Letty Hughes was interviewed on April 14, 2019 by Leslie McCartney and Katie Cullen in her office at the headquarters of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Nome, Alaska. In this interview, Letty talks about her wildlife research and survey work as the preserve's wildlife biologist and observations she has made about environmental change and its effect on wildlife and human use in the region. She also discusses the effect of a changing environment on the ability to conduct fieldwork in the area and about the importance of educating a broad public audience about the impacts of change in the north.
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Personal and educational background
Animal population survey work
Effect of changing weather on ability to conduct wildlife surveys
Agency collaboration and the Arctic Inventory and Monitoring Network
Changes in vegetation
Effect of freezing rain and winter thawing events on caribou and muskox feeding
Effect of low snow versus high snow years on wildlife
Changes in distribution of muskoxen
Changes in bear populations
Wolf population on the Seward Peninsula, and reindeer herds
Changes in the beaver population
Hunting and trapping regulations
Effect of environmental change on access to resources
Technology and access, and possible use of drones
Studying muskoxen on the Seward Peninsula
Studying caribou in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, and changes in the storm pattern
Changes in the moose population
Conducting a muskox survey
Challenges climate change poses for future biological fieldwork
Educating people about climate change
Changes in animal breeding cycles, and effect of warming temperatures
Studying vegetation and habitat use of muskoxen
Studying fish in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
Ideal weather conditions for doing muskox population survey work
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LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So today is Friday, April 14, 2019. I’m Leslie McCartney, here with Letty Hughes and Katie Cullen in the National -- or sorry, in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve offices for the National Park Service in Nome, Alaska.
And we’re here talking about the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park project where we’re looking at environmental and climate changes in both parks.
So thank you very much, Letty, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. I’ll let you both introduce yourselves. Katie?
KATIE CULLEN: (Whispered) Go for it. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Or Letty?
KATIE CULLEN: Hi, I’m Katie Cullen. I am the interpretation and education program manager at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, headquartered in Nome, Alaska.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Letty? LETTY HUGHES: Hi. I’m Letty Hughes, the wildlife biologist for Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Um, also based here in Nome.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Great. Well, thank you. So Letty, before we start, we just kind of like to do a little bit of biographical information. Perhaps where you’re from, a bit of your education, how you became a wildlife biologist.
LETTY HUGHES: Ok. Which one do I start with? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Whichever one -- Where are you from originally? LETTY HUGHES: Ok. Well, um, I guess I’ll start from the very beginning. So I was born in Montana, and then my family moved to Alaska in the Interior in, um, -- when I was probably five or six.
And so from there -- so basically, Alaska’s been my home for, you know, since then. And, oh, so how did I --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Where did you go to school then? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, I went to school in the Interior. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: In Fairbanks? LETTY HUGHES: Um-hm. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: So -- so that’s where I did my schooling, and then for, you know, college, was UAF. I also went to -- spent a little bit of time in Missoula, attending school there.
And then -- but, you know, I ended up coming back when I was getting -- doing summer work out as a Fish and Wildlife technician. So that’s kind of then why I decided to continue to stay up in Alaska.
So I guess how I decided I wanted to get into the wildlife field was, well, like most of us in my career field, it’s because of like animals or our love of outdoors and environment, you know. Whether it’s coming from, you know, like being the concerning or just growing up hunting and fishing or, you know, some sort of lifestyle.
So that’s -- and -- and I’ve just always have just been around animals my entire, you know, life. So I was like, well, I could be a veterinarian. I could be a wildlife biologist. And so I just went for the wildlife biologist field, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. Who were some of your wildlife biologist teachers at UAF? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, boy. That’s -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Do you remember?
LETTY HUGHES: Um, yeah, so some of them were, uh -- oh, I can -- I can see ’em in my head. Oh, it’s a very influential lot. Well, I’ll have to think on it. 'Cause I have ’em, but their names aren’t coming. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It’s ok. If they come to you, you can, yeah.
So what year did you graduate, then? LETTY HUGHES: Uh, 2004, maybe? I think 2004. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you’ve been in the field a good long time. LETTY HUGHES: Mm-hm.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: What was your first jobs, then, when you graduated? LETTY HUGHES: Um, well, so I had taken on an intern position with Alaska Department of Fish and Game. So it was through the Arctic Marine Mammal Program up in Fairbanks.
And so I had started out, you know, besides doing the summer technician work, then I had taken on this intern position. And it dealt with, I mean, sieving and going through seal stomach contents. KATIE CULLEN: (Whispering) Oh, wow.
LETTY HUGHES: And like, or whales and stuff. And I was like, well, for that little bit of money, I can do that. And so as, you know, stinky a stuff as it was.
So then, when I graduated from UAF, you know, I was able to then move into more of a technician role with the marine mammal program.
But then, I decided to just kind of explore a little bit more, and I took a job as a wildlife biologist with the state in Bethel, Alaska. And so I was up there for about a year and a half, and then there was a position opening up in Nome, and so I put in for that, and I got the job.
And then so in 2008, I moved out here, and I’ve been out here since 2008.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow. So you were originally working for Fish and Wildlife here in Nome. LETTY HUGHES: No, Fish and Game.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Fish and Game, sorry. Fish and Game here. And how long have you been with the National Park Service, then? LETTY HUGHES: Very short time. I came on in mid-July of 2018.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. So your -- we were talking just before we started to do the interview that your experience is more on the Seward Peninsula and Alaska as a whole, correct?. LETTY HUGHES: More, I would say definitely more on the Seward Peninsula as a whole. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Seward Peninsula.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, in terms of like what my work required me to do, you know, just was, you know, help deal with all of, you know, Game Management Unit 22.
So sometimes the survey work would take, you know, place in Unalakleet up in the Nulato Hills. Other times it would take place right outside Nome right here. Other times it would be flying over in the preserve.
So -- so you got to see, like, this whole slew of, you know, how the Seward Peninsula kinda has, you know, changed, or like, weather-wise, or maybe lack of snow, or a lot of snow.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So, yeah. Oh, sorry, Katie. Go ahead. KATIE CULLEN: Oh, I was gonna ask -- so I consider you an expert on muskox. And -- but I know you've also -- so you’ve also worked on other, um, large mammals, I believe. What all, I guess, yeah -- with -- with Fish and Game, what different kind of species did you -- did you work with?
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so ’cause I spent many, decade-plus years in more of a population manager, you know, position, so it wasn’t like it was just -- I didn’t work on just, you know, maybe birds or one species of like, moose. I just, you know, wasn’t more of the research aspect.
So I’d be, you know, caribou, bears, moose, muskox, some wolf surveys, you know. KATIE CULLEN: Wow. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And are these surveys to look at, like, population numbers and the health of the population? LETTY HUGHES: Try -- or trends, you know, in terms of, yeah, trying to get a little bit better idea on, you know, where they’re at and so forth.
And -- and with, you know, the moose, yeah, definitely moose surveys, muskox surveys, habitat work, you know. So it all, you know, goes back to being, you know, for a management purpose. And whether for the population, also for hunting and subsistence, so that’s --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And are these surveys run regularly at certain -- certain number of years? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so, you know, depending -- Many times the programs will have, like -- ’cause out here, it’s broken into game management subunits, so you’ll have A, B, C, D, and E.
Well, you can’t do all that in one year, so it’s like a rotating schedule. So like in 2020, the plan is to do Unit 22D and E, and so that’s a huge collaborative effort between Fish and Game and National Park Service to get that work done.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And what will you be looking at in that survey? LETTY HUGHES: It’ll be a moose survey. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Moose survey. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So how many years of data, then, must you have for these various surveys? LETTY HUGHES: It goes way back. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Way back.
LETTY HUGHES: It does, you know, and even with some of the methodology that has changed, I mean, it’s still -- there’s enough you can have a pretty good grasp.
Oh, in some cases, some places might get done every, you know, three years, five years, but it still -- you still have this nice idea of what’s going on.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So what trends have you seen then over these years with this longitudinal data? LETTY HUGHES: On talking about, for like, moose? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: For moose.
LETTY HUGHES: Well, yeah, so in some areas, for example, like 22D, that moose population has experienced a decline, and so, you know, when I was over with -- on this -- with Fish and Game, we did some habitat browse work to just, you know --
I --I explain it to people as to, are moose eating themselves out of house and home? You know, is it -- or is there something else going on?
You know, like could it be predators if it’s not the habitat, or -- and so that’s what we were looking at as well.
But intendition (?) and so really, it’s, you know, the state has really been diving into as to why that moose population has, like, been declining. And so that’s something that’s, you know, I would say fairly recent.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And it’s been consistently declining for a number of years? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah. So. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
LETTY HUGHES: And then, like, for the muskox population, you know, it had reached, you know, its highest peak of, you know, close to 3500, and then it just -- it had also experienced a decline, as well.
But, and so, now that population’s, you know, stable, but yet, you know, once again, this is a huge cooperation project between, you know, the state, Fish and Game, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, and because of the weather this year, we actually had to cancel the survey.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And the weather is because it got mild so quickly? LETTY HUGHES: Yep. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Why -- why was weather? LETTY HUGHES: Oh. Well, so, you know, when you have a survey such as that, a lot of times you’re having five to nine Cubs in the air.
I mean, it takes a lot of airplane support, you know. And, I mean, it’s, yeah. You’re flying all the way from, like, the Yukon area all the way up into, like near Buckland and up into Espenberg area. KATIE CULLEN: Wow. LETTY HUGHES: It’s a lot of flying.
And so, you need to have really good weather. And out here, just with winds and visibility and stuff, you just don’t always get that weather.
I’ve seen it once where we finished that survey in five days because we had like nine Cubs in the air, and it was just wonderful, this window. And, but normally, it takes a really long time to do because of all this other variables.
So between all the storms we were having -- what, we had like, sixteen, eighteen storms, like in a row this year? KATIE CULLEN: Eight thousand, seven hundred. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. KATIE CULLEN: So many!
