Anchorage day (sunny and in the 60s), I returned to the Regional Office for another round of briefings, largely focused on Strategic Habitat Conservation/Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and priority species and related conservation successes in Alaska. It was heartening to hear the spirited and thoughtful dialogue surrounding what species would serve as good surrogates for all the amazing resources of our northernmost Region. Though many of these concepts are relatively new, I was convinced that the Alaska Region “gets them.”
I still have a stop or two to make, but throughout the trip, I have once again been awed by the natural beauty and the magnificent scope of our largest state. Equally inspiring: the Region’s work to address such unique challenges as having still-intact ecosystems yet having to prepare to meet the changes that are occurring due to rapid and accelerated warming in the Arctic.