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USFWS National Digital Library
Reconnaissance party on the Kenai River circa 1930s: Frank Dufresne on left, Henry Lucas center, and Hjalmar Anderson on right.

Historical observations of highways, fire and moose

Refuge Notebook

Posted: February 3, 2012 - 10:41am

Frank Dufresne, Chief, Division of Information, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retired on June 20, 1950 after 30 years of continuous Federal service. Twenty-four years of Mr. Dufresne's career were spent in Alaska. He entered his life work in the field of Federal wildlife conservation when he was appointed as a fur warden in Nome for the former Bureau of Biological Survey on October 23, 1922 to assist in enforcing the law and regulations for the protection of land fur-bearing animals in the Territory. In 1924 he was promoted to U.S. game warden and, the following year, he was transferred to Fairbanks under the newly created Alaska Game Law. From 1932 to 1934, he was in charge of investigations dealing with moose on the Kenai Peninsula. He later spent eight years, from 1936 to 1944 as executive officer of the Alaska Game Commission. He was appointed as chief of the Service's Division of Information in 1944.

In October of 1938, Dufresne wrote an article for the Anchorage daily times with the heading of DUFRESNE SEES NEW HOMER ROAD DEATH SENTENCE TO KENAI GAME; RECOMMENDS ADDITIONAL HELP. The following is from that article: "Alaska's far-roaming wild-life agents must be increased in number soon to cope with the swarms of Cheechako gunmen. In the heart of the Kenai, protected by an isolation that only airplanes and an occasional river boat can violate, we have immensely precious sheep ranges, moose pasture and bear country. When the Homer highway is completed on the peninsula [editor's note: this is the Sterling Highway, completed in 1951], this isolation will disappear and the killers will flock in from the Outside. The increase in colonization and settlement will inevitably attract many whose attitude toward wild life differs drastically from that of resident Alaskans".

"Probably," Dufresne continued, "we shall be obliged to enact new restrictions in the Kenai country to check depletion of flocks and herds. But certainly we must have more wardens. Nowhere in the United States is there a class of people so game-conscious and so thoroughly aware of the value of their wild-life preserves."

After retirement, Dufresne wrote several books and articles including one book in 1966 which was entitled "My Way Was North: An Alaskan Autobiography". In a chapter from this book, Dufresne discussed his time during the 1930's on the Kenai Peninsula when the Kenai Guides had asked the Juneau office for his help with a management plan for their world-famous moose herds. He took advantage of this opportunity to explore the western half of the Kenai with two of Alaska's best known guides, Andy Simons and Hank Lucas. Together, they reached the heart of the game fields by way of the Moosehorn Trail, a path now overgrown and lost. At that time, though, the trail was well traveled and marked along its route by shed moose horns. They had no schedule, living off the country and camping wherever the night overtook them.

Around a campfire on the banks of the Funny River, the three men reminisced about the past and mused about their hopes for the future. Prior to 1900, the dominant animal had been herds of caribou and their timber wolf predators. Then, in the late 1880's, a gold miner's campfire got away and started a conflagration that raged for months. When the fire finally burned out, as the men believed, the caribou were forced to migrate and with them went the wolves. Slowly the charred landscape sprouted willows, birches, aspens, and other deciduous browse favorable to a new generation of big game like moose and mountain sheep and bears. Now, as Dufresne and his guides looked over the landscape, they saw the vegetative succession on the Kenai moving to its climax, evergreen forests all but useless to big game.

Andy and Hank knew then that where the spruce tree claims the Kenai soil, as they have in more recent years, the great moose pastures would deteriorate. It was that logical; that inescapable. "What we need," said Hank, "is another hell of a big forest fire". Looking at a column of smoke miles away on the bank of the Kenai River, Hank remarked mildly: "like that one down there".

It was the first of many such blazes they saw during that hot, thirsty summer. The wildfires charred miles of the Kenai forest, and from their ashes sprouted revitalized willows needed by moose. In succeeding seasons, as settlers started clearing roads and building their log cabins on the peninsula, there were enough wild flames to keep the big deer in fresh browse.

We know now that by the time these three Alaskans had their conversation on the Funny River, caribou had already been extirpated from the Kenai (1912-23) due to over-hunting, and wolves were extremely scarce due to human persecution including poisoning with strychnine. Even in the absence of wolves, it was obvious to these old timers then, as it is to me now, that burning had not only created a perfect habitat for the moose, but must continue to play the major role in maintaining it.

Gary Titus has been a Law Enforcement Officer, Backcountry Ranger, Cabin Manager, and Historian at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 2000. He has been hiking on the Kenai at every available opportunity since 1979. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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davsti@gmail.com
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davsti@gmail.com 02/04/12 - 01:16 pm
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Titus

Good article Gary, really enjoyed it. To quote you from a few years ago "burn baby burn".

ex skilak hosts

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