LETTY HUGHES: It was -- it was just ridiculous how many we were going -- how many was going on, but as a result of that, everyone’s field work just kinda came to a complete halt.
And then it becomes a question of priority, like, you know, now that the weather’s getting good, what can we get done, you know, in a reasonable time before snow starts melting and you can’t see brown on brown.
So those, you know, are all decisions that had to be made and, you know, and that was in -- those decisions are being made, you know, with the state, too. You know, their --
but, yeah, so, they were like, well, we got these moose surveys going on, we have this going on, so -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: It was decided that the survey would not happen. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: Are there, like -- just thinking of when you were saying, you know, you have to kinda prioritize, um, as a result of the weather and different factors. Are there, for state and/or federal together, certain species that would be, like, the top five priorities, like, for -- I guess I don’t -- I wonder.
It got me thinking, like, oh, is -- yeah, if there -- I don’t know if it would even be identified that way, you know, but like if it could be.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Well, you know, it definitely -- yeah, not to have made it sound like muskox are not a priority, it’s just for the amount of time that was going to require, you know.
So definitely muskox are, you know, an important subsistence resource out here, but maybe, you know, moose more so, you know, in terms of like what people really want. KATIE CULLEN: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: And so, but it’s also a matter of like, being able to retain your pilots because a lot of, you know, there’s -- you only have so many survey pilots, and everyone wants those survey pilots, so, you know, that’s their livelihood. So they -- so there’s this window of, you know, of like when you can use ’em, before they go on to the next project.
So there was that, too. Of just a matter of like being able to retain people to do a project. So, you know, and you look at it as like, well, this population has been stable, you know, so we give -- we give, you know, in terms of estimates because of harvest population manager, we’re harvesting less than two percent of the muskox population on the Seward Peninsula, so we will do the survey in 2021.
So it’s -- it’s all these, you know, like, ok, what’s this population doing? You know, what can we do? What can we -- information can we still get, you know?
We’re still doing the composition work next week, so we can still get bull/cow ratios and stuff, so it’s not like we just completely just put muskox over to the side. We just couldn’t get the estimate of the number of animals on the landscape. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
KATIE CULLEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and I guess I was like, I wonder if, like, yeah, there’s like, these are our -- you know, like, um, Bering -- Bering Land Bridge and the Arctic Inventory and Monitoring Network has the vital signs. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: Like, is there a kind of like a state/federal collaborative, like, set of, these are our big concerns, like, or big questions, for like, different species and -- ?
LETTY HUGHES: So, yeah. So that’s a good question, so, um, I’m learning as this. I’m also taking on the role of the muskox vital sign for the network, so -- and there was a protocol recently published, I want to say in November, where, you know, it was working with the state, and it dealt definitely more with the Seward Peninsula as to, you know, here’s what we look at, you know, here’s kind of a timeline, you know, it doesn’t, but. You know, it’s kind of a living document, as well. But it at least provides a guideline that’s been set by the state and also the network. So, um. KATIE CULLEN: Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: I think, you know, I can’t speak for other areas in the state, but I can say for like, out in, you know, Unit 23, Kotzebue area, and out here, I think, you know, Park Service has a pretty good, you know, relationship with working with the state and having those agreements and as to what’s like a priority and what needs to get done. So --
KATIE CULLEN: That’s really neat. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So coming back to your question, are the moose eating themselves out of house and home, how -- what preliminary conclusions have you come to, or is it too early for that?
LETTY HUGHES: It’s -- so -- it had appeared that that was not the case; however, the moose researcher over at the state had also collected vegetation to be able to look at the quality.
So maybe it’s poor quality, not the -- just the amount that they’re eating. And so that’s still ongoing, so I don’t -- I don't know where he’s at with that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: But, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Which brings us to changing vegetation. Um, in all the years that you’ve been looking at the Seward Peninsula, have you seen changes in vegetation for fodder for the animals?
LETTY HUGHES: You know, one of the things that, you know, like a lot of the folks that I’ve been flying with or other biologists who have been out here for a really long time. One of the things that I hear them comment on, too, is like just how much more like, wild alders or -- are coming into, you know, play or, you know, just like willows or --
We don’t have a lot of fires out here, so then you don’t have a lot of new growth being regenerated with willows. So there’s always that discussion, you know, as to like, man, I’ve just seen this area become just more shrubby along here.
Or what I’ve heard from folks around with Serpentine is, just becoming, like, more alders and willows around the Serpentine area than what used to be there.
So, and uh, and I don’t know if that’s just the result of maybe beavers being in there, or maybe just over time. So, but that’s one of the things that I’ve heard folks say is, definitely more -- getting more vege -- shrubby vegetation around the Serpentine area than what they remember, and even what the -- what the photos have depicted.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm. Interesting. Since you’re a wildlife biologist, the freezing and the rain and freezing on top of -- for the lichen for caribou. I’m not too sure about muskox. I’m not very schooled in that. How is that affecting populations?
LETTY HUGHES: So, there’s a retired Fish and Game biologist who has spent many years out here. He was actually out here helping with the reindeer herders and then spent twenty-plus years out in Kotzebue, Jim Dau.
That was in -- it’s definitely, I mean, it’s a concern when you have these, you know, rain/thawing events, and then freezing, it just -- it causes, you know -- it causes issues for, you know, for even muskox and caribou to crater, you know, when all that stuff is just, you know, freezing solid.
So um, and so it’s -- there’s definitely concern there in terms of, you know, ’cause it can bring on a harsh winter and you could have, you know, mortality related to that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: Ooh, for our younger audiences listening to the interview, what is -- how would you describe cratering? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So, um, a lot of times, they can -- they’ll -- they can use their -- their feet, or they’ll use, like, you know, their -- the shovels on their antlers, so and they'll -- they do -- they just kind of dig.
They just dig in the snow, you know, and that’s, I mean, what it looks like. It’s like this bowl, this, you know, like a -- like a -- yeah, just a bowl. And you can --
KATIE CULLEN: Kind of like scooping it out, maybe? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah.
And you can see that -- You know, muskox will do that when they are wintering up in, like, the higher elevations where it’s a little bit more wind-blown, snow-free, so -- and um, because they have -- they have horns, not antlers, but they still, they have to be able to dig, you know, a little bit. And so you’ll see that, too.
So definitely really, yeah, it makes a big difference, especially later in the year when those animals are just running on whatever remaining fat reserves they have, you know.
And so, you know, if you go into winter in poor shape, you know, and then you start having freezing rain and -- and, um, these thawing events, then it can be really bad for you.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. And over the years have you seen a trend with it happening more and more often? LETTY HUGHES: You know, that’s -- that would be a question for, well, Jim Dau, or Alex Hansen’s in there now with the state. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm.
LETTY HUGHES: Because they really have, you know, spent time looking at that. You know, we’ve -- I mean, as a biologist, we always wonder about it when, you know, we get these, like, rains later in the year, and then it just freezes again, and you’re like, oh, I wonder if that’s going to have anything to do with, you know, like, calving.
I mean, there’s all these questions you always have to wonder about. Or even at, let’s say, at this time of year, too, when animals, muskoxen, start calving later in April, but then you can still get these, you know, really bad snow and cool freezing events, so -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: So, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Since you’ve been in this -- working the Seward Peninsula for many years, have you -- have you noticed lots of environmental or climate changes, and if so, what are they?
LETTY HUGHES: Well, the funny -- thing I can say, environmental changes, you know, one of the things that, so --
Moose surveys have generally happened out here on the Seward Peninsula starting about mid-February, and the reason for that was because by that time the storms have passed, you know, everything’s been done. Your daylight’s getting longer, and you can complete these surveys, you know, within a reasonably good, you know, two-week window.
And, but, lately the last, you know, couple years, we’ve had these, you know, storms that have been occurring well into March.
And so -- or you have years where -- so like the last year we had really high snow year. This year it’s looking like we’re gonna have, you know, close to that as well.
But then you also have the thing of like, there’s just not enough snow. So there’s another environmental, you know, as well.
You’re like, well, you know, we can’t do the survey this year because you’re literally trying to find brown muskox on brown vegetation, and so -- or you consider doing a moose survey, but you’re like, wow, you know, here’s the moose --
And that’s something that, you know, I’ve heard even from the Y-K area (Yukon-Kuskokwim) and other areas, it’s just like, well, there’s just not enough snow to do this type of method now, so what do we do?
So I think those are big environmental changes that I’ve seen and/or have heard from other biologists around the state in the sense of, you know, there’s just not enough snow to do this.
And in, like, our case the last couple years on the Seward Peninsula, it’s been, well, we’ve had these storms go way into -- um, late into the spring. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: So.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And then by the time the storms are over, you just can’t -- LETTY HUGHES: It becomes a question now of like, well, we have all this other work to do, so what -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, what can we get done, and how do we do it? Or maybe we don’t do a full -- like the state, I know they were like, well, we’re not going to be able to do this moose survey now. We’ll do a recruitment survey.
So at least we know how many calves from last year, you know, made it through, and we can put those into the population.
So at least gives you a little bit of an idea. You’re still going out looking at something. So, um, yeah. So it’s def -- um --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: What about in the years where there’s too much snow? How does that affect mobility of the animals? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so if you’re a moose, um, depending how much snow and where you -- if you end up being more down in like those river bottoms and stuff, sometimes you’re -- you're stuck there, you know.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And that’s very difficult for the -- for the young ones. LETTY HUGHES: It can be, yeah.
So that’s one of the things that, you know, the Park Service hasn’t done, but the State of Alaska has done is they’ve done a spring -- short yearling -- and short yearling we define that as an animal who’s like, you know, about nine months old. So not quite a year, but they’re still a young -- And so we -- so we throw that term out a lot, short yearlings.
And, um, so we’ve weighed those to be able to look at, you know -- that kind of gives you also an indication of nutritional status as well.
