Alaska News Nightly: April 9, 2012

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Muni Attorney Issues Opinion On Validity Of Last Week’s Election

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

The Municipal Attorney for Anchorage has issued an opinion on the validity of last week’s election. Attorney Dennis Wheeler says it’s unlikely that voting problems due to a ballot shortage will invalidate the election.

In a memo Wheeler detailed a previous ruling on a similar ballot shortage during 1989 elections.

“It was similar in that there were some hot button issues that drew people out, there was tobacco tax and sale of the telephone utility. There weren’t enough ballots at the precincts, the election commission investigated and rendered a special report to the assembly and they had to decide whether that event appears to be why the ballot requirement,” Wheeler said.

The Clerk’s office has been working to sort out what happened during the April 3 election. They’ve reviewed all 121 voting precincts, and found more than 6,000 “questioned” ballots. In addition they’ve counted nearly 1,500 unscanned ballots.

“My preliminary opinion was that based on what we’d seen from prior opinions and prior election contests that the percentages between the winning candidates and the percentage of victory for the propositions was so great that it was unlikely that there would be a change,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler and the Election Commission will present reports to the Anchorage Assembly soon. Then the Assembly will decide whether the election is valid.

The Clerk’s office is collecting information from voters who attempted to vote, but were unable to because of the ballot shortage to contact the Clerk’s office.

Two Bills Offer Short- And Long-Term Energy Relief

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Two bills that, combined, would give Alaskans some relief from high energy costs got jump starts Monday.  A Senate bill would help meet short-term needs; a House bill would take a long-term approach.

UAF Students Testing High Efficiency Homes

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

New housing for University of Alaska Fairbanks students will test high efficiency design and construction. The Sustainable Village will include four-bedroom homes designed to be heated with the equivalent of 200 gallons of oil per year, but the houses will use a mix of solar and biomass energy. The project is a partnership between UAF and the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.  Center President and CEO Jack Hebert said the project is a real world test of innovative northern housing.

Student teams competed to design the new homes, which will be wired with sensors to monitor efficiency.  Winning design team member Lyle Alexander says the Sustainable Village is about testing and comparing design elements specific to each home site.

One of the prototypes employs a super insulated foundation designed to protect underlying permafrost from degradation. The Sustainable Village will also feature a unique above ground on-site sewage treatment system, but Alexander says much of the housing project just brings together off the shelf components.

The four Sustainable Village Homes are scheduled for completion by August.

Environmental Group Pans Resource Roads

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The Parnell administration has budgeted millions of dollars toward a program aimed at building gravel roads to Northwestern Alaska mineral resources, but a conservation group is calling the program a waste of money.

A report released last week by the  Wilderness Society points out financial flaws in  the state administration’s “road to resources” agenda.

Author Lois Epstein, Arctic Program Director for the Wilderness Society,  says there is no financial mechanism behind the administration’s push for roads to Umiat, Ambler and Nome.  And, so far, millions of dollars have been spent on planning the roads

Epstein’s report, Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish II, focuses on the three Arctic roads, which she says would facilitate private resource development in the respective areas, while private industry has not contributed any funds toward the road projects.

Epstein says, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities data indicates these projects have an estimated total construction cost of at least $1.7-2.4 billion,  based on building one-lane, low-cost gravel roads. Former Governors Murkowski and Palin, and Governor Sean Parnell have requested, and received $33.6 million in state money to date on the three projects.

Parnell’s capital budget for Fiscal Year 2013 proposes spending an additional millions in state money on the projects.

Epstein says other road projects under consideration, like the proposed roads to Juneau and Gravina, would have received 90 percent funding from the federal government, with the state contributing about 10 percent of costs.

But federal dollars are drying up, Epstein says, and the state’s general fund would have to foot the bill for the Umiat, Ambler and Nome roads.

But Joe Buck, the state Department of Transportation’s resource roads manager, says Epstein is being short sighted.

Buck says the P3 idea works by creating a development consortium.

Buck says the tonnage fees could eventually be used to pay off the state’s initial investment in getting the projects started.

Governor Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow confirms that Parnell has requested $28.5 million for  roads to resources, but could not say if the administration had reviewed the report yet.

Shaggy Bear Shaguyik on the Run

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A two -year-old Kodiak brown bear has escaped her enclosure at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. Conservation Center spokesman Ethan Tyler  says the female Shaguyik escaped when an electric fence surrounding the bear’s enclosure was turned off for maintenance on Tuesday.

The 300-pound Shaguyik is one of two orphaned Kodiak brown bear cubs housed at the Conservation Center. The bear was last seen in mountains between Placer and Portage valleys. Tyler says the center is working with the Department of Fish and Game to find the blond bear from the air.

He says if Shaguyik is located by officials, she will be darted with a tranquilizer.

Shaguyik was destined to be sent to a Swedish bear exhibit in June.  He says the Swedish facility has been notified of the bear’s escape.

Traveling Sea Lion Phones Home

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

Herring seiners are not the only fishermen commuting long-distance to Sitka this spring. A half-ton Steller sea lion has been seen in and around Sitka’s harbors recently browsing on the abundant herring. The animal was tagged – just over a month ago – at the Bonneville Dam near Portland, Oregon, about 900 miles to the south.

The sea lion is an adult breeding bull, probably between 9 and 13 years old, and well over 1,000 pounds.

And while he’s fully capable of making this trip, the more important question is how and why.

“For one to move 900 miles like this, it’s not unheard of.”

Michael Rehberg leads the Steller Sea Lion Research Program for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game in Anchorage. Stellers are not migratory animals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get around.

