Wilderness Fellows Blog
Wilderness Fellows provide on-the-ground support compiling data about local wilderness character. This year, seven Fellows are working in wilderness areas at 14 refuges and one national fish hatchery. Meet the Fellows here and enjoy their weekly blogs below.
A Stellar View of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
When I arrived at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s office in Fairbanks, Alaska, in early August, I gave an introductory talk about wilderness character monitoring. Luckily for me, Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Heather Bartlett heard the talk, and thought I would benefit from seeing more of the refuge. So it happened that Monday morning, after being outfitted in a flight helmet, flight suit and survival vest, I found myself in the backseat of a tiny two-seater Super Cub patrol plane flying north to Arctic Refuge. Over the next four days, I had a one-of-a-kind experience as I tagged along on Bartlett’s visitor outreach patrol.
While I found the view of glacier-carved valleys amazing, I was doing more than sightseeing. Our mission was to survey the refuge for anything unusual and land at backcountry airstrips to check on visitors and make sure hunters were complying with hunting regulations. As we flew over the refuge, I scanned the ground below. Sometimes I’d spot a grizzly or a herd of caribou − thrilling! − but other times I’d see signs of humans, like abandoned 55-gallon fuel barrels or parked aircraft. My job as an observer was to photograph curious sightings, jot down coordinates of new trash sites and take notes on everything we saw.
The patrol helped me to actually see wilderness character issues in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness, which makes up nearly half of Arctic Refuge’s 19.6 million acres. When I saw four groups camped around a single airstrip, I considered impacts to solitude – what many visitors seek here. When we flew over a “thaw slump” --a landslide that occurs where melting permafrost destabilizes an entire hillside --I observed signs of a warming climate. I saw abandoned fuel cans, historic downed aircraft and other manmade trash, which are persistent management concerns for the Service.
My field experience has helped me propose measures that address real threats to wilderness character and design a plan that will hopefully aid managers as they work to keep the Mollie Beattie Wilderness a wild place for years to come.
Monitoring Change to Innoko’s Vital Wetlands
Continuing my work at Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, I have recently been helping to map its vital wetlands, using Landsat satellite images.
While researching the history of the refuge for the Wilderness Character Monitoring report, I learned that the abundance of lakes in the Innoko Wilderness is directly related to the establishment of the refuge in 1980. The refuge boundaries have changed from those first proposed before enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act – the 1980 federal law that set aside 104 million acres in Alaska as public land. But every previous proposal included the lakes now contained within the Innoko Wilderness. Since the 1940s, these lakes were recognized as important habitat for the area’s many nesting and migratory waterfowl and other birds. We now know the lakes are stopover sites for 70 to 75 percent of all molting greater white-fronted geese migrating through Alaska.
As our climate warms, refuge biologists worry these lakes may dry and alter or destroy the habitats that are so important for Alaska’s birds. My mapping project looks at how the summer surface water in Innoko has changed over the past decades. My tools: data from Landsat satellites, which have been taking images of the earth’s surface for more than 40 years. Right now I am researching the most accurate methods of distinguishing between dry land, water and wetlands on these images.
Scientists may not be able to stop lakes from drying. But through research, they may be able to anticipate impacts on birds and, perhaps, prepare for them. Goose population records, which go back many years, can help here. By studying the relationship between summer surface water area and goose numbers, we may be better able to predict how future warming will affect Innoko’s habitat and the geese that depend on it.
After working five months on the refuge, I was excited to discover why the location of Innoko National Wildlife Refuge was chosen. With one month to go, I am even more excited to be investigating this habitat that is so important to the refuge.
A Lesson in Complexity:
Watching a 10:30 a.m. sunrise over the icy Kuskokwim River, I can see that winter has come to Alaska. About two months ago I made the trip 150 miles north from Dillingham to Bethel, Alaska, where the office for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is located. I arrived just as the millions of ducks and geese that breed in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region began their migrations south for the winter— ushering in the slow season here at the refuge. Consequently, my experiences of the two wilderness areas managed by the refuge (the Andreafsky and Nunivak Wilderness areas) have been limited to perusing photographs.
