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Cook Inlet lease sale stipulations protect shorebirds

Posted: Monday, June 05, 2000

Prime shorebird habitat in western Cook Inlet will be off-limits to drilling rigs under terms of the state's coming Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale.

The Alaska Division of Oil and Gas plans to hold its second Cook Inlet areawide sale Aug. 14 in Anchorage. It will offer all available tracts from Houston to Homer and Tuxedni Bay, an area of roughly 4.2 million acres.

New since the last Cook Inlet sale is a ban on drilling rigs in shorebird habitat in the Susitna Flats and Trading Bay state game refuges, the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area and in Redoubt Bay south of the critical habitat area.

Claudia Slater, a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage, said the reason for the change is a new federal study revealing that virtually the entire Pribilof Islands population of rock sandpipers gathers for the winter in western Cook Inlet.

Researchers Robert E. Gill and T. Lee Tibbitts of the Alaska Biological Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey counted 28 species of shorebirds using Cook Inlet during aerial and ground surveys from February 1997 to February 1999.

"Use of the study area by shorebirds in winter was almost entirely by rock sandpipers, and confined almost exclusively to Susitna Flats and Trading Bay," they wrote.

The winter population peaked at about 18,000 rock sandpipers. Each spring, those were replaced by a sudden influx of migrating western sandpipers, dunlin and other species. During the mid-May peak of the migration, Gill and Tibbetts counted more than 150,000 shorebirds per day around the inlet, primarily in southern Redoubt Bay. Western sandpipers accounted for roughly three-quarters of the total.

Western sandpipers, which also comprise the bulk of shorebirds on the Homer Spit each spring, fly in tight flocks. Those seem to flash abruptly from brown to white in color, then back again, as the birds wheel and turn in unison.

"The Pacific flyway population of this species numbers 2 to 3 million birds, of which we estimated 20 to 47 percent use Cook Inlet embayments, especially southern Redoubt Bay," Gill and Tibbitts wrote. "Cook Inlet also supported between 11 and 21 percent of the Pacific flyway population of dunlin."

Jerry Hupp, a biologist with the Alaska Biological Science Center, said western sandpipers winter primarily in California and nest in western and northwestern Alaska. During the spring migration, they stop to feast on small clams that grow in Cook Inlet mud flats.

"Stopovers like this are important for all migrating species," Hupp said. "If they can't stop to replenish fat reserves, they run the risk of running out of energy during the migration or arriving at the breeding areas in such poor condition that they don't nest successfully."

Slater said legislation that created the western inlet sanctuaries and critical habitat area named the primary purposes as protecting fish, wildlife, habitat and the public use and enjoyment of them. The law allows other uses as long as those are compatible with the primary uses.

Mitigation measures for the state's Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sales already banned drilling rigs within prime duck, goose and swan habitat. After the federal study, Fish and Game asked that shorebird habitat be protected, too.

"That wasn't in the mitigation measures before, because we hadn't documented the importance of the area to shorebirds," Slater said.

Jim Hansen, leasing manager for the Division of Oil and Gas, said the newly protected mud flats represent only a fraction of the total sale area.

"The companies aren't going to be putting rigs in that area anyway," he said.

It is generally easier to tap those tracts by directional drilling from higher ground or from offshore, he said.

The sale stipulations contain other restrictions to protect fish, wildlife and human recreation. For example, they:

n Ban use of explosives in open-water areas of fish-bearing lakes and streams;

n Ban most oil and gas-related construction within 500 feet of fish-bearing lakes and streams, and within a half-mile of the Kenai, Kasilof, Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and other major salmon streams;

n Ban surface entry within the Kenai River Special Management Area;

n Ban summer exploration activities in important brown bear travel corridors around Skilak and Tustumena lakes, in the upper Anchor River drainage and at the head of Kachemak Bay;

n Restrict summer exploration and development activities in key caribou habitat and ban surface entry, except for winter seismic work, in key caribou calving areas.

In response to a court order, the state has withdrawn 126 tracts from the sale to protect beluga whales. Those lie mainly around the mouths of upper inlet rivers where beluga whales gather in summer to feed.