So, you know, if you weigh your males and your female short yearlings in the spring time, you know, was -- and is there a difference between these high-snow years and low-snow years.
One of the things that’s been going on the last couple of years that the moose researcher has been doing has been weighing calves in the fall, and then coming back and recapturing those same calves and weighing them in the spring to be able to look at the weight difference.
And so, that’s all, um -- he’s in his second year of work, so in terms of, like, the results of that and what that means for the Seward Peninsula, comparing it to other areas around the state that have been doing it, I don’t know what those are. So --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Do you radio collar the animals or chip them? LETTY HUGHES: Yep, they are radio collared. Yep.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok, so that you can track them all and see where they’re moving throughout the year. LETTY HUGHES: Yep. Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So even if you can’t get out on your surveys, you at least can tell where they are.
LETTY HUGHES: For the short yearlings, yeah. You know, or do that, like, the state also has some muskox collared as well, and so you can kind of track the movement. Maybe be able to tell a little bit on mortality.
You know, is it a high-mortality year, you know, or a low-mortality year. So, yeah, it all depends what -- what your goal and your questions are. So -- KATIE CULLEN: Right.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um, we’ve been hearing a lot about coastal erosion. Has that been affecting any of the wildlife populations at all? LETTY HUGHES: I don’t know if I can answer that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. LETTY HUGHES: I mean, I'm sure -- there’s probably -- I just don’t know enough. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Don’t know enough. LETTY HUGHES: Of the coastal erosion. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right, yeah. No, that’s ok. LETTY HUGHES: So. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I just kinda wondered.
What other environm -- climate change or environmental changes are you seeing that are affecting wildlife population, positively or negatively? LETTY HUGHES: Well, you know, I don’t know.
One of my questions has been with muskox is, you know, we’ve noticed, you know, the animals have, you know, shifted their distribution where the areas where, you know, they’re kind of moving a little bit further east and so forth and areas.
And so my question is -- is like, well, why? You know, is maybe vegetation quality better over here than, you know, where they were at?
You know, I mean to us it looks all the same on the surface, but maybe they’re someth -- kind of like what we were talking about with the moose. Maybe it’s a quality over versus the quantity.
So -- so that’s, you know, my question -- that’s one of my questions. It’s not anything really like, you know, an environmental concern, but it kind of has me, like, well, why are they moving into these new areas?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So how far are they moving, then? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And is it slow and gradual, or is it just like, they’re there, and then they don’t come back?
LETTY HUGHES: Well, it’s been kinda slow and gradual, but there is a -- there were no muskox that we knew of in terms of like viable population in the Nulato Hills. So, north of Unalakleet.
But now, you’ve got a good couple hundred animals. KATIE CULLEN: Really. LETTY HUGHES: And you have animals now going that are over on the Yukon side, so more interior, and they just weren’t there before. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: So, and, where in Bering Land Bridge, we had actually quite a few muskox in the preserve, and that Subunit 22E, but now, you know, there -- there’s still some there, but not like what there used to be. KATIE CULLEN: (Whispering) Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: So. And just, and this shift, yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: I guess I always heard that the approximate population on the Seward Peninsula for muskox is about 2000? Was that? LETTY HUGHES: Just shy of 2500. KATIE CULLEN: Is it? OK. LETTY HUGHES: You know, if you just look at, like, the main, the mid-point.
KATIE CULLEN: And so some of that -- some of that, those 2500, are the ones that are now kinda hanging out down in Nulato Hills. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. KATIE CULLEN: Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
So we’ve always talked about this core area when we talk about the surveys. The core area being where these muskox used to be. So the preserve, you know, 22E, Nome, and then we have this, like, other all area.
And these are all the new areas that have been added on because muskox have, you know, moved over into there. So, you know, and it’s -- the question is, well, why? So --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Do predators come into that question as to why, or -- ? LETTY HUGHES: You know, predators is a big topic that comes up, you know, to the public, to us, to meetings at like, at the State of Alaska advisory committees, and then, or even like the federal Regional Advisory Councils.
So that all comes up about, you know, are predators getting, you know, is it causing -- are predators the reason why some of these animals have moved into Nome? Are predators the reason why they’ve kind of moved out of, maybe, the preserve? You know, so -- But, it’s hard to say.
So those are all questions that everyone wants to know and find out.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Would the largest predator -- what would be the largest predator, then, of muskox? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, uh, I think -- I would think that if a bunch of us were in a room together, we’d probably say bears. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Really. LETTY HUGHES: Hm-mm. Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And so, do you do bears, then, too? LETTY HUGHES: When I was with the state, I -- one of my jobs was sealing bears that were killed by hunters, or dealing with bears that were taken as defense of life and property.
So basically, being like a major nuisance or, yeah, or dealing with nuisance bears that came into town.
So that was one of, you know, roles -- one of my roles. I think my role here is going to be very different with bears than it was with the state.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So I’m just wondering, has there been an increase in bear population, too? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, well. That’s -- well, the state had collared bears in ’89 and ’90, and then they did the really big survey in ’91, and they were able to -- so, I mean, we’re talking about a long time ago when this happened. And they were able to, you know, come up with an idea of, you know, here’s, you know, a population is.
But then, you know, counting predators versus counting, like, caribou and moose and stuff is very different because predators are so elusive, and they’re very expensive. Very, very expensive to count because of that.
And a lot of times they require more radio collaring and stuff, so what the Park Service did is come up with, um, and I think it was actually through the network, came up with a bear survey method to -- that would be similar to radio collaring, but didn’t -- wouldn’t require that amount of money or effort. And so that was done.
We finally got it done in 2006 or 2007. And, but, yeah, there have been, like, twenty-five, thirty-year gap between this first survey. And plus you’re talking about two different methods.
In the survey in ’91, was a smaller area compared to the survey in 2007, or I think the survey was done a lot later than that. I think I have my year wrong on that. I’d have to double check.
And so, but, so you don’t know really what happened to that bear population. Did it go like this? Was it always like this?
So another one’s planned for 2020, I believe. And so, but yet, you can go based off of what are people -- what are people telling you? What are your harvest sealing records telling you?
Harvest records are like, well, the Seward Peninsula takes about a hundred bears a year. So if you’re doing a hundred bears a year, you know, approximately, for -- since 1997, I mean, you have to have recruitment back into that population.
So then you hear from the public where they’re like, well, I’ve seen sows with three or four cubs, you know. But then I also hear from the other side people saying, I don’t see bears where I used to anymore.
But the general consensus is there’s more bears, but, you know, you know, that’s -- that’s the -- what we hear from just anecdotal, you know, folks.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. Yeah, that could mean a couple things. That could mean the bears are also moving, like the muskox, so you don’t see them where you used to see them. Or and a bear has four sows, so she’s pretty healthy.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, I mean. You know, yeah, in order for -- for all those cubs to live, and -- and for her to produce and everything else, I mean, she -- she had to -- She had to be healthy to be bred, she had to be healthy to, you know, have those, and then to be able to support four of those little ones.
So, and they stay with her for, you know, at least three years, so. KATIE CULLEN: Three years. Oh, wow. LETTY HUGHES: Two years, for sure. Sometimes three. So. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: So, I mean, you’ll -- you hear, but lot of the times you’ll hear, like there’s just too many bears, but then, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. Are there wolves, too? LETTY HUGHES: There are wolves. Um, in terms of population, we just don’t have a really good handle on that.
Though, I think there’s -- we can all -- like I said, when I say "we all," I’m talking about a bunch of biologists that have sat around and just talked about this, or just with the public, that there’s more wolves now on the Seward Peninsula.
This is once again all anecdotal and then compared to what the people remember in living history, too.
Um, one of the things that, uh, like Nikki and I have talked about, though, is that you had the reindeer herding out here, where it was, I mean, you had the largest reindeer herd was on the Seward Peninsula, and you had folks that were very active. I mean, they -- they moved with those animals. They went everywhere. They were on the landscape.
So I mean, that was their livelihood, and so they couldn’t afford to have, like, bears or wolves take down their deer. And so, there’s -- there’s always that possibility that maybe, you know, numbers were kinda kept down during that time as well.
Where now, you have reindeer herding now, but not to the extent you did before, and there’s just -- times change. Rules have changed. Regulations have changed.
You know, how people herd have changed, and so, you know, it’s given time maybe for animals to, you know, grow, repopulate and stuff. So those are all just, you know, hypotheses that like, Nikki and I have, you know, talked about. KATIE CULLEN: Um-hm. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: Because, you know, you’re like, well, why not? There was a lot going on with the Seward Peninsula that could keep numbers low. KATIE CULLEN: Interesting.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right, now that those controls aren’t there, nature takes over. LETTY HUGHES: Nature takes over. Animals move in and so forth, you know.
And -- and, you know, for sure, as you know, for wolves, you know, they probably, you know, come follow over the western Arctic caribou herd, but you for sure also have resident wolves, too. In order to have resident wolves, they need to have local prey, too. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: There’s moose and muskox, and there are reindeer, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yep. Um, we were talking to Jeanette the other day, and she was talking about the increase in the beaver population. Um, can you speak to that at all? LETTY HUGHES: Well, mm, that -- Not really, other than, you know, if we’re talking about, like, Serpentine, for example, just --
I mean, folks like Katie and Jeanette have probably way better view over the years, but just from looking at photos and hearing people and then seeing what’s going on now, it definitely appears like the beavers have, you know, for sure altered the vegetation around that area.
I mean, they’re -- they're not -- they’re not necessarily a bad thing, either. They can be a really good thing for wildlife, you know. Like for swans, for example, in parts of -- other parts of the United States, they’ve been fantastic in terms of like, as protection, and --
But -- but in -- for like, historical factors such as the hot springs, and a cultural factor, you’re like, oh, how -- You know, what is this doing in terms of, you know, the beaver dams and lodges changing the course of the main stream, and how does that affect?
So it’s -- we don’t -- I wouldn’t know -- I wouldn't know to say, oh, well, the beaver population’s increasing or not. I just wouldn’t know.