This is not unusual, I have realized. Only two or three of the staff now working at Yukon Delta Refuge have ever even set foot within these far-off wilderness areas. Since just a handful of staff members are responsible for the oversight and management of a refuge larger than the state of Maine, that is not surprising. The remoteness of the wilderness areas poses unique challenges to anyone trying to understand them. I’ve found myself calling bush pilots and residents of isolated villages in search of clues into their character. The variety of responses I’ve gotten—from overwhelmingly helpful to deeply skeptical—highlights the complexity of land use and management issues in this region of Alaska.
The Yukon Delta Refuge – at more than 19 million acres, rivaling Arctic Refuge in size -- supports one of the largest breeding aggregations of waterfowl in the world. Over one-third of the refuge lies underwater, and the marshy tundra landscape makes overland travel impossible-- as least until the ground fully freezes. Then, snow machines and dog sled teams can once again make their way across this flat plain. Within the refuge bounds live more than 38,000 people in 52 different federally recognized tribal villages—each operated by independent counsels with unique concerns. Many of these villages are reachable only by a several-hour boat ride. Some have no water or sewer systems.
Here, where survival is intricately tied to the landscape, a failing king salmon fishery takes on a whole new meaning. Many people, just like the remote wilderness areas, are heavily impacted by changes far outside their control. Rising sea levels that could severely impact the coastal dune habitats of the island Nunivak Wilderness, have already displaced coastal communities living in the Yukon Delta. Changing temperatures and consequent shrub expansion in the Andreafsky Wilderness threaten the breeding grounds of North America’s rarest shorebird – the bristle-thighed curlew -- and also the integrity of salmon spawning habitat—a subsistence resource key to the survival of villagers living outside the wilderness bounds.
One can only hope that a shared concern for conserving these resources into the future will facilitate collaboration among the myriad interests in this region; and that my work here as a Wilderness Fellow can offer yet another tool to bring attention to these issues.
Video of Yukon Delta Refuge Credit (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Banding Ducks in a Central Flyway
At Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, on the mixed-grass plains of northeast Montana, I am interviewing staff to compile information on the current condition of the wilderness. The Medicine Lake Wilderness covers 11,360 acres. One-fifth of this is the Sandhills, a unique tract of rolling hills, native brush and prairie grassland, where wind-blown sand produced dunes 20 to 40 feet tall. The remaining wilderness acres contain Medicine Lake and its islands.
Experiencing Wilderness at Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge
For the past couple months, I have been stationed at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, GA—the mainland headquarters from which I have been developing wilderness character monitoring programs for Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge and Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge, also in Georgia. Both Blackbeard Island and Wolf Island are unique wilderness areas, but Blackbeard also happens to be one of the most important nesting sites for loggerhead sea turtles on the East Coast.
When I arrived on Blackbeard this summer, refuge staff were already involved in an intensive nest protection and monitoring project—constructing and maintaining predator exclosures, checking nests for signs of hatchling emergence, and measuring nest productivity. I thoroughly enjoyed helping staff with the work. The experience of watching newly hatched turtles crawl to the ocean is something I will never forget. What’s more, my work at Blackbeard Island also provided an unforgettable wilderness experience.
Turtle monitoring requires daily staffing, and over two consecutive weekends, I volunteered to take care of all nest duties. It wasn’t until after I’d finished my first day’s work that I realized what a great opportunity I had stumbled upon.
Blackbeard Island, while open to the public, is a 40-minute boat ride from the mainland. This water commute limits visitation, and it’s not uncommon to go an entire day without seeing another person. After performing my day’s work on the beaches, I hiked over the dunes and into the wilderness area, where I found nature at its wildest and solitude at its most serene. I didn’t have to walk far until the beach disappeared and the sounds of the waves faded behind me. For the rest of the day, all I saw was untamed land, and all I heard was the fluttering of birds, the chatter of insects and the crunching of leaves and pine needles by foraging animals.
