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ARCHIVED Weekly News Published June 23, 2015

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100th anniversary of forest patrol aviation in Wisconsin

BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. - Monday, June 29, marks the 100th birthday of aviation for the state Department of Natural Resources. It was on that date in 1915, that the first forest patrol flight to occur anywhere in the world took place in Wisconsin.

On that date a wealthy Chicago adventurer named Jack Vilas, flying one of the first commercial flying machines ever built--a rickety-looking hydroaeroplane called a Curtis Flying Boat--took Wisconsin's first chief forester, Edward Griffith, into the blue skies above Trout Lake and the sprawling Northwoods.

Vilas flying boat
100 years ago this summer, Wisconsin foresters joined pilot Jack Vilas, far right, on his Curtis Flying Boat on Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin. The single-engine biplane - composed mainly of wood, fabric and wire - featured a wooden propeller mounted behind the pilot, called a "pusher propeller."
Historical Photo

During that flight the idea occurred to Vilas that a pilot could scan the landscape for the wispy columns of white smoke that signaled wildfire with far greater range than a forester in a lookout tower. He offered to make daily flights that summer, free of charge, in exchange for a commission as the world's first flying fire ranger.

That commission was swiftly granted by the Wisconsin Conservation Department, a precursor to the DNR. Within two years, the "Wisconsin Plan" for forest protection was adopted by Canada and other countries and by 1919 the U.S. Forest Service had introduced aerial fire patrols.

A century later, DNR pilots are still flying fire detection routes, generally during hot, dry weather in the early spring, before "green up," when the ground is covered with dried grasses and brush and tall, thirsty pines that can ignite as easily as a match.

Today's DNR pilots do much more than spot fires. They are highly trained specialists who stay airborne above the flames providing a wide range of detailed reports to firefighters on the ground, information that not only makes fire suppression faster but safer. They make sure firefighters have an escape route should the wind shift.

And this is only one of many services DNR pilots now provide. Working with law enforcement agencies across the state, they play a key role in guarding public safety. DNR pilots, for instance, will fly at night, at low altitude, using a forward-looking infra-red sensor to search for the heat signal of a lost child or a missing hunter.

They work for wildlife officials, tracking mammals, birds and even fish from the sky, either visually or using radios to pick up signals from transmitters implanted by biologists to study the movements of various wildlife species.

DNR pilots search for signs of forest diseases. They provide critical data during and after floods and other natural disasters. Experts in aerial photography, they provide a wide range of services to public land managers and DNR specialists working on spills and other environmental problems.

"I rest easier knowing our highly-skilled pilots are always available on short notice when we need them," said DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp. "Few people realize how important they are to our mission, to protect and enhance our natural resources and to guard public safety. Let me be the first to wish our wonderful aviation team a very happy 100th birthday."

DNR fire flight
DNR pilot Larry Waskow flew above the Rat River wildfire just west of Appleton in April, providing key information to DNR and municipal firefighters on the ground.
WDNR Photo

Currently, there are 10 full-time and eight part-time, limited-term DNR pilots. There are two full-time pilots stationed at each of five DNR hangars located in Madison, Eau Claire, Siren, Rhinelander and Oshkosh.

They must be skilled aviators before joining DNR. Many have served in military aircraft. They include former jet pilots, wilderness bush pilots and flight instructors, and sometimes all of these. Now they are natural resource pilots, granted a Federal Aviation Administration exemption allowing them to fly at low altitudes.

A historic footnote: Jack Vilas made his historic flights while vacationing in his beloved Northwoods where he was a devoted hunter and fisherman. He kept his flying boat on Trout Lake in Vilas County. The county, created by the state legislature in 1893, was named for Jack's uncle, William Vilas of Madison, a Civil War veteran who served as U.S. Postmaster, as the U.S. Secretary of Interior and finally as a U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

Jack Vilas had no interest in such industrious work. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he devoted his life to adventure - hunting and fishing, driving race cars and then piloting one of the world's first airplanes. He was the first pilot to fly cross Lake Michigan. A man of many talents, he turned out to be a superior fire warden.