BYLINE1:By DOUG LOSHBAUGH

BYLINE2:Peninsula Clarion

Prime shorebird habitat in western Cook Inlet will be off-limits to drilling rigs under terms of the state's coming Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale.

The Alaska Division of Oil and Gas plans to hold its second Cook Inlet areawide sale Aug. 14 in Anchorage. It will offer all available tracts from Houston to Homer and Tuxedni Bay, an area of roughly 4.2 million acres.

New since the last Cook Inlet sale is a ban on drilling rigs in shorebird habitat in the Susitna Flats and Trading Bay state game refuges, the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area and in Redoubt Bay south of the critical habitat area.

Claudia Slater, a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage, said the reason for the change is a new federal study revealing that virtually the entire Pribilof Islands population of rock sandpipers gathers for the winter in western Cook Inlet.

Researchers Robert E. Gill and T. Lee Tibbitts of the Alaska Biological Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey counted 28 species of shorebirds using Cook Inlet during aerial and ground surveys from February 1997 to February 1999.

"Use of the study area by shorebirds in winter was almost entirely by rock sandpipers, and confined almost exclusively to Susitna Flats and Trading Bay," they wrote.

The winter population peaked at about 18,000 rock sandpipers. Each spring, those were replaced by a sudden influx of migrating western sandpipers, dunlin and other species. During the mid-May peak of the migration, Gill and Tibbetts counted more than 150,000 shorebirds per day around the inlet, primarily in southern Redoubt Bay. Western sandpipers accounted for roughly three-quarters of the total.

Western sandpipers, which also comprise the bulk of shorebirds on the Homer Spit each spring, fly in tight flocks. Those seem to flash abruptly from brown to white in color, then back again, as the birds wheel and turn in unison.

"The Pacific flyway population of this species numbers 2 to 3 million birds, of which we estimated 20 to 47 percent use Cook Inlet embayments, especially southern Redoubt Bay," Gill and Tibbitts wrote. "Cook Inlet also supported between 11 and 21 percent of the Pacific flyway population of dunlin."

Jerry Hupp, a biologist with the Alaska Biological Science Center, said western sandpipers winter primarily in California and nest in western and northwestern Alaska. During the spring migration, they stop to feast on small clams that grow in Cook Inlet mud flats.

"Stopovers like this are important for all migrating species," Hupp said. "If they can't stop to replenish fat reserves, they run the risk of running out of energy during the migration or arriving at the breeding areas in such poor condition that they don't nest successfully."

Slater said legislation that created the western inlet sanctuaries and critical habitat area named the primary purposes as protecting fish, wildlife, habitat and the public use and enjoyment of them. The law allows other uses as long as those are compatible with the primary uses.

Mitigation measures for the state's Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sales already banned drilling rigs within prime duck, goose and swan habitat. After the federal study, Fish and Game asked that shorebird habitat be protected, too.

"That wasn't in the mitigation measures before, because we hadn't documented the importance of the area to shorebirds," Slater said.

Jim Hansen, leasing manager for the Division of Oil and Gas, said the newly protected mud flats represent only a fraction of the total sale area.

"The companies aren't going to be putting rigs in that area anyway," he said.

It is generally easier to tap those tracts by directional drilling from higher ground or from offshore, he said.

The sale stipulations contain other restrictions to protect fish, wildlife and human recreation. For example, they:

n Ban use of explosives in open-water areas of fish-bearing lakes and streams;

n Ban most oil and gas-related construction within 500 feet of fish-bearing lakes and streams, and within a half-mile of the Kenai, Kasilof, Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and other major salmon streams;

n Ban surface entry within the Kenai River Special Management Area;

n Ban summer exploration activities in important brown bear travel corridors around Skilak and Tustumena lakes, in the upper Anchor River drainage and at the head of Kachemak Bay;

n Restrict summer exploration and development activities in key caribou habitat and ban surface entry, except for winter seismic work, in key caribou calving areas.

In response to a court order, the state has withdrawn 126 tracts from the sale to protect beluga whales. Those lie mainly around the mouths of upper inlet rivers where beluga whales gather in summer to feed.



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