The solitude I encountered on Blackbeard Island was incredible, and makes me value all the more my opportunities as a Wilderness Fellow. Time spent in areas like the Blackbeard Island Wilderness reminds us that there are still wild places out there, and that now, more than ever, they need our protection.
Seals Make a Comeback on Farallon Islands
More than a century after fur traders killed them off, northern fur seals have staged an amazing recovery on the Farallon Islands.
Starting with the 1996 birth of a fur seal pup on West End Island − the first seal birth in the Farallons in more than 150 years − the northern fur seal population on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge has increased exponentially. Seals have re-colonized the islands, which offer prime habitat − remote, easily accessible by sea and lacking human presence.
I joined a recent trip to West End Island to survey the fur seals; we counted the highest numbers of pups yet recorded: 537 adults and 152 pups. As we climbed to our survey site, the seals were everywhere. We passed a cliff hundreds of feet above the water where more than 20 pups huddled in the safety of the moss-covered rocks. Sub-adult males with crowned foreheads wandered the marine terraces below us, scattering California sea lions and other smaller fur seals. When disturbed, the seals don’t shy from showing how they feel. They stand their ground and let loose an earthshaking call. It’s not a threat; it’s more of a “Hey, I’m here!” Check out the sound on video. The pup you hear has the voice of a seal three times his size.
If the seals’ recovery continues, they may again reach their historic population levels of 200,000 in the Farallons, say biologists.
Wilderness has played a key role in the fur seals’ recolonization of the Farallon
Islands. Virtually all fur seals are found only on wilderness islands. The only
breeding sites are found here, too.
Protecting a Hard-to-Reach Wilderness
Getting into the Farallon Island wilderness is tricky. Most of the string of rocky islands and islets that stretches 10 miles off the California coast is accessible only by a boat that circles the islands every few years. When I recently had the opportunity to join a trip to the North Farallon Islands to survey seabirds and sea lions by boat, I jumped at the chance. It was my first opportunity to visit the island wilderness since I started work here this summer as a Wilderness Fellow.
Before boarding our small boat, I had only seen the North Farallons from afar: From Southeast Farallon Island, our destination looked like a clump of small pebbles arranged on the horizon. Then the crane picked up our boat, swiveling out over the ocean to lower us into the water, and we began our 10-mile boat ride.
At the North Farallon Islands, the rocks rose vertically out of the water to heights of over 100 feet. I could understand why no one had set foot on the islands since 1994, and why surveys are now done only by boat. The cliffs were covered with seabirds − Brandt’s cormorants − and guano. Ocean stretched away from us in all directions. There were no signs of other boats or people. Sea lions barked from the rocky intertidal area and from high up on the islands’ cliffs where they had climbed to rest. The islands felt completely untouched by humans and isolated from the modern world.
Because the islands support many rare and sensitive seabird and seal species in one of the most pristine habitats south of Alaska, they are closed to the public. Even refuge staff keep off all the islands except West End Island, which is accessed via a zip line from nearby Southeast Farallon Island only seven times a year to conduct seal surveys. With their lack of human presence, the Farallon Islands bring an unusual perspective to wilderness and what it means to for wilderness to be preserved for wildlife.
Still, remote though they are, the Farallon Islands are not immune to impacts from the world around them. El Nino events, which cause dramatic drops in seabird and seal populations, are occurring more frequently. Low-flying aircraft can cause an entire colony of common murre chicks to fail. Oil spills can happen at any time. Helping land managers understand and monitor these threats within the frame of wilderness, I hope, will boost the chances that the Farallons’ unique character will be preserved. That way, these wilderness islands can continue to be a haven for the seabirds and seals that depend on them.
Understanding Change in the Oregon Islands Wilderness
On a clear day, the entire Oregon Islands wilderness − hundreds of islands, grassy rocks and low-lying reefs – is visible from shore. But many of these islands are surprisingly remote. Powerful currents, ocean swells and gale-force winds make access difficult most of the year. The islands are closed to the public to protect seabird habitat. To avoid disturbing birds and nests, refuge staff limit their visits, too, setting foot on only a few islands per year. Many islands have never been visited by humans.