There were no radios back then, so when he spotted a fire, he would land at Trout Lake and phone nearby forestry headquarters to report it. He would give a compass direction and a visual estimate of distance made without any instrumentation whatsoever. Foresters racing to a fire Vilas said was 40 miles from headquarters would be amazed when this turned out to be a precise estimate.

To his credit, Vilas set a standard of excellence that lives on today in the public servants who fly for the DNR.

For more information: see "A centennial year for DNR aviation" in the June issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine; "Celebrate the first fire patrol" and "So you want to be a conservation pilot" on the DNR's Environmental Education for Kids website; and Wisconsin fire history on the DNR website.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Catherine Koele, DNR wildfire prevention specialist, 715-356-5211 x208 or Ed Culhane, Office of Communications, 715-781-1683

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Spring waterfowl survey results show good production despite challenging weather

MADISON -- The 2015 Wisconsin spring waterfowl breeding population survey indicates quality waterfowl production, despite dry conditions experienced during the survey. For all species, population counts showed no significant change from estimates compared to last year.

This survey information, along with two other primary sources of information regarding yearly waterfowl breeding conditions, is used to determine the fall season structure for Wisconsin. The full survey report can be found by searching the Department of Natural Resources website, dnr.wi.gov, for keywords "waterfowl management."

With considerable precipitation in May, wetland conditions improved just in time for brood rearing, and Wisconsin is expected to provide good duck production in 2015.

"In 2015, spring weather came much earlier than the previous two years, which is normally a good sign for breeding waterfowl," said Kent Van Horn, DNR waterfowl biologist. "A large proportion of ducks harvested in Wisconsin are raised in Wisconsin, although there are differences among species."

A relatively mild winter in 2014-15, combined with below normal rainfall in March and April, led to dry wetland conditions throughout Wisconsin. Counts indicated drier conditions than in 2014 in all regions. According to Van Horn, considerable rainfall in May following the survey has helped Wisconsin remain at average wetland conditions for the year during the important brood-rearing period.

The 2015 total Wisconsin total breeding duck population estimate of 372,840 is similar to 2014, but 16 percent below the long-term (42-year) average. None of the species-specific population estimates for the three top breeding ducks in Wisconsin (mallard, blue-winged teal and wood duck) were significantly different compared to 2014.

"Each duck species population estimates normally varies from year to year so I urge hunters and other conservationists to interpret the information on these migratory bird populations over several years and in the continental context," Van Horn said. "For example, the blue-winged teal breeding population in Wisconsin is lower than historic levels, but continental estimates the last few years have reached all-time highs, and two-thirds of Wisconsin regular duck season blue-winged teal harvest comes from out of state."

Roughly 70 percent of mallard harvest in Wisconsin is supported by locally hatched ducks, and the average mallard population in the last few years has been lower than the previous decade. This observation suggests that continued efforts aimed at controlling mallard harvest impacts and support for grassland nesting habitat conservation are important to the future of Wisconsin's local mallard population.

Canada goose population estimates similar to 2014

Wisconsin Canada goose harvest is supported by Canada geese breeding in northern Ontario, as well as those breeding locally in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin breeding estimate for Canada geese is similar to 2014 and consistent with a stable population of roughly 120,000. The preliminary Canada goose breeding population estimate of 226, 000 in northern Ontario is down from previous years, and average production is expected.

The department expects to receive continental breeding waterfowl population estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey in 2-3 weeks.

In July, Wisconsin will join Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan as the Mississippi Flyway Council analyzes survey data and provides recommendations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on waterfowl hunting regulations. These recommendations will help determine the framework under which states and provinces set waterfowl hunting seasons.

Following the council meeting and after USFWS selects a season framework, public hearings regarding Wisconsin's proposed waterfowl seasons will be held Aug. 3 through Aug. 6. Public input will inform the final Wisconsin season recommendations presented to the state Natural Resource Board for consideration and approval at its August 12 meeting at Horicon.

