Alaska Digest

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Spruce budworm invades Fairbanks

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FAIRBANKS - An inch-long caterpillar that dines on the tips of spruce trees is creating headaches for homeowners near Fairbanks.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service received dozens of calls last week from distressed residents reporting spruce budworms hanging from webs in spruce trees. After awhile, pest management technician Diane Claassen simply put a message on the office's answering machine telling residents that there was an outbreak and offering tips.

"People get freaked out because they see these worms hanging all over their spruce trees," Claassen said. "They just rain out of the trees. It's pretty weird looking," she said.

It's nothing new. The Fairbanks area is in the middle of a spruce budworm outbreak that began in 2002 and is likely to intensify, said Jim Kruse, a forest entomologist with the state Division of Forestry.

"It's going to be pretty bad for a couple years," he said.

In past years, spruce budworms have been reported in areas of higher elevations, such as Nenana Ridge, Cripple Creek and Chena Ridge. This year, they have spread to the Tanana Valley floor. That's typical, Kruse said.

"When it finally starts on the outbreak stage it spreads out to the valleys," he said.

Spruce budworms spin silken tents to overwinter and emerge in early June by rappelling down webs. The brownish-gray caterpillars will pupate into moths in a few weeks, Kruse said.

An infestation can kill a tree.

Spruce budworms feed primarily on the growing tips on white spruce trees. Older, more mature trees are most susceptible to dying because they grow at a slower rate, which allows the worms to kill the top of the tree, Kruse said. Once the tree top is dead, the tree stops producing cones and begins rotting downward until it's weakened to the point where bark beetles finish it off, he said.

Several spruce trees at Cripple Creek 10 miles south of Fairbanks have been killed by prolonged spruce budworm damage, Claassen said.

Outbreaks occur in roughly 10-year cycles, Kruse said. The last spruce budworm outbreak in Fairbanks occurred from 1990-96, he said.

Last year's acreage estimate was 30,000 acres. Kruse suspects it was much larger because smoke from wildfires prevented flights in some infested areas. In 2004, the estimate was 80,000 acres. The acreage probably will be larger this year, Kruse said.

During the outbreak of 1990-96, the worst year foresters mapped out was 220,000 acres, he said.

Senate reauthorizes marine fisheries act

WASHINGTON - The Senate unanimously approved a bill to revamp management of the nation's marine fisheries and strengthen protections against overfishing of dwindling stocks.

The bill requires the use of annual catch limits and enhances the authority of eight regional fishery management councils, as Congress struggles to protect vulnerable fish stocks while keeping struggling fishing industries afloat.

The sweeping bill reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the 30-year-old law that oversees fishery management in waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who led efforts to update the bill that bears his name, called it critical legislation that should "ensure the productivity and sustainability of our nation's fishery resources."

President Bush had called on Congress to reauthorize the fishing law, saying last week that "overfishing is harmful ... to our country, and it's harmful to the world."

Stevens, in a speech on the Senate floor, said lawmakers had heeded the president's call to end overfishing.

"The bill the Senate passed today will achieve this goal by requiring every fishery management plan contain an annual catch limit be set at or below optimum yield," Stevens said. "This will provide accountability in our fisheries and ensure that harvests do not exceed" sustainable levels.

The bill also would bolster the role of scientific advisory committees and incorporate recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which has called for an overhaul of U.S. ocean policies and laws.

Parks Highway fire crews get some rest

NENANA - About 160 firefighters will get a break from battling the Parks Highway Fire as the number of acres consumed in the blaze remained steady.

About 71,000 acres had been consumed by the Parks Highway fire, official said Monday. The "fire will remain active while conditions are warmer and dry, like they are now," said fire spokesman Tom Kempton.

But he said the number of acres burned should not substantially change, and the fire continued to be at 45 percent containment.

The fire, which started about 55 miles south of Fairbanks on June 7, flared Monday near its northeast border, Kempton said.

Firefighters are continuing mop-up operations in the residential and roadside areas leading into Nenana. Kempton said they are occasionally finding ash pits that do require some extensive work.

Four crews (a crew has about 20 firefighters) were released for two days of rest and relaxation in Fairbanks on Monday, with another four crews expected to join them Tuesday. All eight crews are expected to rejoin mop-up efforts after their rest periods.

A total of 569 firefighters are working the fire, Kempton said.

Musher plays waiting game for Iditarod

KENAI - Kasilof musher Lance Mackey is back again, stiff from being days away from a good meal, hot shower and restful night sleep in his own bed. But he is steadfast in his determination and, as usual, many eyes are watching his every move.

Rather than being on the runners of his sled in the blowing snow of a dog race, though, Mackey is living in his camper-topped pickup truck in an asphalt parking lot in Wasilla, where he is under surveillance from Iditarod Trail Committee personnel.

After officially being the first musher to sign up on Saturday for next year's Iditarod, he now has to play the waiting game. Mushers - in the order they arrive - will pick their bib numbers this Saturday during the annual volunteer picnic.

"I wanted to be sure I got bib number 13, because I'm putting my heart and soul into this year's Iditarod," he said.

Rather than randomly drawing starting numbers, a new twist on Iditarod regulations began last year. Mushers pick their own starting numbers depending on the order they arrive and officially sign in at Iditarod Trail.

Committee Headquarters in Wasilla.

Arriving early for the sign-up increases the odds of a musher getting their favorite number or one with special meaning to them, which Mackey said was the reason for his early appearance.

"My dad (Dick) and my brother (Rick) both won this race on their sixth attempt, both wearing bib number 13. This is my sixth Iditarod and so I wanted bib 13, too. I've got to give it a chance," he said.

Pundits have stated that while Mackey's back-to-back wins in the 2005 and 2006 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, followed by his top 10 finishes in Iditarod both years (seventh and 10th, respectively) have proven he has the dog driving skills to win the 1,000-plus mile race to Nome, he may not be able to do so if he continues to run both long-distances races in the same year.

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