Refuge Notebook: Rookie biologist meets brown bears, mud and malformed frogs

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2010

If you had asked me what I was doing for the summer in early April I would have told you "I am staying in Fairbanks and maybe working as a Residence Assistant for the university." Not exactly a dream job for a student studying wildlife biology. For everybody, including students, the troubled economy had hit hard. Everyone hiring for field work wanted experienced workers, which made it very difficult for students like me that needed to gain experience. I would never have guessed that I would find myself working my first field job out of a helicopter, studying the brown bear population of the Kenai Peninsula.

Photo By Chuck Redd
Photo By Chuck Redd
The author removes hair snagged from a bear when the bear crawled through the barbwire to reach a fake food cache consisting of smelly fermented blood and fish oil. The hair will be sent to a laboratory for DNA fingerprinting. Data from over 11,000 hair samples collected in June will be used to estimate the brown bear population on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest.

Flying over the Chugach National Forest every day was never boring. There was almost always wildlife to see, and if there wasn't wildlife, you had the unbelievable mountains that towered over you and the beautiful waters and glaciers that glistened below. When being dropped off at stations I stood there as the helicopter flew off and I would find myself alone in the wilderness country. Revisiting the sites that had a bear present was always neat. You had the bears that went to town destroying your fake cache made with a foul-smelling cow blood and fish oil blend, the warning sign bitten into pieces and flagging torn up and almost always a nice pile of scat in the center that sent the message of, "Here's what I think of your fake cache."

We all left the project with great stories to tell, just about everyone had a good bear story. From the testy black bears that had no problem hanging out around sites, to the brown bear boar who stood on his hind legs swatting at the helicopter, guarding his female. And of course there was my friendly encounter of a 500-pound brown bear that was merely jogging down the hill only to be interrupted by scientists at work less than 15 feet in front of him. Thankfully he quickly put on the brakes and ran the other way. Thankfully, too, no humans or bears were harmed during our month-long project. It was a great teamwork, bears behaving and lending us their DNA, and us gaining a greater understanding of bear behavior and developing a solid estimate of the brown bear population size.

After finishing the bear project, I was sent to work at Chickaloon Flats. It was an incredible experience with a new type of environment. Tall grasses surrounded you like the savannah plains, groups of mosquitoes dancing around your head, and sloughs made of the clay-like mud. The mud and I had a good battle throughout the week and in the end I feel confident in saying that the mud won. I think just about every time I crossed a slough I became stuck or fell. The slick clay was not easy to walk on in the oversized hip boots I had. After getting one foot unstuck I would get the other one stuck; it was back and forth until I finally got up to the top of the slough, but only with assistance.

Besides the buzzing flies, Chickaloon could be pretty relaxing on the overcast days. Listening to the Savannah Sparrow as it flitted around or watching the Sandhill Cranes fly over and listening to them call out over the flats, letting everyone know of their presence. I got the privilege to return almost every day to a root ball that held a Violet-Green Swallow's nest with three chicks. The parents would swoop down in front of me to feed their hungry babies. It was an honor to see the chicks graduate and become fledglings on my last day. I never considered myself interested in birds other than raptors, but once I started getting the hang of what certain birds looked like or how they sounded, it became a fun pastime and I now find myself missing a pair of binoculars and a good bird book.

My Chickaloon week went by quickly and it was time to move on to the next project: malformations in Wood Frogs. The researchers had been working on their pilot project out of Schooner Bend in Cooper Landing, looking at water quality and its effects on developing wood frogs. I helped look at potential new sites for next year. Fishing for tadpoles became my job.

Never having fished for them as a kid, I had to make up for lost time. Tadpoles and metamorphs (a name for tadpoles in transition to becoming frogs) certainly are interesting-looking creatures and I enjoyed being able to get a close view of them.

With a month left of summer I currently work as a Fee Ranger for the Refuge, driving Skilak Loop Road monitoring campgrounds and trail heads and continuing to enjoy scoping out the wildlife. This summer has certainly been full of adventure and experience and I feel so lucky to have been given the privilege by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to help grow as a wildlife biologist while I finish up my schooling. I will be sure to come back and visit this part of the Peninsula again and I look forward to exploring it some more in the future.

Rachelle Ruffner moved from Centreville, Virginia to Alaska in 2008 to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she currently is working on getting her Bachelor's Degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. She began her summer as an intern working on the brown bear population survey conducted by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.

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