"As we do each year, the public will have opportunities to provide input on waterfowl hunting season during our meetings and hearings," said Van Horn. "This is a busy time of year for people, so we want to get the word out early about the public input opportunities. These meetings are also a great opportunity to hear the latest on waterfowl management and population status."

Dates and locations for the post-flyway council public meetings are as follows:

Public hearings regarding waterfowl season proposal are as follows:

The Natural Resources Board will discuss Wisconsin waterfowl seasons at its Aug. 12 meeting.

For a complete list of public input opportunities, visit dnr.wi.gov and search for "public input." For more information regarding waterfowl management in Wisconsin, search keywords "waterfowl management."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Kent Van Horn, DNR migratory waterfowl biologist, 608-266-8841

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2015 spring turkey harvest remains stable

MADISON - State turkey hunters registered a total of 40,975 birds during the 2015 spring turkey hunting season. According to Department of Natural Resources officials, this is a 2 percent decrease from the spring 2014 season.

"We heard from many hunters who were seeing good numbers of birds this spring," said Scott Walter, Upland Wildlife Ecologist for the Department of Natural Resources. "Weather across the state was excellent for hunting throughout much of the season. Total statewide spring turkey harvest has been between 37,000 and 43,000 turkeys for the past five years. Wisconsin's wild turkey populations have stabilized across the state after 30 years of continuous growth and expansion. Looking forward, we expect that weather during winter and the critical spring breeding period will cause some annual population fluctuations. We have very good turkey hunting in Wisconsin and the future looks bright and stable for turkey hunters."

Zone 1 again produced the highest overall turkey harvest at 11,558 birds, followed by zones 2 and 3, where hunters registered 10,344 and 9,960 turkeys, respectively. The highest hunter success was in zone 2 with a success rate of 23 percent, followed by zone 3 at 19.9 percent, and zone 1 at 18.9 percent. Success rates were between 14.5 percent and 18.2 percent for zones 4 through 7. Overall, the statewide success rate was 19.7 percent, similar to the 19.9 percent success rate reported by hunters last year.

"There were some lingering concerns about turkey populations in the north following the very severe winter of 2013-2014. The good news is that we saw the highest harvests and success rates in the northern zones of 6 and 7 since 2012," said Krista McGinley, assistant upland wildlife ecologist. "It was clear last year that our northern turkey flock made it through the winter in better shape than many expected, and good production levels last spring seem to have gotten northern turkeys right back on track."

The number of permits issued for this year's hunt decreased slightly (by approximately 1 percent), from 210,496 to 208,250.

A key objective of Wisconsin's Wild Turkey Management Plan [PDF] is to maximize opportunities for hunters while ensuring that harvest does not lead to population declines. Biologists in Wisconsin closely monitor harvest and other information to track turkey populations through time, and are always vigilant that harvests be sustainable.

2015 fall season permit applications are available.

A strong spring season should provide state hunters good reason for optimism regarding the upcoming fall hunt. The fall turkey season provides Wisconsin hunters with a very different type of hunt from the spring season. In the fall, hunters generally try to catch turkeys moving between roosting and feeding sites, or scatter a flock and try to call in a bird as the flock reassembles.

"We try to meet hunter demand for permits, so that these folks can engage in an activity they are passionate about," noted McGinley. For the fall 2015 season, permit levels will be identical to 2014 across most of the state. However, the DNR is addressing high hunter demand for permits in zone 2 by allocating an additional 4,000 permits for this zone. According to McGinley, "we felt this adjustment would help meet hunting demand in Zone 2 without harming the long term stability of this population of birds. Zone 2 harvests have been stable, and success rates are typically the highest in the state. This is reflective of a healthy local turkey population. This adjustment should also translate into more leftover permits being available over the counter. We think our most dedicated fall hunters will appreciate this additional opportunity."

