Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest

How do they Arctic?

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge staff share reflections on how they came to their work and place

As part of our ongoing podcast series, My Life, Wildlife, we chatted with four different staff members who have ties to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Below are excerpts from their stories of how they came to the Arctic and what they love about working and living here. You can find the series here, on iTunes, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

Will Wiese

A distant photo of a person sitting on a green hillside overlooking mountains and a river.
A distant photo of a person sitting on a green hillside overlooking mountains and a river.
Will in the Brooks Range. 📷 Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

On making the move from an upstate New York cubicle to Alaska

“There I was working three jobs, one of which was just pretty awful, cooped up inside all day. And on my morning drive to work one day, I looked up and there was flock after flock of Canada geese flying high overhead, and they were all flying north. And it was December. And I was perplexed. It was snowing. It was like the first storm of the year, why were all the geese in high Vs, flying north when they should be flying south for the winter? And, also, I was frustrated because on a day like that when every goose I saw was flying, I should have been out goose hunting. The best day of the year to be goose hunting, and I was going to my basement cubicle.

So like a good employee, I got to work and instead of doing my job, I went on Google - I needed a change. So I googled duck job. And the first two things that popped up were a couple of volunteer opportunities in Alaska. And I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to going to Alaska before, but thought “duck job” “Alaska,” Alaska sounds cool. It’s far from this cubicle. And right there that day, I threw together a resume and sent it up to the email contacts in Alaska.”

A group of people in orange mustang survival suits around an ocean inflatable skiff.
A group of people in orange mustang survival suits around an ocean inflatable skiff.
A “duck job” in Alaska: monitoring common eiders and their habitats along the Beaufort Sea coastline of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Makenna Fair/USFWS

On a favorite place and experience: monitoring eiders

Gently rolling green meadows with white tufts of cotton, and green hills in the background.
Gently rolling green meadows with white tufts of cotton, and green hills in the background.
White cottongrass dots the open coastal plain. 📷: Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

And if you look to the north, nothing but steel gray water and floating ice chunks, and it’s just… it’s big. And it’s beautiful. And it’s just an incredibly special place. It’s quiet, it’s calm. A lot of people when they think Arctic Refuge, think about the grand peaks of the Brooks Range, think about caribou…. But yeah, I think about the plains and the sea.

Brooks Range from the coastal plain and sea ice on the coast. 📷 Danielle Brigida/USFWS

My favorite spot up there is Demarcation Bay, seven miles from the Canadian border. And there’s always seals in the bay and there’s always fish in the bay and there’s ducks and there’s geese and there’s caribou and I’ve seen brown bears and polar bears and it’s an incredible place.”

White and blue chunks of ice on a calm ocean with a sky of sunset and storm colors.
Sea ice at sunset. 📷 Danielle Brigida/USFWS

On working and living in Kaktovik

Spending time in Kaktovik, spending time in a village, really changed my perspective of refuges and the National Wildlife Refuge System. I think when I started I thought of refuges as sort of preserves away from people, something that was established for wildlife, wild places.

And after living in Kaktovik, I realized that all the refuges in Alaska are people’s homes. People have lived on them for thousands and thousands of years. They’re not these untouched landscapes that I thought they were. So I saw more of the value in refuges for preserving people’s homes and serving people that live on them now and will continue to live on them forever.”

A foggy landscape photo of a cluster of buildings on the shore of a calm sea.
A foggy landscape photo of a cluster of buildings on the shore of a calm sea.
Kaktovik on a foggy fall day. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Allyssa Morris

A woman in a brown uniform shows a group of children a graphic about salmon.
A woman in a brown uniform shows a group of children a graphic about salmon.
Allyssa in her natural habitat: working with youth! 📷 courtesy of Allyssa Morris

What brought her from Georgia to Alaska?

“And so I remember my brother, he would take me out a little bit at local parks. And I just loved it. I loved walking and bird watching. But I just didn’t really know how to connect more with that. So when I was in college, that’s kind of when I started getting more into doing longer backpacking trips and hiking trips. And then I found this opportunity for Student Conservation Association. We did a one week alternative spring break in the Grand Canyon, we did a lot of invasive species work, a lot of trash pickup, we got to hike up and down the Canyon.

I mean, I was just — I was in heaven, and it completely changed my life. And that’s kind of when I was exposed to careers in the natural resources. It blew my mind that there was just an array of jobs and opportunities that you could actually do and make money. Growing up, you were a nurse or a doctor or lawyer, you know, the big jobs. And so when I graduated college, I took a trip to Alaska, we went fishing down on the Kenai and I was like: I want to move to Alaska. I just want to live there. I don’t know what I’ll do.

And so I found another opportunity with SCA, the Student Conservation Association, and it was a 10 or 12 week internship, doing recycling and greening. And that was with the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.”

Showing off dragonfly tattoos at the Kanuti Refuge Dragonfly Day, and holding a shorebird egg at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS

On working with youth, and her favorite animal

They’ll usually ask me — what is your favorite animal? Which is very hard for me because I don’t have just one. So I say, I think my favorite animal is the sandhill crane. That species has become my favorite since living here in Fairbanks. They mate for life, which I think is beautiful. And they have this very loud and distinct call. In the beginning of September, they start leaving and moving south. And then they start coming back in May. And so it’s kind of like the sound of sandhill cranes is an indicator that spring is here… and they’re just gorgeous.”

