From coral reefs to Alaskan forests -- National Wildlife Refuges have everything

This photo shows a coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge .

I began my working life in the fast food industry. So when I was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to do manual labor during college, I was thrilled. I was on fire crew that spent the summer thinning forest stands and clearing trails. I could not believe someone would pay me to be outside in the woods.


After I graduated with a zoology degree, I moved away from a career in fire-fighting to pursue jobs where wildlife was the focus. For the next five years, I volunteered and worked seasonally as a field biologist in Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Peninsula and the Yukon Flats. I trapped and radio-tracked marten and flying squirrels. I also had the pleasure of banding songbirds in some amazing locations.

Eventually, I went on to graduate school. I knew that I wanted to work as a wildlife biologist, but I was not dialed into the National Wildlife Refuge System. I had visited and even worked on a few, but I just didn't know much about what they were about. I stumbled into my job here at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

This fall I had an experience that crystallized how truly lucky I am to be working where I am. I was selected to attend Refuge Management Academy at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I spent three weeks with 29 other refuge managers, biologists, and law enforcement officers learning about the agency for which we work.

I learned that the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is one of about 550 land units in the National Wildlife Refuge System. All refuge lands are meant to work together, like organs in one body, to benefit wildlife. Specifically, the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is "to administer a network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generation of Americans". I was both humbled and honored to meet colleagues who share my passion for wildlife and felt proud to be working for an agency with a wildlife-centered mission.

I have spent most of my career in Alaska, so I was surprised to learn about the day-to-day activities of refuge employees in other parts of the country. Most refuges in the Lower 48 are small and urbanized when compared to Alaska. The median refuge size is about 8,000 acres, ranging from the 0.6-acre Mille Lacs Refuge in Minnesota to the 60 million-acre Marianas Trench Marine National Monument at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In contrast, the Kenai Refuge is just shy of 2 million acres.

I was also struck by the diversity of habitats and wildlife within the Refuge System. Refuges occur in every state and provide habitats for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish.

Everyone in the class had unique stories and perspectives from their refuges. For example, I met the manager of Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is a string of about 50 islets surrounded by 15,000 acres of coral reefs located about 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. She lived in a remote island camp and studied sharks. Some of my classmates worked farm equipment to grow corn for migrating waterfowl on their refuges. Another classmate had stories about using prescribed burns to restore prairie habitats in North Dakota. Others worked on California Condor reintroduction efforts. And, unlike our refuges in Alaska, many refuges are closed to public access other than what is offered along a paved loop or boardwalk for visitors.

Just like everyone in my class, every refuge has a story to tell as well. We visited the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia. The amazing beach on this refuge is visited by over 1 million people each year! This refuge is also famous for the ponies Marguerite Henry wrote about in the book Misty of Chincoteague. The ponies are likely the descendents of colonial horses that were released on the island to avoid new livestock taxes in the 17th century. Prior to the establishment of the refuge in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company bought the ponies. Even today, the firemen are still permitted to graze 150 ponies on the refuge because of their cultural importance. And every year the ponies are rounded up and some foals and yearlings are auctioned to benefit the town's fire and ambulance service.

So this year my resolution is to visit and experience National Wildlife Refuges when I can. I think it will be much more enjoyable than last year's pledge to eat less sugar. Happy New Year!

Dawn Robin Magness is the GIS Manager and a Fish and Wildlife Biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at or