The number of turkeys hunters are likely to encounter this fall will be, in part, determined by production levels this spring. "Thus far, we've had a fairly wet spring," noted Walter. "Turkey nests aren't significantly impacted by wet weather because the hen will continue to incubate the eggs, unless the nests are in lowland areas prone to flooding. However, once the eggs hatch, poults can become chilled easily. Warm, dry weather over the remainder of the early brood-rearing period will help to ensure a good crop of young turkeys is produced."

The fall 2015 wild turkey season will run from Sept. 12 through Nov. 19, with an extended season only in Turkey Management Zones 1 through 5 running from Nov. 30 through Dec. 31. The deadline for applying for a fall permit through the lottery process is Aug. 1. Applications cost $3 and can be purchased through the Online Licensing Center, at license sales locations, at DNR Service Centers (Hours for service centers vary; check the DNR website for service center days and hours of operation; DNR Service Centers are not open on Saturdays).

The 2015 Fall Turkey and 2016 Spring Turkey regulations are included in the 2015 Wisconsin Small Game Hunting Regulations pamphlet, available now on the hunting regulations page of the DNR website and in hard copy at DNR service centers and license vendors. For more information, search the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, for keyword "turkey."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Scott Walter, Upland Wildlife Ecologist at 608-267-7861 or Krista McGinley, Assistant Upland Wildlife Ecologist at 608-261-8458

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Wisconsin ruffed grouse survey indicates stable population

MADISON - Ruffed grouse enthusiasts should expect bird encounters similar to last year, according to the recently completed roadside ruffed grouse survey.

For complete survey results, search the Department of Natural Resources website, dnr.wi.gov, and search keywords "wildlife reports."

"While we did see some continued regional declines, our roadside survey index to track ruffed grouse populations is essentially unchanged from 2014," said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife survey coordinator Brian Dhuey. "Ruffed grouse populations are known to rise and fall over a nine to 11 year cycle, and the last peak in Wisconsin's cycle occurred in 2011. Survey results suggest that we have reached the low point in the population cycle and we should start to see increases in the next few years as the grouse population moves toward the next peak."

Roadside surveys to monitor the number of breeding grouse have been conducted by staff from the department, U.S. Forest Service, tribal employees, and numerous grouse enthusiasts and volunteers since 1964. Surveys begin 30 minutes before sunrise and consist of 10 stops at assigned points. Surveyors listen for four minutes for the distinctive thumping sounds made by drumming male grouse. Surveyors monitored 88 routes this year.

While the number of drums heard per stop statewide in 2015 was similar to last year, there were some notable differences among regions. While one of the primary regions for grouse in the state, the northern region, showed a 13 percent drop in the number of drums heard per stop, the primary region in central Wisconsin showed a 38 percent increase.

Weather conditions influence drumming activity by male grouse, and most observers felt weather conditions were conducive to accurate surveys this spring. Surveyors rated the overall survey conditions as "excellent" on 65 percent of transects runs, compared to 56 percent in 2014. Surveyors rated 2015 conditions as "fair," the lowest available weather condition rating, five percent of the time in 2015, compared to 7 percent in 2014.

According to DNR Upland Wildlife Ecologist Scott Walter, maturation of southern Wisconsin's forest community in recent decades and the resulting loss of dense, brushy areas that grouse need for cover has resulted in lower numbers of grouse in the region in recent decades. Results from the 2015 survey show that grouse populations in both the southwest and southeast region remain well below historic levels.

"Ruffed grouse are closely linked to young forests" said Walter. "While grouse enthusiasts often focus on numbers in a single year, the long-term health of grouse is dependent upon the availability of the dense young forest cover they require. In Wisconsin, we are working to provide the habitat needed to benefit ruffed grouse and many other wildlife species through proactive approaches to forest management that will maximize the health and diversity of forest communities."

Dan Dessecker, Director of Conservation Policy for the Ruffed Grouse Society, reminds hunters of the importance of weather in grouse population dynamics.

