Refuge staff honored

Biology program earns award for contributions

The biology program at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has made significant contributions in the areas of conservation and wildlife management. The biological program staff's fieldwork and authored and co-authored articles -- 30 in the last five years -- have provided the scientific community with innovative initiatives.


This work was nationally recognized on March 15 when the refuge's biology team received the 2011 Rachel Carson Group Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The team's members were commended for "leading from the field" at local, regional, and national levels to address climate change and other conservation issues.

Rachel Carson was a researcher who attempted to synthesize information and make that information accessible to the public. Her greatest mission was making science accessible to a wider audience.

The group award recipients include Dr. John Morton, Dr. Edward Berg, Mark Laker, Rick Ernst, Dr. Dawn Magness, Matthew Bowser, Todd Eskelin and Toby Burke.

Supervisory refuge biologist John Morton said receiving the award was significant, as it brought acknowledgement of research on the Kenai Peninsula to the national stage. It means $50,000 for the refuge, which partially could be used to strengthen its legacy.

"One plan is to establish an endowment fund for student scientists," he said. "We would accept written proposals and choose grant recipients. Hopefully, we'd put more money into that over time."

Since the early- to mid-2000s, much of the refuge's work has focused on climate change. The biology team's eight members have developed and implemented a strategic response to the issue.

Ecologist Edward Berg recently retired from the refuge as a recognized regional expert on climate change and disturbance processes in northern landscapes. He published studies documenting treeline rise, drying wetlands and woody shrub encroachment in peatlands due to the changing climate.

Berg's field of research initially focused on spruce bark beetle outbreaks and fires on the Peninsula, but gradually his work shifted toward climate change, Morton said.

Refuge scientists have been at the forefront of climate change issues for some time, he added.

"The refuge was ahead of the pack, nationally, on the issue," he said. "When it really gained national attention, around the time 'An Inconvenient Truth' came out in 2006, our scientists had already been working on climate change impacts."

A major component of the refuge's strategic response is the creation of the Long Term Ecological Monitoring Program (LTEMP), a five-kilometer grid on the refuge. Working with other government organizations, the refuge's scientists designated plots to include a variety of habitats.

Biologists sampled 255 plots for birds, arthropods and vascular and nonvascular plants.

LTEMP launched in 2002, and lab work continues on the collected samples. Data generated by the program is used to document the variety of life in the refuge's ecosystem.

DNA barcodes, in which a short section of DNA is used for species identification, collected through LTEMP and other methods have established a library of identifiable insects and plants within the refuge.

Scientists have obtained 135 DNA barcode sequences to date, and hundreds more are being prepared for analysis.

The library eventually will allow for the taking of bulk samples of multiple plant and insect species, liquefying them and extracting DNA from the slurry.

Establishing the library comes first, as the barcodes are needed before they are identifiable in a large sample, Morton said.

LTEMP's data also are providing a basis for modeling probable future conditions on the refuge. Models of the area's landcover, the observed biological and physical cover of the earth's surface, were built under a variety of climate change scenarios. Later, maps produced via the models define ecosystem states that may occur in the future.

Scientists now have identified areas of the refuge that may change more rapidly. And multiple agencies and conservation partners now use the landcover classification of the entire Kenai Peninsula developed, in part, from data through LTEMP.

The Rachel Carson award is given to groups which have provided scientific support for new efforts on the behalf of state and federal conservation organizations. Morton has served on the Department of the Interior's Climate Change Task Force, helped develop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's strategic plan to address climate change, and contributed to the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. Dawn Magness, a refuge ecologist, and Morton recently coauthored a journal article that shows how National Wildlife Refuges across the U.S. could be managed as a system to respond to climate change.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at