Alaska News Nightly: February 23, 2011

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio (MP3)

Polar Bear Status Up For Debate
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Whether the polar bear is endangered, threatened, or doing just fine was debated in federal court Wednesday in Washington DC.

Lawyers for the federal government defended the 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to list the bears as “threatened,” meaning they’re at risk of becoming endangered in the future.  But they were challenged from both sides. The State of Alaska and other groups argued that the bears shouldn’t be protected at all while the wildlife conservation group Center for Biological Diversity argued that the bears are already endangered, because the sea ice on which they hunt for seals is melting.

The Center’s Senior Counsel Brendan Cummings says the purpose of their case is to establish that polar bears are in danger of extinction.

CBD showed photographs of a starving bear, and bears so hungry they had turned to cannibalism.  They say ice is melting so fast that in as little as 15 years female bears won’t be on the ice long enough to develop the body fat necessary to reproduce.

CBD also argued that Fish and Wildlife violated the law by not using the best science available and came to conclusions not supported by the facts.

But the state of Alaska says the bear shouldn’t be listed at all, because there is not a population decline.  It’s concerned that protections for the bear could hamper oil and gas development.

The State’s Endangered Species Coordinator, Doug Vincent-Lang, says some amount of sea ice melt doesn’t prove that the bears are threatened.

The attorney who argued on behalf of the state of Alaska, Murray Feldman, says one problem is that the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t adequately consult with the state before making its decision, which is required by law.  He says that’s reason enough to throw out the “threatened” listing.  He also tried to poke holes in the agency’s decision.

Federal attorney Clifford Stevens defended the ‘threatened’ listing, and dismissed both sides’ criticisms about the bear population models used, saying far more information went into the Fish and Wildlife decision than just modeling.  He says the threatened listing is rational, because the bear is indeed likely to be in danger of extinction in the future, but isn’t right now.  Stevens called the polar bear a “classic case” of exactly what Congress intended the “threatened” category to be used for when they created it. The federal attorneys refused interviews with APRN.

The hearing on Wednesday was a melding of numerous cases related to the polar bear listing, so a variety of other groups also made arguments, like the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.  Its attorney, Jeff Feldman, sided with the federal government.  He says while the Inupiat residents are concerned about the implications of even a “threatened” listing, the Corporation believes the government’s arguments are sound.  But Feldman says they do want to make sure the feds don’t go further.

District Court judge Emmet Sullivan heard the arguments.  His decision could come any time in the next few months – he did not give attorneys a sense of when he will rule.

UAF Staff, Faculty Vent over Hiked Health Insurance Costs
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
University of Alaska-Fairbanks faculty and staff met last night to vent concerns and anger over the administration’s proposals to hike the cost of university health insurance. Anchorage campus faculty and staff will meet over the issue Thursday. University employees statewide are facing higher deductibles, higher premiums, higher prescription co-pays and many other cost increases under a set of proposals unveiled earlier this month.

Doyon Favors Changes to 8(a) Program
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Interior Regional Native Corporation Doyon is looking favorably on changes to a federal program that funnels federal contracts worth billions of dollars to Alaska Native corporations. The Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Program has announced new regulations aimed at eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in the no bid contract program for disadvantaged companies.  Doyon Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Aaron Schutt says changes suggestion by Doyon, Arctic Slope and CIRI Corporations are reflected in the new rules.

The 8(a) program drew major scrutiny in Congress, that resulted in calls for its elimination or reform.  One criticism was that too much of the non-competitive contract money awarded to native corporations was going to non-native companies partnered with to do the work. Schutt says the issue is addressed in the new regulations.

Schutt says the separate issue of subcontracting by 8(a) recipients to non-native companies is covered by better enforcement of existing regulations, but that the new rules do require improved reporting of the benefits of 8(a) contracts to share holders.  Schutt says Doyon has only been a minimal participant in the no bid 8(a) program, but does have major federal security and construction contracts in the Lower 48 and Alaska, including a several-billion-dollar-, 50-year contract to run utilities on Interior military bases.

‘Deadliest Catch’ Fisherman Found Dead
Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer
A Homer fisherman who was a deckhand for the F/V Time Bandit and was one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series “Deadliest Catch,” was found dead Tuesday afternoon in a hotel room. Police say they do not suspect foul play in the death of 33-year-old Justin Tennison.

Most Teams at Halfway Point in Iron Dog
Laureli Kinneen, KNOM – Nome
All but two teams still competing in the 2011 Iron Dog Snowmachine Race are at the halfway point in Nome.

Paleontologist Identifies Two New Prehistoric Bird Species
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Alaska has been a prime nesting ground for birds for a long, long time. At least 70 million years, to be more exact. A paleontologist, with the Museum of Nature and Science in Texas, recently identified two new prehistoric bird species who spent time in the area that is now Denali National park.

Sitka Neighborhood Hopes Centralized Site, Stronger Cans Quells Bears
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
Bears getting into trash cans has long been a problem in Sitka, but in recent years it seems to have gotten worse. The city wants to test out a new program where residents in the Indian River Road neighborhood take their garbage to a centralized neighborhood site, with stronger trash cans. The Sitka Assembly received a briefing Tuesday night from members of the group devising the project.