"While cold temperatures and deep snow are generally hard on resident wildlife populations, ruffed grouse often thrive in such winters," noted Dessecker. "This past winter saw crusted snow conditions across much of Wisconsin, and this can limit a grouse's ability to burrow into the snow where it is protected from cold temperatures and predators. On the other hand, temperatures this winter were relatively mild until late February and early March when we experienced temperatures well below zero. Snow depths don't really hamper grouse from feeding in the winter because they eat primarily buds from aspen and other trees at this time of year."

According to Dessecker, weather conditions, especially during the brood rearing period in late May and early June, also play an important role in the fall ruffed grouse numbers. Newly-hatched grouse chicks are very sensitive to chilling, and warm, dry conditions can provide for high survival during the first few weeks of life.

"Grouse hunters are used to the cyclic nature of ruffed grouse populations, and they know that grouse can still be found in the best cover during low periods," continued Dessecker. "Hunters might have to work a bit harder to flush birds, but sunny October days with your dog in the north woods are tough to beat, and Wisconsin still has some of the best grouse hunting in the country."

For more information regarding grouse hunting in Wisconsin, search the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, for keywords "ruffed grouse hunting."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Scott Walter, upland wildlife ecologist, 608-267-7861 or Brian Dhuey, wildlife surveys coordinator, 608-221-6342

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100 sharp-tailed grouse permits available in northwestern Wisconsin highlight recent management efforts

MADISON -- Preliminary spring survey results show that Wisconsin's sharp-tailed grouse made it through the winter in favorable condition, and 100 harvest permits are available for Management Unit 8 in northern Wisconsin.

Those interested in hunting sharp-tailed grouse in Unit 8 must submit an application and enter a drawing for a hunting permit. Permit level decisions are made on an annual basis and incorporate sharp-tailed grouse survey data, past permit levels and success rates. Hunters are encouraged to carefully review the zone map [PDF] and apply only for the open unit.

Applications are available at DNR Service Centers or authorized license agents and through the Online Licensing Center.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Sharp-tailed Grouse Advisory Committee, made up of department staff and key stakeholders, is hopeful that the sharp-tailed grouse population will continue to respond positively to habitat management efforts in Wisconsin.

"Sharptails are a fascinating wildlife species," said DNR Wildlife Biologist Bob Hanson. "They are adapted to large, open landscapes with a brushy component, and while they were formerly found across much of Wisconsin, reforestation and conversion of barrens habitat has reduced their range to a few counties in the northwest part of the state."

In northwestern Wisconsin, sharp-tailed grouse are now found primarily in association with large blocks of barrens habitat on public lands. Wisconsin's Sharp-tailed Grouse Management Plan [PDF] provides a framework to combine habitat development for barrens-dependent wildlife species with working forests. The plan's goal is to expand suitable habitat for sharptails and reconnect isolated populations.

"Biologists, foresters and land managers are working collaboratively to manage and reconnect forests to provide large scale critical habitat while growing local economies," noted Hanson. "The future for sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin is bright - quality habitat can be produced through slight modifications to timber harvest schedules and many Wisconsin forests can support both a strong timber products industry and a healthy and diverse wildlife community."

The barrens habitat in northwestern Wisconsin is recognized internationally as a key conservation opportunity area. Sharp-tails are a popular game bird species, and well-known for their dramatic breeding displays. The birds attract many visitors to the northwestern part of the state each year.

"Sharp-tailed grouse are a magnificent bird, and it's wonderful to see recent management efforts paying off," said Dave Evenson, President of the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society. "Factors have aligned in favor of sharp-tailed grouse habitat, and logging activities and recent natural disturbances are creating open habitats sharp-tails need in the Lake Superior area. I'd encourage hunters and birdwatchers alike to experience this unique landscape."

"We would like to thank those who remain passionate about Wisconsin's strong and historic tradition of sharp-tailed grouse hunting, and wish all hunters who successfully draw a permit the best of luck in the field, said DNR upland wildlife ecologist Scott Walter."