As far as I know, there hasn’t been any colony surveys done out here, though that would be really fun to do. Fly around, and you know, be able to count the number of beaver lodges, and um -- KATIE CULLEN: Ah, that would be really interesting. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. KATIE CULLEN: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: So, but, you know, it’s -- I never really, until I came over to the Park Service, and I started hearing about the concerns and the issues, it wasn’t something I really had to think about in my other position.
And so, now I’m like, huh. Yeah. And it just seems like maybe now that my mind’s more on the radar, it just seems like that’s what I hear so much now on the news is like, beavers and their establishment.
And they just don’t need, like, those things can travel even without, like water, you know, and just other parts of the world where they talked about these beaver populations have just extremely grown. And so I think it just seems like these little guys are -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Very industrious. LETTY HUGHES: Yes. Yes. So. Yeah, I don’t -- I don’t know.
We did get funding to put on a beaver trapping class, and -- and, you know, it’s a preserve, so you can hunt, you can trap in there. But a lot of the trapping now -- it’s expensive to do nowadays 'cause of the price of gas and stuff. And if it’s --
Beavers are in some ways relatively new. They weren’t really up into the preserve area, so that’s another thing. As over time, maybe, with shrubs and everything else and just establishment, and some beaver just deciding he’s gonna -- he/she’s gonna take a, you know, a little walkabout.
So, you know, just once again, through talking with people and them saying in living history from the time they were little to now when, you know, they're like in their fifties or even older, they're like, "Well, we didn’t have beavers in this area. But now we see beavers. You know, we see beavers up there at Serpentine. We see beavers over here."
So in terms of, like, how to go about utilizing the beavers is fairly new. So we got funding to put on a beaver trapping clinic, and also to be like, you know, how do you use Conibears (type of trap) or snares, and it was also a way of kind of mitigating maybe with Serpentine, as well.
You know, people could just kind of go in there. But also was gonna teach, like, you can also eat beaver. You know, it’s a fairly new thing here, but down in the Y-K, you know, beaver’s like a delicacy. So, but out here it would be like, well, you know, you could eat beavers.
So in addition to skin sewing and stuff, which Shishmaref uses a lot of beaver to, you know, sew with, but a lot of those pelts are brought in from elsewhere. It’s not -- they’re not necessarily, you know, been trapped or harvested out here on the peninsula.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting. You mentioned about the beaver dams and at, you know, more water, so swans are attracted. So is there a change in the bird population or the bird migration? Even timing? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, I can’t speak to that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Speak to that, ok.
LETTY HUGHES: No. I think it’s been more Fish and Wildlife Service that has done the swan surveys and questionnaires and like the emperor geese surveys that are now being done, that’s all through, um, Fish and Game and maybe in cooperation with Fish and Wildlife Service. So -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: I'll tell ya, I’ve just a -- I'm in like, big ungulates, and predators.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So, go ahead, Katie. KATIE CULLEN: Are beavers trapped -- I know they can be trapped in the winter time. Is there like a certain, like the best, the most ideal time of year to do that?
And I guess I don’t know the season, too. Like, is there an established season for that? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so, um, without getting into the whole nitty gritty and boring, because I really do like the regulation portions of it, too.
So there’s a prime time to get beaver, like when their pelts just like, you know, would be like -- just like any fur harvest, you know, that they will do. Kind of like with wolves and stuff, you want to try to get them in their prime time.
You know, one, that’s when it’s most useful. And also, if you’re trying to make some money, that’s -- you’re gonna make more money off of a pelt that’s in prime coat condition.
And so there are times, but it depends the area that you’re living in, so -- for when it comes to regulations. So out here, it can be a little confusing because you have State of Alaska hunting and trapping regulations, and then you -- because we’re also in a subsistence area where we have many federally qualified users, then you have the federal hunting/trapping regulations, too. They don’t always mirror each other in terms of season dates or bag limits.
So for example, it says, you know, you may take an unlimited number of beavers. That may be what one side says. The other regulation side could say, you may trap two beavers. You know, it all depends where you live.
And out here, it’s -- it’s a little -- it’s a little bit more liberal. So, I mean, you still have tra -- you still have season dates, you know, and bag limits. It all depends, like, you know, how you’re harvesting.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So what are the season dates for beavers? Do you remember off-hand, or not? LETTY HUGHES: I would need to look. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You would need to look. LETTY HUGHES: I would need to look at a book. Yeah. So I don’t say the wrong thing, yeah. I would need to look.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. I’m just thinking spring time, but I’m not 100% sure. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, I’d have to look -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: In the book. Off the top of my head. It’s always good. Any time anyone is asking me -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. LETTY HUGHES: -- about season dates, I always have to have the book. KATIE CULLEN: Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: Because I don’t want to give the wrong date. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: ’Cause you can get in trouble. KATIE CULLEN: The one book, and then the other book. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
KATIE CULLEN: There’s so many, right? LETTY HUGHES: Yes, it’s true. Yes, I have like this book, this stack of books of -- just of, yeah, hunting and trapping regulations.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Very, very layered. I didn’t realize that there was so many different layers to that. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. And so, and it’s -- it can be very confusing. If, I mean, if you -- it’s something I’ve just dealt with for a long time.
And even now, sometimes, someone will ask me a question, and I’m like, oh, that’s a really good question. Because it deals on more like, well, on a federal regulation or so forth.
So, I mean, and that’s a -- so how do you simplify that to someone out in the field, who’s, you know, out in Shishmaref or Wales or somebody when -- and who doesn’t necessarily know how to understand how to go about reading those books, or doesn’t even have a regulation book? So, um, so yeah. That’s --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So is that part of your job, is to try and educate people about that, or is that someone else’s responsibility? LETTY HUGHES: No, it’s a -- we actually all have, like a responsibility to, you know, in terms of, like, you know, it’s everyone’s wildlife, so.
Yeah, my job with the state was very much informing the public, you know, and educating of like new season dates or changes or so forth.
Or, and even now, you know, in terms of like, you know, caribou regulations or season dates for moose or whatnot or muskox, that’s all part of the job.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So we’ve heard in a few interviews that people are talking about changing or elongating dates for moose or caribou because of access is changing. For example, Jeanette was talking about, there’s not enough snow for people to go snowmobiling at the time when it’s open season for moose or caribou. Can you talk to that at all?
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so, like all those environmental changes we were talking about for survey work, well then, that also just has an impact on users as well. So, lot of times --
Well, take the years for example that have had very low, you know, no snow years, very, very minimal. And a lot of times, you know, it’ll be like, well, you know, we couldn’t go -- if we couldn’t go up in the hills to go get caribou.
You know, so it comes up all the time. High -- high water, you know, or lack of water a lot of times during the season. If we didn’t have a lot of rain, then a lot of those areas where folks will go back and try to go hunt moose, they couldn’t get up in there with their boats 'cause there just wasn’t enough water. Or just really bad storms.
So a lot of times, environmental factors will bring people together and just be like, ask for season extensions or if they can, you know, have a longer season.
And -- and I’ve seen that many times on the state side of things. How it works on the federal, I don’t know. I haven’t been around long enough on the federal end for it. But it’s normally on the state side where they ask for season extension dates.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And they’re usually granted, those season extensions, or -- ? LETTY HUGHES: Many times they are. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Why would they not be? LETTY HUGHES: Um, it kinda -- it all comes down to administration. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: Is it the -- the Board of Fish and the Board of Game that determine -- that would be the yay or nay on those decisions? I guess --
I’ve always a little confused at all of the different -- LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So for the State of Alaska, you have Alaska Board of Game and Alaska Board of Fish. KATIE CULLEN: Hm-mm.
LETTY HUGHES: And then on the federal side, you have the Federal Subsistence Board that meets. And, of course, you have -- that’s where your advisory committees come from, and that’s where your Regional Advisory Council, I mean, they help guide, you know, these processes.
So it’s not just the biologists, you know, working in there with the doors shut doing their own thing. It’s, you know -- it's supposed to be a very transparent, public process.
So, yes, at one point, and this is where the whole comes down to administration. It would be if, uh, say Wales wanted to extend a season date on moose, for example, and then they would submit a letter to the State of Alaska.
And then it used to go, like the Board of Game would have this emergency meet-up, whether it was by teleconference or whatever, to discuss this. And they would make that determining factor.
But that can change, too, just depending on administration levels because it’s really -- has like commissioner authority. So.
So, of course, now we’re going into way away from environmental stuff, you know, how -- but it shows a little bit how, like policy and regulation can then very much get tied into environmental when it comes to subsistence users.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Yes, so if subsistence users aren’t able to get out and get moose, and then the policy doesn’t allow that either, that’s like a double hit for subsistence. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah.
You know, another thing, too, in terms of like access, is just when we look at technology. So to go from Nome up into the preserve or in proximity of the preserve, it used to be very few people would do that because just, it would -- the amount of fuel, just the terrain to get up there. I mean, it’s pretty harsh country. You know, one day it can be all nice and sunny, and then like two hours later, you’re just, you know, fogged in.
And so there’s big safety concern, but over time now, you have like these other off-road vehicles that you see all over, six-wheelers and everything that just you -- that has the capacity to take you further and further and further.
So, now you just, you know, you hear, it’s like if the moose population isn’t doing well here, well then if you have the ability to go further, so that -- so people are, you know, going out and seeking that.
So -- so definitely, you know, environmental, you know, and also just ease of access of how like, what do you have in your toolbox to get you further where there’s moose.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I wonder in future if the use of drones will be employed. LETTY HUGHES: Well, that -- I mean, I would say it is now. Um, by State of Alaska, they actually have a regulation because people have -- I mean, why not? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: If you can, why not use something that can help you? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Tell you where they are, and then that’s where you go. LETTY HUGHES: And so, of like -- so there are regulations in place of, like, what you can and cannot do with, um, drones. So -- in -- in the hunting form of it.
