Alaska News Nightly: March 7, 2011

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Fish and Wildlife Decides Against Unimak Island Wolf Kill
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that it will not conduct a wolf kill on Unimak Island as part of an effort to grow a dwindling caribou herd.

An environmental assessment released this January suggested predator control – including aerial wolf hunts – as possibilities for protecting the caribou herd at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, but the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected these options.

Bruce Woods is a spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife. He says laws governing wilderness lands require that natural diversity be maintained with minimal intervention by man, and that the predator control options would have been a break from established policy.

Management of the Unimak caribou herd has been a point of tension between the federal government and the state for about a year. Over the past decade, the caribou population on Unimak Island has dropped from about 1,300 animals to just 300 and has been closed to subsistence harvesting. Last May, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game proposed a wolf kill in an effort to protect the herd, and the State of Alaska filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to allow hunters onto refuge land. A federal judge denied that request.

When Fish and Wildlife released its environmental assessment this winter, there was some surprise by conservation groups that predator control was still on the table. Rebecca Noblin is the Alaska Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. She says not enough is known about the cause of the caribou decline.

Right now, Fish and Wildlife will continue its surveys of Unimak caribou and its research on the herd’s decline. Woods says they’re also considering a plan that would bring bulls from the Alaska Peninsula to Unimak Island in an effort to increase calf production.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was not able to offer immediate comment on this story.

Another Gas Pipeline Project Expected to Miss Deadline
Associated Press
Another major natural gas pipeline project in Alaska is expected to miss a self-imposed deadline for securing agreements with shippers.

Scott Jepsen, vice president for business services with the Denali gasline project tells The Associated Press the pipeline is not likely to have agreements in place by the end of the first quarter, as hoped.

Jepsen says negotiations are taking longer than anticipated. He says no agreements have been signed with shippers who had earlier expressed interest in the multi-billion project.

Jepsen says it’s unclear whether the project will have the support it needs to move forward.

TransCanada Corporation is working with Exxon Mobil Corporation to advance a competing line. It failed to meet its self-imposed target for agreements at the end of last year. The company is continuing negotiations.

Roadless Rule’s Future in Tongass Remains Uncertain
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
It’s unclear whether the federal government will appeal a judge’s decision to apply the roadless rule to Southeast Alaska’s Tongass Forest.

A federal judge on Friday lifted an exemption to the nationwide logging-limiting rule that had been in place since the Bush administration. Plaintiffs say the ruling will protect fishing and tourism jobs. Critics say it will hurt the timber industry, as well as mining and hydropower development.

Exxon Reopener Clause Decision Rests With Judge
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The issue of whether Exxon should be ordered to pay the $92 million requested under the reopener clause  provision from the 1991 settlement over the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, now rests with federal Judge Russel Holland.

On Friday, Judge Holland allowed a hearing on an amicus or friend of the court brief even though the request by retired professor Rick Steiner was on shaky legal legs. Holland allowed the hearing because he said there was great public interest in this issue, but technically Steiner had no standing to ask to be allowed to file the brief since the issue has not yet been in court. Exxon protested the attempted filing as did the state and federal governments, saying when the issue comes to court should be up to the parties involved, not Steiner. In 2006 the governments asked for 92 of the 100 million allowed in the reopener. Holland denied Steiner’s filing, but state law department spokesman Bill McAllister says he did ask for an update on the reopener’s status. McAllister says science is being collected.

Rick Steiner says it’s time to stop studying and take action.

In addition to requesting he be allowed to join the case with his amicus filing, Steiner also asked judge Holland to rescind the $125 million in criminal fines that the court gave back to Exxon in 1991 because it appeared the corporation would act in good faith and pay to restore Prince William Sound. Steiner says Exxon has not been a good corporate citizen because it refused to pay the reopener and because of an infamous case known as ‘the Seattle Seven’ which brought to light attempts at secretive kick backs to Exxon from Seattle processors from punitive damages.

Judge Holland dismissed the amicus filing, but Steiner says that’s fine.

The states’ McAllister says it’s been mischaracterized that Exxon says it will not pay the reopener because during the court proceedings it was revealed that Exxon and the governments have been in negotiations about it. But Exxon Mobile spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman says because the purpose of the reopener clause was to pay for any unforeseen damage to Prince William Sound there’s no devastation to invoke the provision for.

Bergman says the crash of the herring fishery two years after the spill has not been proven to be linked to the spill. Bergman says that means the governments can’t ask for more money.

Iditarod Leaders Pass Through Rainy Pass
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Iditorod leaders are into Rainy Pass checkpoint, and a hand full of them have moved beyond it.   Robert Buntzen is in the lead, followed by Paul Gebhardt, but Lance Mackey is not far behind them.  As APRN’s Ellen Lockyer reports, of the top 20 dog drivers jockeying for position in this year’s race, two represent a changing of the guard in the Last Great Race.

Mushers Not Expecting Yukon Quest Conditions on Iditarod Trail
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Running the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back to back has been popular with mushers in recent years. But teams who compete in both have only a few weeks to recover before tackling a second 1,000 mile race. This year’s Yukon Quest was especially challenging, with brutal weather and horrific trail conditions. But mushers who are competing in both say they aren’t worried it will have any affect on the Iditarod.

Government Conducting Oil Spill Analysis in Chukchi
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
The federal government will be conducting a new oil spill analysis before it completes a lease sale in the Chukchi Sea.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement announced today that it will be shifting the schedule for its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement so that it will have time to study what’s called a “Very Large Oil Spill” scenario – a spill that would involve over 150,000 gallons of oil. In the past few months, the bureau has received over 100,000 comments on the lease sale. Many of these comments asked for a study that would look at the effects of a Deepwater Horizon-like spill in the Arctic.

Lease Sale 193 occurred in 2008, but was put on hold after conservation and Native groups sued the government and argued that the environmental impacts of drilling in the Chukchi had not been thoroughly studied. The federal government is currently completing another environmental impact statement to address these concerns.

This extended review process will primarily affect leases for Shell Oil. Shell had intended to drill an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this summer, but decided not to because of permitting delays. Spokesperson Curtis Smith says that the company is still trying to understand the intent of the order, but he says that this move could further complicate Shell’s plans in the Arctic. He also says that Shell’s drilling program isn’t comparable to BP’s operation in the Gulf of Mexico.

But conservation groups think that the federal government is taking a step in the right direction by asking for an oil spill analysis. Pamela Miller is the Arctic program director at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and she says that Shell’s own studies are not sufficient.

The federal government expects that the environmental review will be finalized by October.

Tribes Score Victory in Child Protection Case
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
Tribes have scored a victory in a case against the state of Alaska over the right of tribal courts to initiate child protection cases and to have the state recognize their decrees. The state had taken the view that only the state, not tribes, had jurisdiction to initiate proceedings involving Alaska Native children.

A spokeswoman says the Governor’s Office has no comment on the Alaska Supreme Court’s ruling, which they are still reviewing.