A large gray sandhill crane flies through a blue sky.
Sandhill crane from the Observation deck, Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, Dayton, CA. 📷 Steve Emmons/USFWS

Bill Leacock

A man in a denim shirt and brown uniform hat in green hills.
A man in a denim shirt and brown uniform hat in green hills.
Bill Leacock at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

On how he got to Arctic…

My path to Arctic’s kind of convoluted in many ways. I’ve been a biologist, essentially since the early 80s, I was an agricultural and forestry extension agent in northeastern Thailand, I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I was there for about four years, then went back to grad school and then returned back to Southeast Asia as a Fulbright scholar in Northern Thailand, working with a small hill tribe, an Indigenous group in the mountains of northern Thailand…

I’d been working in Laos for about five and a half years or so. And I decided that I wanted to go back to grad school for wildlife. So I got an opportunity to do that, and do some research in Kamchatka, Russia. And that was all on on bears and the bear-salmon ecosystem.

My first job with Fish and Wildlife Service was in Bethel with Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. And then in 2006, through 2018, I worked at Kodiak [National Wildlife Refuge]. And of course Kodiak is known for its bears, its bears and salmon.”

A man with a clipboard looks inside a helicopter on a flat grassy plain.
A man with a clipboard looks inside a helicopter on a flat grassy plain.
Bill Leacock on the arctic coastal plain during a caribou vegetation study. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

On studying the Porcupine Caribou Herd

A large herd of caribou in green hills.
A large herd of caribou in green hills.
Porcupine Caribou Herd, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS

The calving, post-calving, and insect relief period are very important to the caribou. There’s extreme demand placed on the cows at that time because they’ve dropped their calf. They’ve got to lactate, so they’ve got to consume as much high quality food as they can forage. And that’s why they’re moving to the coastal plain at this time, the coastal plain and the northern foothills.”

On climate change, caribou, and refuge landscapes

Several muddy tracks run up a green mountainside.
Several muddy tracks run up a green mountainside.
Caribou trails up into the foothills of the Brooks Range. After calving, the Porcupine Caribou Herd leave the coastal plain and head into the foothills to escape biting insects. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Just this past spring, from the end of May through the beginning of July, we were out collecting [caribou] fecal samples. We send them off to a lab where they can determine exactly what species of plants the caribou had been eating.

A woman’s gloved hands hold a sample bag and a few caribou scat pellets.
A woman’s gloved hands hold a sample bag and a few caribou scat pellets.
Collecting caribou fecal samples in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is very important for subsistence for Native peoples in Canada, and for Native peoples in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Experts in climate change modeling can model what the landscape is going to be like into the future. So we hope to be able then to identify areas that are going to be important to these caribou in 10, 20, 30, 50 years.”

Paul Leonard

A man with a soil core sampler on an open landscape with mountains in the distance.
A man with a soil core sampler on an open landscape with mountains in the distance.
Paul taking a soil sample in Arctic Refuge. 📷 Heather Bartlett/USFWS

From bluegrass country to the immense scale of Alaska

“I grew up in central Kentucky, rolling hills bluegrass country, and spent all my time outdoors along streams, chasing frogs, salamanders, insects. I was always fascinated with wildlife from an early age and one of my really lasting memories of that part of the world is summer sunsets with lightning bugs and katydids and crickets and the cacophony of insects and frogs at night in the spring.

My first memory of being in Alaska is just feeling really, really, really small. I think the thing that that drew me to public service, especially in Alaska, was just the scale of the place in which we work.

And that has far reaching implications for migratory species, but also for ideas around protected areas, and just how diffuse of an impact climate change has, and what that means to the plants and animals and places that we care about. Not just individual species, but whole landscapes.”

Looking out on an immense landscape: fall foliage and gray peaks in an Arctic Refuge river valley. 📷 Paul Leonard/USFWS

On getting a different perspective

A large herd of caribou in green hills from far away.
Porcupine Caribou Herd, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS

On learning more about the refuge’s wildlife

One that I’m really excited about that we just started this year is trying to document the presence of a rare and enigmatic songbird, the gray-headed chickadee, which was formerly thought to be common in localized places and in the refuge and now it’s become increasingly scarce and hard to find. It’s thought to be an old world species, and the subspecies that’s endemic to North America only occurs in this very narrow band. And we think that the Arctic Refuge might be the last stronghold for that subspecies, especially in the eastern part of the state.

A man holds up the edge of a black fine netting used to capture small birds.
A man holds up the edge of a black fine netting used to capture small birds.
Paul with a mistnet to search for boreal chickadees in Arctic Refuge. 📷 Heather Bartlett/USFWS

On feeling close to nature

I think there’s something in all of us — what E.O. Wilson called “biophilia” - this desire to be close to nature.”

Wolf prints in sand along a river bank.
Wolf prints in sand along a river bank.
Wolf prints along the bank of an Arctic Refuge river. 📷 Paul Leonard/USFWS

More:

Compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Coordinator, Alaska Refuges.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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A person looks over fields and mountains into the setting sun with dark storm clouds and orange tents.
Camping under the midnight sun in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS.

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