So, and I know on the Park Service side, drones comes up a lot about whether -- whether to use it for survey work, the permitting process, you know, how it’s being used.
I do know some subsistence users in Shishmaref that do have drones, and so -- that they say they use for marine mammals, which is a whole ’nother thing of regulations. And so, um, and -- or to look at conditions, so it’s definitely being utilized.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, it’s another technology. LETTY HUGHES: Um-hm. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: And what is it? Within, like, there’s a -- there's a pretty strict permitting process, right? Within, I believe, National Park Service, um, managed areas for being able to use drones, from what I understand.
LETTY HUGHES: I think so. I’ve not had to go through it. I mean, I know you -- you -- if you go through the step process enough, you can get that permit. KATIE CULLEN: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: I know of Fish and Game folks who have on the fisheries side of things, um, have done that, but -- KATIE CULLEN: It’s an amazing technology. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. KATIE CULLEN: Just for thinking of, yeah, versatility of -- yeah, just being able to --
LETTY HUGHES: I mean, I’ve seen ’em buzzing over my house at times. KATIE CULLEN: Really? LETTY HUGHES: Where I’m like -- I feel a little like, you know, this little like, sounds like this very oversized mosquito just buzzing over. KATIE CULLEN: Right? Bzzzzz.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, and I’ve heard people have talked about ’em during hunting season. Now whether or not they’re using them for hunting is something completely different, but you do hear about, you know, people hearing and seeing drones while they’re out there, so --
KATIE CULLEN: There is a class, or a club at the high school, for a little while about learning how to use drones and different -- you know, for everything, from like filming the coast along Nome, or just, yeah. All sorts of different uses, but really beautiful footage. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It's always amazing.
LETTY HUGHES: I think you know, you can, right? And -- and so for the most part, this part of the peninsula, we don’t have trees, you know, so, you know -- But yet, you can have like -- and that was another thing, I guess, going back in some areas where it’s just getting more shrubby, or you have like, these little hills and the illusion can be everything. Like, you’re like, oh, well that’s actually a lot, you know, more shrub or higher ground than I was thinking, you know. So, it’s -- yeah, why not just see something from the air? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
KATIE CULLEN: And fairly, like, it seems fairly non-invasive to wildlife from, from -- I mean, as compared to perhaps other -- Well, I don’t know. Perhaps other, like, noises that could impact.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah. You know, and I don’t know enough about that. I know in other parts of the United States and world, they’ve used drones to do some wildlife work or to move nuisance animals.
So I don’t -- so yeah, I haven’t really looked into like the impacts of how that would affect. I know I had talked with a potential film crew that was coming up here from New Zealand, and she had asked about use of drones to get, you know, close to the animals. And I was like, well, you know, it could be considered harassment. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
LETTY HUGHES: Because we don’t know, you know, because it is still -- there’s still a human somewhere that has to control this, and so. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. KATIE CULLEN: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, but, so it’s still kind of like a cautious thing. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Hm. KATIE CULLEN: Interesting.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Getting back to the muskox, have you, since you’ve been working with them for a number of years, have you seen other than the movement of them, um, changes over time, perhaps in their weight or, um, their general health?
LETTY HUGHES: So those are all good questions. So there’s so much we don’t know about the muskox compared to what we know about caribou and moose. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
LETTY HUGHES: So the state just recently hired a muskox biologist researcher, so that’s hopefully like, that’s what her whole focus is, is muskox. Where, you know, like my job and stuff was very -- had to be very broad. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: She can just like, muskox is what I do, 24/7.
But one of the questions is, like when you -- we haven’t really weighed muskox until she just started doing that this fall. So it’s, um --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So a few years before we see any data. LETTY HUGHES: It could be a few years before any data to be able to, like, say anything, you know.
But, you know, certainly, you know, muskox have a very different, you know, metabolism and everything.
And also, how they, you know, how they put the weight on, when they take the weight off, like after they give birth, and how so -- there’s -- there's a lot of questions there in terms of seasonal weight changes, as with every animal. But um, that’s -- it’s hard to sometimes answer those questions in a non-captivity -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. LETTY HUGHES: You know, sense. KATIE CULLEN: Hm. Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: So, um --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I just wonder over the years, is the, you know, stature of the beast diminishing, is it staying stable, is it increasing? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, one --
You know, there’s very little animals being harvested on the muskox population out here. And I mean, there’s like a total of like 35 permits that are given. So that’s like two percent, but less than that are being harvested.
And those are state and federal, bulk of 'em being state permits. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And is that to keep the population stable? LETTY HUGHES: It provides hunting opportunity because it’s a subsistence resource.
And so still, a pretty rigorous process to -- to get one of those permits because of the population.
So even with very little population, calf recruitment’s not going very well. You know, so then you -- you -- the questions are, why? You know.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So calf recruitment, you mean they’re not -- they’re not having as many calves as you would think? Is that what you mean? LETTY HUGHES: Well, there doesn’t appear to be very many calves being put into the population.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So the birth rate’s low. LETTY HUGHES: So -- well, we don’t know if birth rate’s low, we just know that they’re not -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: They’re not -- so they could be being -- they could be being born, but they don’t survive? LETTY HUGHES: Right. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, so those are just questions we just don’t know, you know.
We’ve had some muskox where we’ve found -- where people call and say, hey, there’s, you know, a dead muskox here, so we go check it out. And she was actually -- the cow was in the process of giving birth to a calf and -- and died.
And so we’ve seen that a couple times now. Whether that is indicative to anything, you know, who knows? KATIE CULLEN: Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: But you know, it just -- it makes -- once again, it makes you wonder as a biologist, like, you know, how, you know, how often are they getting pregnant? How often are they, you know, is this occurring?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: How many are dieing in child -- when they’re giving birth? Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
So, you know, but when we’ve done capture where we’ve taken, you know, blood samples to look for brucellosis, to look for other diseases, you know, and this population is pretty darn healthy in terms of, like, disease. You know.
So there’s other stuff going on, and luckily the other muskox person will help find that out.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. And what about the caribou population? And which caribou herd is it, by the way? LETTY HUGHES: The Western Arctic Caribou Herd. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: So I’d have to review my notes on that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. LETTY HUGHES: Because that population had declined. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
LETTY HUGHES: And then all of a sudden it -- I mean, it declined to a point that there was some very necessary management issues that had to come into play.
Which then even was supported by user groups, the Western Arctic Working Group, and was adopted in because of, you know, it was low-cow, low-calf, you know, recruitment.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Do they know what the factors were to cause that? Was that a normal cyclical, or was it beyond a normal cyclical? LETTY HUGHES: You know, Alex would be a good one to talk to about that. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Yeah.
So, um -- and then, so yeah. But they’ve also changed technology, too. It’s also more -- it’s digital. KATIE CULLEN: Oh, that’s right. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, it’s really, you know, it’s really nice digital camera, and then how you can, you know, count now into ArcGIS, you know, versus the whole black and white and having and so you can actually see, like differentiate between calves, too. You know, like this is a calf versus an adult.
And so -- but, you know, speaking of terms of weather, they were supposed to do a caribou census this past July, and it just -- it didn’t happen. I mean, they geared up, they went out there, and weather wasn’t working out.
And by the time weather did work out, the animals had already headed up into the hills, and you couldn’t do it. So you know, there’s -- there’s, you know, an environmental factor that prevented it.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you're finding the storms are increasing every year or intensity is increasing, numbers going up? I mean, it might be hard to tell in such a short period of time.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, I think for -- was it the -- the last two years when we’ve had these storms come through, you know, whether it’s due to lack of, you know, sea ice out there to, you know, providing no, you know, barrier, um, I think it’s kinda too short for me to speak anyways, to say that they’re becoming more common or so forth.
But I think the consensus across with a bunch of, you know, folks in the career field I’m in is that, um, how we do -- how we have always done, counted animals, you know, certain method, for example, I mean, we might -- we need to maybe look at finding other ways to still get the same information but different method because of, you know, the storms or because of lack of snow. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
So, I’m sorry, I cut you off about the caribou. How is the population herd numbers and health now for the western caribou? LETTY HUGHES: So they’ve had small increase. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, but because they weren’t able to get the census done because of these environmental factors, so they’re gonna try again in July of 20 -- yeah, July of this year. They’re gonna try to get another census done. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: You know, Because it is really important because that herd experienced, you know, such a decline that, you know, and then it’s like the smallest thing -- They definitely need to go back, and um, you know, and that’s also part of the reason why they do the collaring. You know, it’s mainly the state, but the Park Service helps out as well, um, puts collars out on the caribou as well.
And that usually occurs there on the Kobuk River, and for whatever reason this year, they decided to really not cross the river. And we noticed this for the last couple years, where you’ve been normally been able to get all your collars out, they have been for like twenty-some years, it’s not been a problem. You know, you might have to wait for two weeks, but you get it -- you get it done. And they just have not been coming through, and so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So they’re not crossing the river. The river’s far too deep, I wonder. LETTY HUGHES: Hm, you know, they’re pretty good swimmers. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, so I don’t know. But even from what like, hunters, a lot of folks will go up there because it’s like -- everyone talks about Onion Portage, that this is where you go to go get caribou, and um, a lot of people either had to travel further, or they just didn’t get caribou this fall because they weren’t coming across the river.
And most of the time, as it generally works out, is the herd will winter on the Seward Peninsula, you know, and so folks out here will have an opportunity to go travel. Shishmaref, you know, and all that they have will have access to caribou.
It’s not that there’s not any caribou out here right now, it’s just the bulk of the herd stayed up north in Gates of the Arctic, which is from what I’ve been told a first, so --
KATIE CULLEN: And I think there’s -- caribou have been, from what I understood, you know, passing through that Onion Portage area for like 9000 years. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: Um-hm.