But the islands are changing nonetheless. In 1988 Finley Rock was home to more than 30,000 common murres. Earlier this summer, when I visited the island, not a single common murre was in sight. Eagles are moving back into this ecosystem and preying on murre eggs and chicks. Few foresaw this development – or its impact on island character. Eagles are changing the personality many islands have had for the past 30 years, silencing the cacophonous seabirds and literally changing the color of the rock as the whitewash of bird guano fades.
If staff at Oregon Islands hadn’t shown me just how differently common murre colonies are distributed now, I probably would have assumed that murres had never flourished on Finley or other northern rocks. This helps explain why my role as a Wilderness Fellow is so important: Each wilderness needs a baseline that won’t shift over time and can help guide managers in preserving an area’s wilderness character. As a Wilderness Fellow, I will create this baseline and work to understand changes – and their consequences − in the Oregon Islands wilderness. I will help draft a plan to accommodate a future we can’t fully foresee.
Seeing the Value of Wilderness at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
I am working in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Fairbanks, Alaska as I begin to develop the wilderness character monitoring plan for the Mollie Beattie Wilderness, inside Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When the area that would become Arctic Refuge was set aside as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, it was a remarkable milestone for the wilderness movement. Conservation pioneers Olaus and Margaret Murie helped lead the effort. This history remains on my mind as I work with staff to develop measures to capture key wilderness values and identify what need to be monitored.
At 7.16 million acres, the Mollie Beattie Wilderness is an immense area, stretching from the southern foothills of the Brooks Range to the North Slope and Beaufort Sea coastline. It encompasses numerous biomes and supports many species, including the iconic porcupine caribou herd.
The Mollie Beattie Wilderness is important to people, too. Many visitors come here to hunt or take boat trips down any of several large rivers. While an important role of wilderness is to provide opportunities for such recreation, I expect some human impacts (such as abandoned property and campsites) may be important issues to monitor for wilderness character. The baseline data I am compiling will allow managers to better understand what is going on in the wilderness and make informed stewardship decisions.
While here, I’ve helped refuge biologists conduct vegetation surveys in the Sheenjek River Valley. That’s not far from Last Lake, where the Muries and others camped in the summer of 1956 to collect the wilderness experiences that helped propel the wilderness campaign. The wide glacier-carved Sheenjek Valley is still a wild place that provides amazing vistas. While in the field, we had the incredible experience of seeing grizzly bears in the open. From high on a ridge, we watched a bear meander along the valley bottom below us and disappear into some thick brush, only to burst out minutes later at a full run to the opposite side of the valley after it caught our scent. The experience brought home the value of having designated wilderness areas. Out there right now, 200 miles north of Fairbanks, bears and wolves roam, and an ecosystem thrives without human intervention. How indebted we are to those early wilderness advocates that we still have wild spaces largely untouched by human development, places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and that are “...affected primarily by the forces of nature,” as the Wilderness Act states.
Keeping the Rivers Running Red in Togiak Wilderness
The dramatic quest of Pacific salmon− fighting their way hundreds of miles upriver to their natal spawning grounds − is a driving force in the Togiak Wilderness, part of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Many of these salmon, as well as other anadromous fish species – those that live most of their lives at sea but return to fresh water to spawn − deposit eggs in the large glaciated lakes and streams within the Togiak Wilderness boundary.
Salmon are integral to the survival of thousands of people here; many communities depend heavily on this resource to support their traditional subsistence lifestyle. Salmon also play a key role in the ecology of the region. Many wildlife species − from bears to eagles, from fish to insects − rely on salmon as a source of nutrients.
Even the relatively few salmon that escape fishermen’s nets and bears’ hungry mouths never return to the sea. All of the fish that manage to survive the exhausting journey upriver die shortly after reaching their goal. Spawned out, their bodies line the riverbanks and lake shores, adding nutrients to both freshwater and terrestrial systems long after they are gone.
