The beauty and expansiveness of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge seen from an unmanned aircraft in the upper Kenai River and Skilak Lake. (Photo by Mark Laker, USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: Conserving wild places and wild things

I don’t know about you, but public lands play an important role in my life. They are where I learned to hunt and where we taught our children to hunt. The rivers whose headwaters flow from these lands are where my children learned to fly fish and where I still need to.

My kids can row a boat, back up a boat trailer and now spend quiet hours with rod in hand, a fly in the water and their friends beside them. Sometimes, I think these lands and waters are as much a parent to our children as we are.

We have a bulletin board that marks these times. Pictures of family, friends, rivers, wildlife, mountains, fish and boats. These lands are where we put up wall tents in the fall, spend time with friends around a campfire, backpack to new places or unplug on a weeklong float trip through the wilderness.

Most times, like you, I don’t consciously think about these places as public lands. I simply enjoy them.

Still, I think it is all of our wish that wild places and wild things remain for the next generations. We are grateful to those before us for their stewardship and protection of these lands and feel a responsibility to honor and pass this legacy along. It is why I became a biologist.

It is also what brought me to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — a place whose purpose is to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity for the enjoyment of future generations.

As a biologist, I believe research informs on-the-ground actions and that people play a critical role in conservation. I saw this play out on various research projects I worked on before coming to the refuge.

On a black bear study, we tracked birth and death rates to guide hunting regulations. My supervisor had the forethought to invite students, media, teachers, business owners and outfitters to black bear dens.

Seeing a real live bear, watching science in action and connecting it to decision-making resulted in a public that supports what has become one of the longest contributing black bear research projects in the country.

My husband and I co-led a wolverine project in the mountains outside of Yellowstone. Partnering with tribes and state and federal agencies from the onset, we asked the questions they needed answered, shared the outcomes and discussed the implications.

Together, we learned that wolverines preferred elevations of 7,000 feet or higher, a place where food was limiting and required wolverines to have large territories. The average male uses 300 square miles — an area equivalent to New York City.

This means wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone naturally occur in low numbers and that decision-making based on jurisdictional and geographic boundaries (for example, a single state, national forest, national park or local community) no longer made sense.

Today, wolverine population trends are collaboratively monitored across the West so that management strategies can be proactively applied should this uncommon species begin to decline. Local communities use various land and wildlife stewardship tools to maintain and conserve private-public land connections that benefit people and allow wolverines to move from one expansive mountain range to the next.

I have seen research and a shared connection for place lead to strong partnerships and informed decision-making that resulted in real positive change. I am excited and proud to be a part of the refuge’s biology team. When I asked them, “What motivates you to do the work you do?” I was inspired by what I heard.

Matt Bowser loves recreating on and harvesting food from wildlands. He spends much of his time at the refuge documenting existing biodiversity from plants to insects and fungi, believing that we need to understand the composition of our natural communities in order to conserve them well.

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, Todd Eskelin wants his daughters and eventually their kids to have the same opportunities to catch a huge rainbow on a fly or harvest a moose, if they desire. Seeing climate change begin to transform this area, he works to understand this process by tracking and detecting change in bird communities. He shares this knowledge with others to make decisions that allow us to hold onto what we can and steer what we can’t in a positive direction.

Dom Watts enjoys hunting and fly-fishing in remote wilderness areas that he accesses either on foot or with his airplane. His work at the refuge is primarily focused on large mammal research projects that provide information that informs the management of big game species and their habitats.

One of the many reasons Jake Danner moved to Alaska is he believes everyone, both current and future generations, should have the opportunity to be immersed in nature and public lands like the refuge.

On the refuge, he manages invasive plant species and assists other team members with their research. By monitoring and controlling invasives — whether spread by wind, water or movement of animals and people — he works to maintain balance in an ever-changing landscape to keep what is supposed to be here safe from things that aren’t.

Dawn Magness grew up camping and hiking on public lands. She studies how plants, animals and ecosystems may respond to climate change. She believes proactively planning today can help us provide a positive future for our children to have opportunities to camp, hike, fish, hunt and forage in wild places.

Through photography and videography, Colin Canterbury enjoys sharing experiences captured in the field with others, so they too are encouraged to care about conservation. He is often found out in the field monitoring wildlife movement and researching small mammals.

Mark Laker enjoys problem-solving. Trying to understand patterns and cycles of large, diverse and changing ecosystems is an irresistible mess of challenging problems. Collaborating with other enthusiastic scientists and engineers, using new technologies, gaining new knowledge, and challenging current understanding to find useful solutions is a team triathlon win.

In the coming months, the biology team is looking at the opportunities that lie ahead to build on past successes. This will allow us to understand changing conditions, be ready to respond, and ensure that we can pass on this remarkable legacy that others have placed in our hands.

Kris Inman is the Supervisory Biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.Find more Refuge Notebook Articles at or


Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

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