KATIE CULLEN: You know, it's -- it’s like, yeah, so that -- that’s a huge -- I wonder what will happen this year. It’s just a huge change.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You just wonder why they’re not coming down. Is there enough food source up there? I mean, migratory animals usually have this need to move.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. You know, the retired Fish and Game caribou biologist would be like, open for another, you know, eighteenth year, the caribou did something different.
But what they did this year was really, you know, like -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Unique. LETTY HUGHES: Unique that they stayed up there. So -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. And so, was it environmental? Was it, did they know? I mean, you know, we don’t know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: So we can totally speculate and throw, you know, ideas out, but -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Until there’s a few years where there’s a trend, um, it could be a one-off.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, I mean, you’ll just have to see. You’re like, well, you know. Ok, you recognize this. You keep -- you file it in the back of your head and take note of it, and then you just, yeah, say, does this now become like is this going to become a thing?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Right. Yeah. So, and then, so talk -- oh sorry, Katie. Did you have a question? KATIE CULLEN: Oh no, I was just -- Yeah, nope.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So moose population, same type of question. You said that earlier that there was more moose, or that people anecdotally were saying that there were more moose? Am I correct on that? Was that earlier that you were saying that, or? LETTY HUGHES: Uh, no. It’s actually less. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No. It’s less. Sorry.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, less moose. We were probably talking about bears. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Sorry, we were.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so no. You know, there used to not be moose out here on the Seward Peninsula. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, so in terms of like, you know, that’s -- in people’s living mind, you know, that’s a fairly, you know, recent thing. But also, I mean, back in like the ’80’s, you know, there was like a good-sized moose population out here. KATIE CULLEN: Hm.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, you had this like general season. There was, you know, there was moose for everyone, right? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: And that’s not the case, has not been the case. And you know, they feel back in the records is that, you know, there were some pretty harsh winters during that time period, too, so the thought is that they just got to, you know, their peak of the population, and then in addition to this, you know, harsh climate and weather that occurred during that exact same time, the population crashed, you know.
And, course, there’s always the question of, you know, bears, and like what are, you know, what are the bears doing to moose calves. So you know, you hear today, you know, you go to meetings or -- and they’ll just be like, well the moose population isn’t like it was when, you know.
And you’re like, well, maybe it could’ve never been that high. Maybe it can never get to be that high. But you can’t change what people, you know, 'cause more moose, right? More -- you know, more moose is better.
And so, there’s not -- it’s hunting restrictions, it’s all -- out here it’s state registration permit. There’s a quota. You have to call in by so many days, you know. Sometimes the hunts close in one to two days. You know, so it’s um -- KATIE CULLEN: Hm.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you collar them, too? LETTY HUGHES: Some of the moose are collared.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And so when they are -- you capture them, are you doing blood samples and weighing, too? Have you seen an increase or decrease in weight and health of the moose population?
LETTY HUGHES: So, um, back when -- and it was when Tony Gorn was weighing those -- you know, he was weighing them in the spring, those short yearlings, and it’s definitely work that has been done in the Interior by researchers and so, you know, they came up with this ideal weight of like, you know, this magic number of 375 pounds.
And so, if your moose calves were, you know, right there or below, then you know, they were nutritionally stressed, you know. KATIE CULLEN: Hm. Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: And so, you know, but -- and then there’s a difference of like, when you’re weighing them in the fall, and then how much weight they could potentially lose between fall and then you know, at this time of year, you know. And so, and he only has a couple years of data, so I know -- but I just know in the fall there'll be --
I mean we had some young bulls, so they’re like six, seven-month-old calves that were like, 550 pounds. KATIE CULLEN: Woo-hoo! LETTY HUGHES: That was -- yeah. That was a lot, you know.
And then, um, so, but, yeah. So I just haven’t talked with him to see what, you know, in his couple years of working with the data what it has shown compared to back when Tony had -- had dealt with it. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Hm. Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Very interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: So, but, yeah. So it all plays back into, you know, like this environment of, you know, how much snow? How much food? The quality of it. So -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Predators again. LETTY HUGHES: Hm-mm. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
So we were talking before we -- we turned on the recorder, you’re getting ready hopefully -- is it next week that you’re hoping to get out? So can you tell us a little bit about what you’re hoping to achieve? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So, they’re called muskox composition surveys. So and to simplify that, it means we’re going to go to groups of animals, and we break them into categories, like so first we look at males, but then we age -- we break those males down into age classes. You know, is it a two-year-old, is it a three-year-old? Or is it a mature bull, which is, in our sense, four years and older.
We do the exact same thing with cows, too. Is it a two-year-old cow, a three-year-old cow, or a mature cow? We’ll also see if there’s any short yearlings in there. Now by the time we start this, there could be some new calves on the ground, too, so we’ll also --
So the reason for this, you know, is one, the characteristics and the growth of their horns. You can tell how old they are. And you can pretty much -- and also by the thickness, too. You can identify a two-year-old cow versus a two-year-old bull, too, pretty easily, and in terms of the thickness of the horns. It still takes a little bit to train your eye for it.
And so it’s important for that, so we can look at when recruitment of how many animals survived from when they were a calf the previous fall through the harsh winter into spring.
And also for the bull/cow proportions. Like out of this entire population, what percentage of them are mature bulls? So that’s important in terms of like, for hunting, for the number of permits that the state issues and that the feds, National Park Service and BLM, will issue.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So if there’s not as many bulls, of course, people aren’t allowed to take a lot of bulls. LETTY HUGHES: It’s, you know, we have to then look at it, be like, ok, in which areas maybe have a little bit less hunting opportunity, maybe a little bit more hunting opportunity. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: Also gives an idea that we can take this information that we’re getting and compare it to previous years. So the last time was in 2017, so we could compare it to that and be like, ok. You know.
I mean, so yeah, so even though we didn’t get the population estimate, we can still get from the composition surveys, a good idea of what’s going on with the bulls.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Do you also look at genetic diversity then? LETTY HUGHES: Mm. That’s a good question, ’cause genetics has come a really long ways.
So there have been folks who have looked for their, uh, for their graduate studies at genetics and so forth, you know. The thing about muskox, um, very slow genetics, you know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok.
LETTY HUGHES: So it’s almost like a bottleneck in a sense. But then, the really interesting thing about the muskox in Alaska is, you know, they were reintroduced out here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
LETTY HUGHES: And so the original ones came from Greenland, and then they were brought to UAF. And from UAF, you know, after a few years some of them were put out in Nunivak Island.
So all these animals that are out here on the Seward Peninsula, North Slope, Nunivak, Nelson (Island), all come from the small group of animals that were brought over from Greenland, so -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm. Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So it would be the talk of like, you know, genetics, you know, could that be playing, you know, a cause in, you know, what’s going on in some cases.
Then, I mean, it would definitely be worth something to look at again. Just -- just because someone did the work of genetics twenty, thirty years ago, so much has increased in technology, you know, and how you look at genetics.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So do you do any comparison studies in muskox between the ones in Alaska and the ones in the Northwest Territories in Canada? LETTY HUGHES: Um, a lot of times, so there has been some collaboration in terms of, like, you know, what do you do with your muskox, or how do you -- a lot of times, it’s like how do you manage your hunts?
And over there, a lot of times they’ll have like, you know, they also have a commercial harvest, where we don’t have that in the State of Alaska. You know, you don’t sell -- we can’t sell game meat.
So but, you know, they have -- or like, how often do you do a population -- ? And a lot of times it’s like a really long time in between when -- when some of those Canadian muskox populations are surveyed, you know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: And so, we’re always kinda taken back because they have thousands and thousands of muskox in some of those areas, you know, over in the Nunivut area, so, um --
But, you know, in comparison, one of the things that we look at, too, is like out in the Y-K with Nunivak Island is, uh, same, you know, area, but it’s in an island where it’s predator-free. I mean, you have -- I mean, you have your, you know, arctic fox, red fox, and then you have humans. So those are, you know, your predators for the muskox there.
But the biologist out there with the state, I mean, he -- I mean, their population’s doing really well. You know, and they have a lot of permits that they give out. I mean, his -- yeah, his yearlings getting pregnant, you know, and all this.
And then out here, its's um -- you know, there’s a lot more just going on. It’s -- it's, you know, we have predators, but we’re not seeing this viable recruitment like, you know, Nunivak is.
So that is one of the questions as to that the muskox researcher with the state’s looking at is, why? What’s the difference between -- ? You know, is it vegetation? What’s going on between Nunivak muskox and, you know -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: These ones. LETTY HUGHES: And these ones.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So when you go out next week to do your study, is it all just, do you land? And -- and -- and how do you do it? Explain what one of these is. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So normally, the -- our population census when we are flying these transects lines, you know, if we find groups of muskox, those are normally then what we would look at for this composition survey.
But because of weather and priorities and stuff, the survey didn’t happen, so we had to go look for groups, you know, on our -- we had to do some recon flights.
So it’s gonna involve using an R44 helicopter, and um, and getting -- because we can land easily, you know, without having of like worry about being on skis. And -- and also just taking off as well.
And sometimes muskox can be on fairly, you know, low elevation, flat ground along the coast. Other times, they can be, like very at the top of the hill. So you need to be able to access them.
So we’ll be based out of Kotzebue, and we’ll go visit a group in Bering Land Bridge. And that group, when we found it in end of March, was sixty-plus animals. So that could take a couple hours to classify. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: Because you want the animals calm, and not being all, like, all grouped up, because then the little ones will hide in there.
And sixty animals is a lot to classify, you know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: And you want them to -- you wish that they could just be like statues and not move. You know, just look at me straight on and not move. But that’s not the case.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So as soon as you land, they don’t form that circle and terrified or -- ? LETTY HUGHES: So we, you know, we’ve used Bering Air out here. A lot of times we’ve also used other helicopter pilots out of Fairbanks, but they all have a lot of experience in working around the wildlife and know that -- you know, because in a sense we are, you know, we are harassing them when we’re coming up.
