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Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo
Upper Skilak Lake on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge faces new challenges

Change is constant, yet some things never change

Posted: December 30, 2011 - 10:29am

The end of 2011 will mark my first full year as the new manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Since this is my second tenure at the Refuge, the first as a wildlife biologist from 1988 to 1992, many of you have asked how things have changed over the last 20 or so years.

Our first arrival on the Kenai was in and of itself a significant change for my wife Linda and me, after spending several years working out of Galena in Alaska's Interior. Adjusting to life on the road system was easy and enjoyable here, made more so by the presence of our newborn son John and the birth of our daughter Emily at Central Peninsula Hospital shortly thereafter.

My new duties involving several exciting wildlife research and monitoring projects didn't hurt either. Into the early 1990s, the moose population on the northern Kenai Peninsula was still benefiting from high quality wintering habitat created by the 1969 Swanson River wildfire, which had burned nearly 80,000 acres. I was struck by the high wintering moose densities observed during hours of aerial surveys over that burn, contrasted by those in the even larger 1947 burn where forests had matured and were no longer providing quality browse. We knew then that this area's moose population would soon begin to decline in the absence of new fires; this prediction, of course, has played out.

Refuge biologists were in the midst of an intensive long-term telemetry study of lynx and the monitoring of snowshoe hare populations. Snowshoe hares in the late 1980s were at the low end of what turned out to be a prolonged low cycle, and lynx densities were low and declining. Kitten survival was low, and some female lynx would soon even stop producing young altogether. Results of these studies helped provide impetus for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's current lynx harvest strategy. Trapping for lynx on the Kenai is now opened during periods when snowshoe hares are abundant, and the season is closed during the low end of the hare cycle to ensure enough lynx remain as breeders. In recent years, near-record lynx harvests have occurred, corresponding to the ongoing high end of the snowshoe hare cycle.

Relatively little was known about the status of Kenai Peninsula's brown bear population when I first arrived, and the Interagency Brown Bear Study Team (comprised of biologists from ADF&G, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Refuge) had recently been established. In ensuing years, several collaborative studies were conducted to obtain needed scientific information. Since that time, most experts agree that the brown bear population has slowly increased on the Kenai, and many theorize that larger runs of sockeye salmon are behind this increase. What is certain is that conflicts between bears and a growing human population have increased in recent years, making conservation of this iconic species as complicated as ever.

The Refuge faces many new challenges that were either not on the radar screen back then, or just beginning to come into perspective. The Kenai's human population has grown significantly, and continues to grow. While not readily apparent driving the Sterling Highway or other primary roadways, I was struck while flying recently by the amount of new residential and recreational development along the Refuge's western boundary and off the Refuge along the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. The maintenance of healthy riparian habitats is critical to maintaining healthy salmon runs, and to the health of many other fish and wildlife resources. The aerial perspective also really drove home the growing challenges we face in safely managing backcountry wildfires, something we must do because of the ecological importance of fire and in order to reduce the likelihood of future large, catastrophic fires.

While the problems posed by invasive, exotic species have long been recognized in the Lower 48 states, we were not envisioning in 1990 that they would soon also affect Alaska's ecosystems. Today, over 100 species of exotic plants, several of which are considered invasive, occur on the Kenai Peninsula, and recently discovered invasive insects such as the green alder sawfly are currently affecting important riparian habitats over large geographic areas in Southcentral Alaska.

While scientists have for years been studying the world's changing climate, few of us were aware of its potential ramifications. We now recognize that climate change is occurring, and more rapidly at northern latitudes. While great uncertainty remains related to effects on fish, wildlife and plants, impacts of a changing climate now documented on the Kenai include receding glaciers, drying wetlands, rising tree line, more frequent spruce bark beetle outbreaks, warming water temperatures in non-glacial streams, and changing wildlife distributions.

Another take on this question might be to consider things that have not changed. While new challenges will undoubtedly require new management approaches, the core mission of the Refuge remains the same -- to ensure healthy fish and wildlife and an enduring wilderness resource for the benefit of our children and grandchildren, and all generations to come.

Another constant is how wonderful a place this is to live and work. Over the years, through other career stops in Arizona, Minnesota, the Gulf Coast of Texas, and northern Virginia, Linda and I often remarked that we thought of Alaska, and particularly the Kenai, as home. While being given this opportunity to return and the responsibility to help to steward this amazing wildlife refuge are beyond anything we imagined possible, the warmth, hospitality and support given by this community, and by old friends and new, since our latest arrival makes one thing perfectly clear -- it's very good to be home.

On behalf of the entire Refuge staff and our families, we wish all of you a joyous holiday season and a very healthy and prosperous 2012.

Andy Loranger is the Refuge Manager at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Visit the Refuge Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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