I was lucky enough to witness firsthand the spectacle of a Pacific salmon run on a recent float trip down the Kanektok River, most of which is located within the Togiak Wilderness. After visiting with local residents who fish these shores, talking with sport fisherman who had traveled to these waters from the world over, and seeing the astonishing natural beauty of a river run red with the backs of salmon, I better understand the importance of salmon to this region and the need to protect this fishery. While the Togiak Wilderness provides an important shelter for the spawning grounds of Pacific salmon, many threats beyond the refuge boundaries threaten the wilderness– as well as these intrepid fish. Overfishing is always a concern. Increasing water temperatures threaten the integrity of the spawning habitat. And now, proposed large-scale mining operations add an additional threat to this delicately balanced system.
For over a thousand years, the people of the Bristol Bay region, home to the largest sockeye salmon run on Earth, have relied on the wealth that swims inland each summer from the sea. Only time will tell if this cycle of death and renewal can be maintained for generations to come. As other Wilderness Fellows have noted, change in this region is inevitable. As a Wilderness Fellow, I am working to identify measures that can help land managers quantify this change over time. I hope this effort will help bring broader attention to the challenges faced by this unique wilderness and help preserve the way of life of the human and wildlife populations that depend upon it.
Lostwood Refuge: Preserving Wilderness from Industrial Change
In a remote, sparsely populated area of North Dakota, Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge sits surrounded by acres of farmland and grassland. But within the last decade, growing energy demand has speeded up development of the once-barren prairies and triggered a population boom.
Historically, the energy industry has been key to the North Dakota economy; the state has witnessed boom and bust cycles in energy development over the years. Today, the rate of oil and gas exploration is at an all-time high, and development is expected to accelerate. As the oil and gas industry footprint expands, so will the impacts to natural resources such as water supplies and wildlife habitat. Maintaining the sustainability of the state’s rich natural resources is increasingly challenging.
While Lostwood Refuge is protected from the rapid oil and gas development changing the rest of the state, it’s not immune from the impact. Staff must constantly review their land management actions to consider how to preserve 27,000 acres of refuge habitat – including more than 5,000 acres of wilderness − in the light of such widespread changes. Within a mile of the wilderness area, at least seven oil drilling wells are visible. With this comes an increase in traffic, noise and debris dispersed through the air.
As a Wilderness Fellow here, I have many questions about the vulnerability of the
wilderness area. Will the water quality of the thousands of acres of wetland basins
be compromised? Are air quality values at risk? How will development affect a visitor’s
opportunity for solitude? As I monitor wilderness character here, these potential
impacts are constantly on my mind.
Finding My Place in Wilderness
As a Wilderness Fellow, my main responsibility is to complete a baseline assessment and long-term monitoring strategy for designated wilderness areas. That’s what I’m doing now, for example, at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge – an oasis and key bird rest stop in New Mexico. A little more than half the refuge is wilderness. But working at various field sites across the country has also given me many opportunities to help national wildlife refuges in other land management tasks.
In Arizona and New Mexico, I’ve trapped small mammals, used tractors to mow invasive plants, banded doves, set up mist nets to catch bats, rehabilitated brown pelicans, captured and collared Sonoran pronghorn, and maintained habitat for the desert Quitobaquito pupfish. In Florida, I built a whooping crane pen, tracked red wolves, monitored sea turtle nests, conducted frog call surveys, assessed plant success for different fire regimes, and staffed check stations for a refuge hunt. As a recent graduate looking to gain experience in my field, this work has been rewarding and edifying.
These experiences also deepen my appreciation for refuge wilderness – a place where we leave management to nature. As the 1964 Wilderness Act states, a wilderness is “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In my usual refuge tasks, it’s easy to retain the comforting sense that I am separate from – superior to − the dove in my hand or the frog calling in the distance. In the wild, any such notion quickly dissolves. How different am I from the wildflowers blooming in the charred soil? In wilderness, I am part of the landscape. It’s not a place where I drive a tractor or catch birds. It’s a place where I observe wildlife and vegetation, where I ponder how they interact to create the ‘environment,’ and where I reflect on my role within it.