But we don’t want them to move, so -- or start running, and um -- so they’re really good about that. And it also means, like, me communicating with the, you know, helicopter pilot about, like, "Ok. You know, this is good. We can just walk from here."
Or sometimes, you know, um, if they’re up on a hill and you’ve got these other little ridges, you can kind of, you know, sneak up on ’em and walk up.
But you definitely try to -- you want them in a fairly calm state, because once they decide that there’s -- something’s not right, it can be really hard to do the job. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: You don’t think those animals can run very far or fast, but they do. And if you’re just on foot, you know, and so --
But we have spotting. We have a really nice spotting scope that we use, so we can be a little bit further away, too. So that way we’re not having to be right up, you know, in the animals’ space. We also have binoculars.
And so, it’s, you know, a really good way to just also, you know, be on the ground, because while you’re -- it’s just a lot of times, just quiet.
Weather-wise, it can be super gusty. You know, it’s like 30 mile-an-hour winds, trying to look through a spotting scope. KATIE CULLEN: Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: And you’re like -- And your eyes are, you know, they’re tearing up and forming, you know, icicles, but you’re like, but I’m in an R44. And I get to be on the ground, looking at muskox, so I’m ok with, you know, 30 mile-an-hour gusting winds.
So um, so, you know, and there’s always two of us that, you know, one for safety and just to always confer and stuff. So I’m actually going to be taking out Fish and Game person with me.
It was all kind of happened very quickly, and so -- and she has not classified muskox before. So it’ll be a bit of a learning experience for her in this because a lot of the work is actually going to be done outside of the preserve. There’s only one group in the preserve we’re doing, and then the rest of them are all east and east of Buckland. Kind of heading more towards the interior, um, of the state, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And then will you -- you’ll share this data with this new person who’s come on, that’s the new muskox person. LETTY HUGHES: Um, well. Then what I do is I’ll go back and I’ll work with Fish and Game here in Nome with the data, and then, you know, we’ll come up with what the bull/cow ratio is, what the calf recruitment is, you know, or proportion of mature bulls to cows. And so, that’s --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But on this trip, it’s not like you’re weighing them or doing blood samples or anything? LETTY HUGHES: No. No. No. I wish I was doing that. But no, I -- I won’t be doing. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: We don’t have any plans right now from the Park Service and to collar any muskox at the moment. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Exciting.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So, that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future, but you just have to have a really good reason. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: So.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: What do you see future challenges in your work? LETTY HUGHES: Future challenges in the work is definitely going to be getting the survey work done in addition to like, what weather is doing, you know, whether that’s having multiple storms or whether that’s having no snow.
It seems -- seems to not be a happy medium at the moment. It’s one or the other right now.
And so that seems to be the -- I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for me and for other biologists who -- You know, I know I've talked with some vital sign people, um, Pam, who deals with the weather. KATIE CULLEN: Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: And so her job takes her everywhere across the state, too, like out here on the preserve and also in Denali, and it was, uh, March, mid-to-late March I want to say, when I last spoke with her that she was normally goes to Denali to get peak snow levels and stuff, and like, the snow was gone. KATIE CULLEN: Oh, wow.
LETTY HUGHES: Like, you know, and pilots were, you know they kinda put their planes -- I mean, their planes were on bush wheels. They weren’t on skis.
And so in terms of like what she needed to do for her work was already very much a challenge for her. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: So it’s -- it's yes. So it’s not even like the biologist side, it’s even other folks who are looking at, you know, climate and their roles in the environment. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: One thing we’ve been asking people is, so being here, um, people more understand the changes that are happening, but how do we -- how do we tell other people in the Lower 48 and the world, and why should it be important to them? LETTY HUGHES: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, it’s um, -- and I can’t imagine that they’re not experiencing some of their own environmental, you know, chaos, as well, in terms of snow and or maybe what appears to be more fires.
So I mean, I think it’s a question they have to ask themselves, too. You know, but it’s, um, I think it deals with like, a lot of outreach, and this is like where Katie comes in, you know. 'Cause it is.
Or just being able to -- being able to just talk to someone, you know, in a "layman’s" terms about, you know, well, here’s what, you know, we’ve been seeing. And here’s what it could mean, or here’s what, you know, here’s what it means to a hunting --
But you also have to be open-minded to be able to hear, you know, to hear this. That, you know, that this is a concern, not being able to know the number of moose on a landscape. You know. Not only for a population, but also for a consumptive purpose, you know, so -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, I think it just depends how open-minded someone wants to be to -- to hear. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
LETTY HUGHES: 'Cause you can put all the outreach out there, and you can tell people and tell people and --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yep. Well, I know that was one thing Katie was interested in, is like how do you -- how do you get this across and make it important to other people. Was one thing we had talked about.
KATIE CULLEN: Hm-mm. Hm--mm. Yeah, yeah. The idea of, yeah, if we were chatting with a group of students, you know, in -- in New Hampshire, where I’m from, what -- what -- what could we share with them about -- about what’s happening here?
And then, yeah, ’cause there’s very -- like you said, you know, there’s a lot happening in, you know, all, like in so many places, but there’s different ways that people are experiencing it and different impacts that people are seeing and things like that. So yeah, yeah, I think it’s a really interesting question.
LETTY HUGHES: I think, you know, or maybe like out here, when you get to talk with Gay (Sheffield) would be really good and Roy and them, is like the sea ice, right? You know, you hear that the most. Like, you -- you know, there’s a lot of images, you know, in terms of through NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and through just people’s experience that’d be talking about, like, you know, the sea ice and, you know, how just the extent of it or lack of it.
And I think you can, in terms of people being able to visually understand and see that, you can, you know, I think that is a really good one, when we talk about our environmental changes out here.
Like, you know, I saw someone, a boat -- he posted a photo yesterday on Nome Post, and it was this young, young kid. KATIE CULLEN: Mm. I saw that.
LETTY HUGHES: It was in a Lund boat, and, you know, it was just like this water spraying. I mean, you wouldn’t have even known it was April. KATIE CULLEN: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: And he had gotten his first seal. And so, they were really proud, you know, and they were willing to, you know, give it to someone.
And, but I’m like, wow. You wouldn’t even know that that was April. I mean, to just be out, you know, cruising around in a Lund boat in this open water.
KATIE CULLEN: No hat. You know, like, or like just spring, summer gear kinda thing. LETTY HUGHES: I know. It was so, had you like -- had you shown that photo to me, I would have been like, oh, that’s summer time. KATIE CULLEN: Hm-mm. Hm-mm.
LETTY HUGHES: Not -- I would not have even thought -- I'd have been like, "That’s not April." I'd have -- But it was.
So I think, you know, stuff like that is -- is a really good way of, you know, being able to have people maybe from, yeah, like New Hampshire, Washington, or even Texas. You know, I'm just broadly here, being like, you know, there are some major changes going on here. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: You know?
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm-mm. One thing I just thought of as you were saying that, and this may be a silly question, but any of these seasonal changes affecting the seasonal gestation period, not gestation periods, but breeding seasons or the -- the cycles of animals? LETTY HUGHES: No, it’s definitely not a silly question at all. It’s --
I mean, it comes up in, you know, topic all the time. And it also just depends like, you know, on the where -- your latitude, you know.
Well, um, I guess one of the things that comes up on mine is like, twinning surveys for, you know, for moose. Like maybe when the Interior does twinning surveys might be a little bit later than what, you know, Warren tried here.
Or ptarmigan during the breeding season, when they’ve done ptarmigan surveys, and it might start a little bit, you know, earlier in the Interior versus out here, so --
But, you know, definitely I -- I think, you know, it definitely can cause changes. You know, having environmental changes can definitely cause it when animals can start breeding. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: Even with, you know, migration, too. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yes. LETTY HUGHES: So -- so yeah.
Not a silly question at all, but it’s just one of those, like, how much -- how much do we know to talk about it. And, I mean, and I just haven’t dived into that part of it.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, like you just wonder with the birds, and are they laying eggs a little earlier? Are they coming here earlier? You know. LETTY HUGHES: It definitely, for like, uh, you know, for these animals -- for like ptarmigan who are gonna be nesting really soon and stuff, you know, or even like swans, who are gonna be here soon.
And is, you know, if you’re having like a really wet spring sometimes, I mean, it can cause nest failure, you know.
And just depending on the species, they may or may not, you know, lay eggs again. And so that’s, you know, you get that one time, and they’re just doing what they’re programmed to do, and then you have, you know, there where --
There was one spring where we had just really late spring, and there was just a lot of water. And it was the thought of a person who’s a very avid birder in that maybe there was some nest failure going on, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And with spring coming earlier, are the bears coming out earlier? LETTY HUGHES: So we definitely during moose surveys, um, and like I said our moose surveys can start in mid-February.
Um, in other parts, like in Kotzebue area, they can start later, but we definitely have seen bear tracks in early and mid-February. KATIE CULLEN: (Whispering) Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: I mean, we’ve even a couple years ago, I’m recalling, we were even having calls in like January about, you know, people seeing bear tracks. KATIE CULLEN: In January. Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: You know, and I mean, they go in, and I mean, it’s all based on, like, you know, weather and -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s right. LETTY HUGHES: And stuff. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Temperature. LETTY HUGHES: And temperature, so if --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: If it’s warm and in February, you wake up.
LETTY HUGHES: Right. And it just wasn’t just reports of, you know, on the Seward Peninsula, but, you know, reports that, you know, in Anchorage and other areas that ADN (Anchorage Daily News newspaper) were reporting on that, you know, they were getting signs of black bears, you know, like really early in the spring time, you know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
LETTY HUGHES: It would still be considered winter by our standards. So yeah, you know, it -- you can definitely -- they can be out early.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Hm. Yeah. You just wonder what that’s going to do to the -- to the usual breeding cycles and -- and yeah, what the effect that’s going to have, but we won’t know for several years.
