As with most folks who reach the milestone of retirement, I can hardly believe it’s here. Thirty-plus years of public service and before that a few years of private employment come and gone. I can honestly say that I have been truly blessed to have had a career that I enjoyed immensely. It has been fun being a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last 27 years and a pilot for 21 of those years. I can still recall passengers during survey flights tell me “I can’t believe you get paid to do this.” Me too!
I came to Alaska from Colorado in April 1985 and began my career with the Service at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel. Almost eight years later I transferred to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in January 1993. Some highlights of my Alaska experiences: capturing and radio-collaring musk ox, caribou, moose, brown bears and lynx; working cooperatively with other biologists and researchers within the Service as well as other state and federal agencies; flying for search and rescue, law enforcement, fire reconnaissance, radio-tracking wildlife, moose and caribou census, and taking VIPs and distinguished guests for overflights of the Refuge.
I have enjoyed flying over such awe-inspiring scenery from the shorelines of the Yukon delta and Turnagain Arm, to the mountains of the Kilbuck and Kenai ranges. From the air I observed a pack of wolves take down a moose in the Beaver Creek Oil Field, counted musk ox and reindeer on Nunivak Island, and located overdue campers or lost hunters. From the ground I counted seabirds nesting on the western cliffs of Nunivak Island, and dead caribou from several avalanches in the Kenai Mountains.
When I began my college career way back in 1973 at Penn State in the Wildlife Technology Program, I remember my professor trying to enlighten his students by saying “wildlife management is people management.” How true those words are. As I look back, it has been so evident that to accomplish anything for wildlife you must partner and coordinate with many groups and types of people — from concerned citizens, environmental activists, non-profit groups, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, fishermen, backpackers, ranchers, oil and gas operators, to various agencies and departments in local, state, or federal governments.
Complicating the “mix” of people management are the policies and regulations as well as the vision or mission of different organizations and agencies. A prime example is my efforts these past seven years to ensure adequate construction of wildlife crossings over the portion of the Sterling Highway that passes through the Kenai Refuge. The Alaska Department of Transportation wants to repave the existing road as well as add six-foot shoulders and areas of passing lanes. The Service agrees with the need to rehabilitate this section of highway but is mandated by Congress to conserve fish and wildlife populations on the land it manages. This is a difficult process as evident by the years this project has spanned.
I will certainly be saddened to walk out the door of the Kenai Refuge headquarters for the last time. The Refuge staff has been family. At the same time I am looking forward to beginning a new phase of life. My reason for retiring is to return to Pennsylvania to spend time with, and care for, my parents who thankfully are still doing well. My two brothers and four sisters and their families all live in or near Pittsburgh. It will be awesome to see them more frequently rather than the one or two trips a year I could make while living in Alaska.
Three years ago, I was ordained a Deacon for the Catholic Church and have been serving at Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai. While leaving my paid career as a public servant, I will be continuing my career as God’s public servant. Now I can dedicate more of my time to diaconal ministry. Serving as a Deacon brings me great joy and peace. It is encouraging and rewarding to help others on their spiritual journey.
It is my hope to eventually return to the Kenai Peninsula, at least for the summer and fall months. It will be a little easier to leave this great state knowing that I will be back sometime in the future.
I have no words of wisdom to leave you with or any regrets, other than I will miss flying in Alaska. While Pennsylvania does not have the snow-capped Kenai Mountains, Harding Icefield, Cook Inlet halibut or Kenai River salmon, it is home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and Pirates. Oh to go to a professional sporting event again! It has been a great life so far and hopefully will continue to be so for many years to come. A heartfelt “thank you” to all my coworkers, friends, and Alaska family for your encouragement, support, and friendship. God bless you all.
Rick Ernst will be the pilot-biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge until May 3. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.