Time Out for Banding in North Carolina
Most of my time working for the Mattamuskeet Refuge complex was spent developing the wilderness character monitoring program for the Swanquarter Wilderness—a nearly 8,800-acre brackish-marsh-dominated wilderness on the coast of North Carolina. There was no shortage of work to keep me busy, particularly given the challenges presented by sea level rise, erosion and ocean water connectivity. That said, one of the great aspects of the Wilderness Fellows program is the chance to take advantage of other unique experiences, both inside and out of our assigned wilderness areas, that further our appreciation and understanding of the values of protected natural lands. One such opportunity sent me to an island in Oregon Inlet, where I assisted a research group of 30-40 people with brown pelican banding.
Upon our arrival, briefings on safely moving through the colony, proper handling of the birds, and the general work plan competed for attention with the agitated cries of nesting birds. When it came time to begin rounding up young birds for banding, if the screeching wasn’t intimidating enough, the snapping of their large bills had all us newcomers wary of where we placed our hands. After all, the target we were aiming for was the same bill capable of all that loud snapping! Shaky hands and hesitation led to a chorus of hysteria — first screams, and then laughter — as fingers, hands and arms were nipped at. The pelicans’ bark proved worse than the bite. After all, pelicans aren’t quite so concerned with “chewing” their food.
Once the birds were firmly in hand, seasoned banders ensured proper application of the metal bands. The band must be loose enough to allow unrestricted movement and growth of the bird, but thoroughly closed so as to leave no gaps or edges on which the band may become snagged. We settled into an assembly line of bird wrangling and banding. Within five hours, all eligible juveniles within the colony of more than 1,300 pelicans had been banded.
The work was new and exciting, and the day unforgettable. It was amazing to see all of the various development stages of these beautiful (if peculiar-looking) birds, especially the new hatchlings. We even got to see one of the eggs hatch! And, if you kept your hand in and laughed off the first couple of bites, it was even possible to make a few new avian friends. This was a rare opportunity, and one which I will always treasure.
Selawik Refuge: “Place of Sheefish”
Bisected by the Arctic Circle, 350 miles from the nearest road, Selawik National Wildlife Refuge is a remote and wild place in northwestern Alaska. I have the honor of collecting the baseline wilderness character assessment for Selawik Wilderness, a 240,000-acre piece of the refuge along its mountainous northern boundary.
In many ways, the effects of modern civilization have yet to reach Selawik Wilderness: There are no non-native plants, there are no endangered or threatened species. Only a handful of outside visitors reach the wilderness each year. It may seem like a last untouched landscape, except that the Native Alaskan people have lived and thrived in northwest Alaska for thousands of years and still live a subsistence way of life today.
I recently had a chance to travel to the village of Selawik, located within the refuge boundaries, to help refuge staff sample water quality and to ask local people how they use the wilderness area. While boating one day to half a dozen water sampling sites, I saw traditional family fishing camps used for generations scattered on the banks of the Selawik River. The next day I watched a village elder cut fish for the drying racks. I began to appreciate that native and rural residents here depend on the area’s abundant natural resources to live in a way that isn’t possible anymore elsewhere in the world.
Selawik derives its name from an Iñupiaq word meaning “Place of Sheefish.” The huge whitefish are staples for Selawik residents year round. Moose, caribou, waterfowl and berries are also plentiful food sources. I learned from village elders that even in past times when caribou were scarce, people could walk to the mountains of Selawik Wilderness to hunt bears. Today, the wilderness area remains an important area for hunting and fishing.
The wilderness monitoring plan taking shape will focus on managers’ concerns about potential impacts from climate change and development. New roads and mines near the refuge seem inevitable. Selawik residents will tell you that climate change has already arrived; they already contend with homes built on thawing permafrost. The baseline data I am compiling will help refuge managers and local people monitor such impacts and document the inevitable changes to wilderness character in the future.
Choosing Challenge over Comfort in Alaska
Going against type and reveling in the experience.