LETTY HUGHES: You don't know. And someone would need to look at that, and you know, like, and that would be like, collaring and really being able to follow, you know, that sow and being able to be like, ok, how many times is she reproducing. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Mm-mm. LETTY HUGHES: You know, yeah. So -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: Just -- Which I’m sure someone’s looking -- probably looking at.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Some graduate thesis study. Katie, did you have any other questions?
KATIE CULLEN: I was -- so I had one question on, um, like, of all of the questions that you’re answering, you know, that you’re -- and that you’re formulating, um, about different populations and different species, is there one question that you’re -- that interests you the most in, like, that is like your research passion for -- ? LETTY HUGHES: That interests me the most. For me, I want to say the muskox vegetation, you know. KATIE CULLEN: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: I’ve always been interested in the vegetation, but I also really like the reproduction and the endocrinology, too, so -- You know, two very separate things, vegetation and reproduction.
But in terms of like my question earlier was like, well, what’s going on, you know. Could there be something vegetation-wise that are causing these animals to move, you know.
So that’s -- that’s something for, you know, here that I want to dive in next to, you know, and start. So, once I get my head above water with all this muskox stuff that I’m finishing up, then I want to start looking at this next one and hopefully have it be a funded project, so --
But it’s gonna take, you know, a lot of people, you know, in terms of, like, the methodology, having the stats, you know. So, yeah, it usually involves quite a few people to -- because it would be like a new method, really, of like, how do we go about looking at this. Or maybe building off of Claudia’s (Ihl) work, what she did up in the Cape Krusenstern, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So you mentioned your interest in the vegetation for the muskox. Do you remember several years ago at UAF, some of the muskox died off, and they found that it was due to the lack of a certain mineral in the food in the soil that was there. KATIE CULLEN: Hm. LETTY HUGHES: I vaguely remember.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And I don’t remember which mineral it was, but because they’re in a staid population, and normally they’d be out traveling and moving on the land, they would get enough of this mineral. But then they discovered that on the farm, they needed to supply this mineral.
I’m just wondering maybe, is it vegetation and also mineral composition? Are the animals moving because they do need other minerals from the soil that maybe they’re not getting? Just an idea.
LETTY HUGHES: And no, it’s absolutely -- it's absolutely true, ’cause, you know, folks like Peter Neitlich and stuff, who I mean, really are looking at, you know, vegetation for just in terms of environment have said, you know.
We’ve noticed that the soils have been warming, so that means changes in composition, changes in -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: So yeah, you know.
I mean, if you’re having changes in minerals, it can totally affect the changes in vegetation and what those -- so yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Totally affect birth rate, totally affect health of animals. KATIE CULLEN: Wow. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so it's -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s interesting.
LETTY HUGHES: So one of the things that has been collected is -- and Jim Lawler, when he’s with Park Service, he's -- When he’d go out, he would collect feces from muskox. So we’d go out there, go look at ’em through the binoculars, and we’d go pick up some frozen ones and put ’em in a baggie.
So, and I think a lot of people were like, wow. You get so much enjoyment, picking up, you know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But you learn so much. LETTY HUGHES: Right. Right.
So, and so that’s what we did a few weeks ago when I was working up in Cape Krusenstern, and then we’ll do that next week, too.
And so, I want to talk with him about, ok -- 'Cause he just has this whole pile of dried poo on his desk from years, right? Just on his desk. And so I’m like, what can we do with this? So --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, what minerals are in there and what are lacking would be an interesting -- yeah. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us that we haven’t talked about, about your work? LETTY HUGHES: I don’t think so.
I guess it’s always just a -- well, I love to talk about the land animals, but you know, Gay will get into the seals and marine, and so will Austin and them. But, you know, the fish, too. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: So I mean, we can’t forget about, you know, they are in terms of like, a subsistence, like, of what gets utilized the most is fish. You know.
And so what is -- what is that doing in terms of like, you know, is that bringing in, you know, fish earlier, later? You know, having these high waters, or like nuis --
You know, generally you get like chum and pinks who can handle colder water. But then as the water temperatures are warming, if they’re warming, in certain areas, is that going to cause other salmon species to come in?
So those are all questions, and, you know, one of the things that we’re hoping to do, if the proj -- if it gets funded, is to be able to answer some of those questions.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So do you work with fish then, too, with marine, or I thought you were just land animals? LETTY HUGHES: Um, well, I saw this need that was coming from the Seward Peninsula Regional Advisory Council of what we need to know what’s going on with our fish, so while I’m not a fish biologist, I can understand that there is this need, and there’s this work that hasn’t been done in the park or in the preserve in a really long time.
So a lot of time it’s -- I’m like, ok, you really know this method. You’re a fish person. You’re a fish person. So is really a matter of me trying -- who do I talk to, you know.
I’m also pretty lucky to be with someone who’s a fisheries biologist, too. So, you know, well, so he gets to hear about me talk about land animals, and then I get to hear him talk about fish. So you know, so as a result of that, too, you know, I have like a small little, you know, connection group of fish folks that I can go to and they can point me in other directions.
So in working with Park -- other Park Service fish biologists out of Anchorage and Fish and Game here and out of Anchorage, and they’ll, you know, help me do this, you know, work. You know. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Excellent.
LETTY HUGHES: So in terms of looking at genetics, looking at the presence of salmon species, you know, it also provides, one, it’s good -- it’s what folks from Wales and Shishmaref and Deering and Buckland have been asking, but it’s also necessary for part of our park management plan, too.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Have you been seeing any other species of fish coming in, then, with the water temperature changing, or is that known yet? LETTY HUGHES: I don’t know anything about that.
KATIE CULLEN: Through the Bering Strait, but I’m not sure. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Through the strait, I know, but I’m wondering, through the rivers, if you’ve -- LETTY HUGHES: No.
You know, that would be one to ask Nikki. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm. LETTY HUGHES: Because her role when she was with Fish and Game was to do household subsistence surveys. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. LETTY HUGHES: Where, you know, they would ask, you know, these questions. And a lot of times, you know, just things come up as they get talking to folks. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah. Ok, I’ll make a note of that.
LETTY HUGHES: So, yeah. So -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: So, yeah, in terms of, you know, looking at, like, what’s, you know, coming in, what’s passing through, is there any -- and that’s part of the thing with looking at the genetics, hopefully, with the chum, is like, you know, comparing them to the other stuff out here in Norton Sound and even Kotzebue. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um-hm.
LETTY HUGHES: And being like, you know, which stocks are we, you know, getting up in the preserve? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: So. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, ok. LETTY HUGHES: So. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah.
KATIE CULLEN: That’ll be really interesting. And you’ll start that project -- well, you’re kind of already -- already -- like it’s already starting, right? LETTY HUGHES: Mm. KATIE CULLEN: In a way. LETTY HUGHES: Well, kind of.
We won’t know until the end of January if the proposal got funded. I mean, we’re hoping.
I mean, considering it was my first fish proposal I ever put in for, and I’m, so -- but, yeah, that’s when you have, like, a really great team of people to, you know -- and I put it right out there. I laid all my cards out. I was like, I’m brand new at this, and writing this and --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But look at the expertise you have around you. LETTY HUGHES: Right. And so I was like, and they jumped at the opportunity to, you know, do this work in the preserve. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: You know, so yeah. So I was like, great, you know. I’ll write it up. You review it. And you know -- And so basically it comes down to --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And who’s the funder? Who are you looking to have it funded by? LETTY HUGHES: Um, it’s through Office of Subsistence Management. Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. So, we’ll see.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Well, good luck with that. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, so, if it gets funded, it’ll start, um, next June, I guess. Or August? KATIE CULLEN: Wow.
LETTY HUGHES: So which seems like a really long ways away, but I’m finding out as I’m diving more into this that with all the paperwork and permitting and stuff, it’s probably not that far away. KATIE CULLEN: Right.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Well, I hope your -- is it next week that you’re hoping to head out? LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, I’ll head out Monday, and then if the weather’s all good, we’ll start doing the work on Tuesday. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. Well, the weather here has been absolutely beautiful for a number of days. I hope you get good weather where you’re going. LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, the winds need to be ideal and not have anything hazy. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. LETTY HUGHES: So it’ll be, hopefully.
When I did the work a few weeks ago up in Cape Krusenstern, I could not have asked for a better survey weather, you know. Like, muskox were -- I mean, I’m not in very good shape for hiking at the moment, so I was like, oh boy. If I’m going to have to hike up that hill, this is -- this is not going to be good.
So -- but it worked out that muskox were in like pretty ideal locations, and, you know, and --
But even then, like, we got that warming spell, like forty degrees in late March. And I had just finished up doing a muskox population survey out there, and it was all white. All just completely white, from the coast all the way inland.
And then I went back out there, like a week and a half, two weeks later, and so much of the hilltops and along the coast were brown. And just trying to find like a group of four bulls, and I’m like -- and you just got lucky. You were like, oh. There they are. They’re brown on brown. You just saw a flash of movement.
And I could -- had I waited to do that population survey any longer, I wouldn’t have been able to do it very well. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the results or the fact that I’m spending money. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. LETTY HUGHES: And not going to have good results. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow. Well, I wish you luck. LETTY HUGHES: Thanks. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I hope it goes good.
And thank you for your time. I know how busy you’ve been, and we really, really appreciate all your expertise. KATIE CULLEN: Thank you. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Thank you so much, Letty.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah. Well -- So is this a project -- like, are you talking with -- Like is it just talking with Park Service folks? LESLIE MCCARTNEY: No, no. Not just Park Service folks. Also subsistence people and um, anyone who can talk to any environmental or climate changes that they’ve experienced in the area.
LETTY HUGHES: Yeah, if you can like, if Jim Dau’s around, I mean, he’s in Kotzebue. I mean, he and his wife Randi travel quite a bit now and stuff, but, you know, in terms of, you know, you were asking about like, the caribou and the ice and stuff, you know, if he’s -- he would be a really good one to talk with.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Ok. I’m going to turn this off right now. Thank you. So thanks, Letty.