For more information, search the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, for keywords "sharp-tailed grouse."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Scott Walter, DNR upland wildlife ecologist, 608-267-7861; Krista McGinley, DNR assistant upland wildlife ecologist, 608-261-8458

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Public input sought on environmental review for proposed Kohler Golf Course

Comments from July meeting will be used to inform development of environmental impact statement

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- The public will have an opportunity to provide input to help determine the scope of an environmental impact statement for a Kohler golf course proposed to be developed in the Town of Wilson, Sheboygan County at an upcoming public meeting and during a public comment period.

The proposed 18-hole golf course would be constructed on 247 acres owned by the Kohler Company and 4 acres of easement from Kohler-Andrae State Park. The project site is along the Lake Michigan shoreline in an undeveloped area known as the Black River Forest.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will hold a public scoping meeting on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the UW-Sheboygan Theatre, Room 7114, 1 University Dr., Sheboygan.

The meeting will begin with a brief overview of the environmental impact statement process. Any interested individuals at the meeting will then have the opportunity to identify topics to be addressed in the statement. Department staff will be on hand to receive written or oral comments.

People may also submit comments through July 24, 2015 on topics to be addressed in the environmental impact statement. Comments can be mailed to Jay Schiefelbein at DNR, 2984 Shawano Avenue , Green Bay, WI 54313-6727, or sent by email to DNRKohlerProposal@wisconsin.gov.

The agency's draft outline for the environmental impact statement is available by searching the DNR website for Kohler golf course proposal, where they can also submit comments and sign up to receive email or mobile alerts.

"Environmental impact statements inform decision-makers and the public about the anticipated effects as well as alternatives to proposed projects," said Jay Schiefelbein, environmental analysis specialist with DNR. "The EIS will not include any permit decisions for the proposed project, which will occur later through the legally prescribed regulatory processes."

The department will use the scoping meeting comments, the applicant's environmental report, and other information to prepare a draft impact statement document. The public will be notified when the document is available for review and a hearing has been scheduled. No permit decisions will be made until after the environmental impact statement process is complete.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Mike Thompson, environmental analysis team supervisor, 414-303-3408; Bill Cosh, DNR spokesperson, 608-267-2773; Andrew Savagian, communications, 608- 261-6422

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Summer wildlife series at the MacKenzie Center will offer evening tours

POYNETTE, Wis. - Two educational evening wildlife tours will feature the live residents at the MacKenzie Center wildlife area on July 7 and August 11.

Visitors will get the chance to learn more about Wisconsin's native Wisconsin wild animals. Each event will run from 6 to 8 p.m. - the cost is $5 per person, and pre-registration is required.

Tuesday July 7, an Apex Predators Tour will focus on predators and the predator-prey relationships between wildlife featured at the MacKenzie Center. Natural resources educators and wildlife staff will guide the tour, and participants will have the opportunity to observe active predators and explore a display of pelts and skulls.

Tuesday August 11, a Wildlife Care and Enrichment Tour will showcase MacKenzie's wildlife residents that would not be able to survive on their own in the wild. In order to reduce stress and stimulate natural behavior for our residents, the center provides enrichment beyond basic care, including feeding whole prey, providing interesting scents, engaging puzzles, varying daily routines, and enhancing their habitat. Participants will learn about the specific care these animals require and will have the opportunity to assist wildlife staff in enrichment activities.

To register for summer wildlife series events and check out other upcoming opportunities, search the Department of Natural Resources "get outdoors" events page for MacKenzie Center events. Those interested in learning more about wildlife can also register via email by contacting DNRMacKenzieCenter@wisconsin.gov.

The MacKenzie Center is located at W7303 County Highway CS, Poynette, Wis. For more information, search the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov, for keyword "MacKenzie."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Chrystal Seeley-Schreck, DNR natural resources educator, 608-635-8112; Ruth Ann Lee, DNR natural resources educator, 608-635-8112

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Last Revised: Tuesday, June 23, 2015




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