When the opportunity arose to spend six months in Alaska doing Wilderness Character Assessment, I jumped at the opportunity for a physical and mental challenge. After finishing my PhD in geography, what could be better? I would have the land of the midnight sun at the beginning of the fellowship, 30-below at the end, and through it all, the adventure and isolation of Alaska’s interior in the village of McGrath and the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge.
When my float plane landed on the lake at field camp in June, the isolation and beauty of the area were immediately apparent. I saw black spruce forests and muskeg wetlands, meandering rivers with willow bars that support moose around every bend. While all of the land in Innoko could be wilderness, slightly less than one-third has been designated. This was interior Alaska and this was the wilderness of my imagination; no roads, no signs of human impact, and wildlife so unaccustomed to the sight of humans that animals stare at you as much as you stare at them.
This helped me realize why my time here setting up wilderness monitoring is so important. I hope that my efforts lead to keeping Innoko this wild for millennia to come.
In July my second trip to Innoko allowed me to connect with one of the refuge’s most iconic species: the white-fronted goose. About 70-75 percent of all white-fronted geese that migrate through interior Alaska come to Innoko’s wetlands to molt and rest before their long journey back south. Surveys and banding of these geese have been occurring since before Innoko was a refuge, and my work there will help scientists track them into the future.
While it is nearly impossible to see human impacts directly in Innoko, refuge staff fear that these precious wetlands are drying as the climate warms. After developing the Wilderness Character Monitoring plan, I will help the Innoko staff devise a mapping and monitoring project for these wetlands to further understanding of how this habitat has changed, and will continue to change. The project will also help refuge staff plan for what is needed for the greater white-fronted goose and all migratory birds that rely on Innoko Refuge for their survival.
Thinking Big, in the Togiak Wilderness
My brain still has a hard time grappling with this landscape. Before I came to Alaska, friends had warned me how vast the place is. They were right. Flying into Anchorage, I was awed by the fields of rugged mountain peaks, still buried in snow. My seatmates worried their wardrobes wouldn’t be sufficient for the harsh world below. I reassured them, saying that things were sure to be different on the ground.
Turns out, I was also right.
Dillingham, my final destination, has a total of about 30 miles of road. Connecting to no other town, leading to no highway or byway, these 30 miles represent the entirety of my day-to-day world. Wander just 100 yards off, and you face tundra too marshy to walk on and impenetrable alders beyond that. My real-world Alaska feels rather small. Just beyond town though, lie the vast lands of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Togiak Wilderness, which makes up half the refuge, encompasses an area larger than the state of Delaware. But without a plane or a boat, this wilderness is inaccessible.
Recently, I flew to the village of Togiak to take a boat into the wilderness. From the air, I gazed at those vast wild tracts that surround my 30 familiar miles. My brain kept tricking me. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t looking at a road, but a huge and winding river. Those dark lines cutting across the landscape weren’t fences, but well-worn animal tracks.
I suddenly appreciated that my 30 miles of road don’t stretch further. Because, after all, isn’t that one of the major goals of Wilderness? To provide an opportunity to see rivers rather than roads, to pick one’s way across trails only traveled before by bears? While it may be harder to reach, that just makes the effort more worthwhile.
But no place is immune to change. As in so many areas, climate change and increasing human development threaten the integrity of even the Togiak Wilderness. In time, the surrounding landscape may not be quite as wild as it is today. That’s why I’m excited to have the opportunity to record conditions as they now appear. I hope that my efforts to establish a baseline report on the character of the Togiak Wilderness will play a role in helping to preserve its character. That way, it may remain wilderness forever.
Prairies and Plovers
To say the sky is blue and the winds are howling does not begin to describe a typical summer’s day at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, ND, – not until you add in the mixed-grass prairie waving in the wind and great numbers of waterfowl splashing in the shallow wetlands.
Lostwood’s location in northwestern North Dakota puts it in prime prairie pothole territory – an area of shallow depressions left by the glaciers. This region is very new to me and I have so much to discover these next few months, serving as a Wilderness Fellow. I was excited to learn that nearly 50 percent of our country’s waterfowl species breed in the prairie potholes. Being a bird enthusiast, I won’t find it too shabby to have this new region to explore for a summer.