“Sea lions are built for swimming. They have a beautiful, fusiform shape that reduces drag, and a lot of the features of their bodies and the depth at which they’re swimming in the water, is a really efficient place to be. So sea lions, even when they’re very young, can go long distances.”

Rehburg says ADF&G has tracked sea lions in Southeast as young as six weeks old making trips of seventy miles without stopping, and has recorded one trip of 1,000 miles by a ten-month-old. The animal was at sea for three weeks.

This sea lion was tagged by biologists with the Washington and Oregon departments of Fish & Wildlife at the Bonneville Dam, about 20 miles upriver of Portland, Oregon, on February 28. It was feeding on sturgeon with a group of smaller California sea lions. The technology in the tag is innovative: the sea lion is basically wearing a cell phone on its head. It’s clear, acrylic plastic, with an antenna sticking out in front, and it continuously records the sea lion’s position using gps, or the global positioning system, data.

“And when the tag gets in range of cell towers, it’ll make a phone call and download as much data as it’s got, up to the people who are tracking it.”

Rehberg says this type of tag is really effective along the more-densely populated coast of Washington and Oregon. In Alaska, not so much. Researchers lost track of the sea lion somewhere north of Vancouver Island.

“Until it called in from Sitka, and actually someone saw it out on the water.”

That person notified local marine mammal biologist Jan Straley, who in turn notified ADF&G.

Rehberg says it’s no accident that the sea lion is in Sitka. The Sound is wall-to-wall herring right now, and he literally made a beeline here the moment biologists on the Columbia River released him. Rehberg believes these older, larger animals can develop a specialized foraging strategy that puts them where the best food is, at the best times. A biologist in Rehberg’s office has just returned from a trip to Dry Bay near Yakutat, where 2-3,000 sea lions have converged on a large-but-brief eulachon run there. She identified the tags of animals born in Washington, Oregon, and Kodiak.

“Well, they’re animals and they can move, and they know where the good food is. The main question for this guy from Oregon is: We don’t know where he was born yet. So what we really don’t know is if this is an Alaska breeding male who went down to Oregon for an easy meal, or if this is an Oregon male who came up to Alaska looking for love in the breeding season this summer.”

And if this latter is the case, will being one of the few sea lions with a cell phone on his head be an advantage? That’s probably better left to the sea lionesses than science.

In the meantime, Rehberg thinks this sea lion’s trip does shed more light on population dynamics. Alaska has two genetically-distinct populations of sea lions, eastern and western. In northern Southeast, two relatively new rookeries have started – with an apparent blend of the two populations. Rehberg says there’s an advantage “to being mobile.”

Note: Rehburg credits much of the information in this story to ADF&G biologist Lauri Jemison and her team on the mark-resight study, and includes the work of collaborators from Russia thru California.

NOAA Beginning Survey Of Bering Sea-Area Ice Seals

Associated Press

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says U.S. and Russia researchers will begin the largest-ever survey of ice seals in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast.

The aerial survey will begin this week from Nome.

The agency says in an announcement that scientists will use advanced imaging systems and modern statistical techniques for estimates of ribbon seals, spotted seals, bearded seals and ringed seals.

The agency says survey flights will also will be sent out from Bethel, Dillingham and St. Paul Island.

The agency says the survey will continue into May.

Campaign Aims To Defeat Dillingham Annexation Effort

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The largest campaign in the history of Dillingham has been geared toward defeating a long discussed annexation effort by the city.

Sealaska Shareholders Face Term-Limits Measure

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A group of Sealaska shareholders want to limit the number of terms corporate board members can serve. They say it would bring change to the regional corporation for Alaska Natives with roots in Southeast. But a similar measure three years ago failed.

This year’s measure would limit Sealaska board members to four consecutive terms. But that’s not all.

“Actually, what it will do is reform our board membership,” says Mick Beasley, author of the measure. If it passes, seven of the corporation’s 13 board members would term out.

Beasley is among those who want changes in how Sealaska works operates.

“I’d like us to think about stuff like death benefits (and) birth benefits. I’d like to see some utilization of our natural resources. We’re afraid of our lands,” he says.

Beasley got a term-limits measure on Sealaska’s 2009 shareholder ballot.

It took a stronger stand, allowing only two consecutive terms. And it failed.

About 45 percent of shares cast were in support, while about 48 percent were in opposition.

That might sound close, but it’s not.

Sealaska Vice President and Corporate Secretary Nicole Hallingstad explains.

“The requirement for any shareholder vote that impacts the bylaws of Sealaska Corporation is the standard requiring 50 percent plus one share of all the outstanding vote shares of the corporation,” Hallingstad says.

So the 2009 measure was only supported by about 35 percent of all shares that could be cast.

Sealaska strongly urged shareholders to vote down the two-term measure.

“The first and primary reason was the rapid loss of institutional knowledge and experience that would result from the departure of 11 directors out of a 13-director board that would occur in a three-year period,” she says.

The board has not yet taken a formal position on this year’s term-limits measure. It will be released as part of this year’s proxy ballot.

Shareholders can vote from May 11th to the corporation’s annual meeting June 23rd in Juneau.

Eight candidates are running for five board seats. Incumbents seeking re-election are Angoon’s Albert Kookesh, Juneau’s Joseph Nelson, Haines’ Bill Thomas, Juneau’s Barbara Cadiente-Nelson and Bothell, Washington’s, J. Tate London.

Three independent candidates are also seeking board seats: Ray Austin of Albuquerque, New Mexico; Will Micklin of Alpine, California, and Edward Sarabia of South Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Sealaska has just over 21,000 shareholders.

Hear a report about the previous term-limits vote.