Refuge notebook: New refuge biologist-pilot embraces challenges

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Nate Olson collaring Tundra Swans near Kotzebue as one of many career experiences that led him to his new position as the wildlife biologist-pilot at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

I awoke this morning and, after a short period of disorientation, a single song lyric popped into my head. “… Mama Mama many worlds I’ve come since I first left home” from the 1970 Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace.” Over the years I have adopted this as a sort of an anthem for my life, and now another world has come.


My morning disorientation is due to the fact that I am fresh off the plane having lived in the Bush for the last decade and now translocated to the “big city.” My name is Nathan Olson and I am the new wildlife biologist and pilot for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. I recently moved here with my wife and two small children from the interior community of Galena, where I occupied the same position at the Koyukuk/Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge Complex. I have lived in Alaska for nearly a decade and this is the first community I have lived with a road longer than 11 miles long.

My road to the Kenai has been anything but straight. Shortly after graduating from high school in southern Minnesota, I joined the Navy and became a sonar tech and SCUBA diver aboard a fast attack submarine based in Pearl Harbor. My four-year naval career allowed for lots of time to think about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

This deep thought and childhood love for the outdoors led me towards wildlife management and a degree from the University of Montana. While in college I applied for and was selected for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Student Career Experience Program, during which time I worked as a seasonal biological technician for the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in McGrath and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Kodiak.

After college I got a job as a wildlife biologist for the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge based in Kotzebue. I spent five years in Kotzebue collaborating on a variety of biological, anthropological and archaeological projects with various federal and state agencies and tribal organizations. This is also where I “learned” to fly. I was a pilot when I moved to Kotzebue but knowing how to fly and knowing how to fly in Alaska are two very different things. Shortly after moving to Kotzebue I bought an airplane and quickly learned the difference.

I learned a lot about wildlife management in Alaska during my time in Kotzebue, particularly how wildlife management relates to and is influenced by subsistence, sport hunting, and development. We had a very small staff and I was able to participate in a wide variety of field projects ranging from capturing Tundra Swans to identifying and counting lichens. I was able to build my aerial survey experience counting sheep, caribou, moose, muskox, sea birds, shore birds, and fish.

After five years in Kotzebue I was given the opportunity to move a couple hundred miles southeast to work for the Koyukuk/Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Moose are an important and abundant (some areas boast upwards of 24 moose per square mile) resource on the middle Yukon River. We worked closely with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on large scale aerial population surveys and tracking moose movement and distribution across the landscape.

Working for a Refuge with such an aviation-centric program as the Koyukuk allowed me to really hone my resource flying skills. I can remember one day last August when I used a Found Bushhawk to fly two biologists to a lake in the morning to sample vegetation and fish, then strapped a 17-foot canoe to the float and flew it from Galena to a duck banding camp near Huslia. After banding a couple hundred ducks I used a Super Cub at the banding lake to fly a swan survey. I then traded the Cub for the Bushhawk and picked up the two biologists I dropped earlier on my way back to Galena.

So with three moves in ten years, I am finally on the road system. I am sad to leave interior Alaska, but I am also excited about working on the Kenai. The Kenai Peninsula is another world for me, another world with a whole new set of challenges. New challenges that will help push me to a whole new level in my career. Foreign challenges such as invasive species, the wildlife urban interface, more diverse user groups, and a heck of a lot more people using the Refuge and its resources. It will take some time to explore and figure out this new world I now live in, but I am excited and ready for the challenge.

Nathan Olson is the new wildlife biologist-pilot at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, replacing Rick Ernst who retired last year. You can find more information about the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at or