Lostwood Refuge preserves one of the nation’s largest portions of northern mixed grass prairie. The wetland and grassland habitat provide breeding grounds and homes for bird species such as the marbled godwit and piping plover. Piping plovers that nest in the northern Great Plains are a federally threatened species. They hug the refuge’s open, gravel shorelines of the alkaline wetlands from mid-April through August. These tiny shorebirds are very sensitive to disturbance and will often abandon a nest if humans or other predators draw too close. Refuge staff take care to protect the birds by placing enclosures around nests to ward off any predators.
During my early weeks at Lostwood, I had the opportunity to check out some of these plover sites and help manage this threatened species. I enjoyed trekking through the vibrant green prairies and rolling hills as the shifting winds pulled me every which way. My companions and I came down a grassland hill to find shorelines filled with numerous shorebird species. Avocets, godwits and willets were less thrilled to see us, and dive-bombed us. Once I settled in with a pair of binoculars, I was surprised by the simple pleasures of spotting a cryptic plover foraging along the shoreline of a wetland. I was lucky enough to see some newly hatched chicks scurrying around the beaches not too far behind their parents. A successful nest makes for a good day in the field for monitoring purposes.
As a Wilderness Fellow at Lostwood, I will be immersing myself in the sacred land of the native mixed grass prairie while creating a baseline assessment of wilderness character. I am eager to dive into the refuge’s history and learn about the challenges the refuge faces in preserving the wilderness territory.
Swanquarter Wilderness: Facing New Questions
In the few weeks I’ve served as Wilderness Fellow for the Mattamuskeet-Swanquarter-Cedar Island Refuge Complex, NC, I’ve learned a great deal about the Swanquarter Wilderness. One lesson: The questions that remain after I complete my work here may have as much bearing on the refuge’s future as those I answer.
In 1976, when Swanquarter was designated as wilderness, it encompassed nearly 8,800 acres of non-contiguous mainland and island tracts within North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.
Nearly 40 years later, however, things look a bit different. Sea-level rise has changed Swanquarter’s footprint. Waters that have risen one foot over the last 100 years have encroached on the wilderness area and reduced its terrestrial acreage. The reduction is most pronounced on the small islands in Pamlico Sound, some of which have visibly changed contours or seemingly “disappeared” from satellite imagery.
These changes pose fundamental questions for wilderness land managers. Among them:
These questions were not foreseen by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which made no explicit prescriptions for climate change. As a result, land managers at places like Swanquarter struggle with competing policy considerations and increasing regulative complexity while they watch their acreage shrink.
My work and the work of other Wilderness Fellows represent an important preliminary step in the analysis of these complex issues. The Wilderness Character Monitoring initiative has the flexibility to acknowledge issues of critical importance to individual wilderness areas—providing documentation of associated trends and effects— while presenting them under the common context of wilderness character. It’s good to know our efforts will help provide a meaningful starting point for improved understanding and management of individual wilderness areas, as well as the entire National Wilderness Preservation System, going forward.
I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute to this program, and to work towards the timeless directive of the Wilderness Act—the conservation of an enduring resource of wilderness for the benefit of present and future generations. If my first two weeks’ experience is any indication, I have a lot more to look forward to, and a lot more to learn, at Swanquarter.
Pelican Island: A Wilderness for Wildlife
I spent several months on the refuge this year, completing a baseline assessment of this wilderness island and creating a plan to monitor any changes the future may bring. Because the birds that nest here are sensitive to human disturbance, the wilderness island is closed to the public. U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff also honor this closure, except in extreme circumstances. This access restriction added a challenge to my task. Fortunately, I was able to use data from bird surveys that are conducted from off the island.
I had several opportunities to assist in these rookery surveys, which offered a unique glimpse into the biological activity of the island. I would launch my kayak in time to arrive at the island just before sunrise. As the sun crested the horizon, a cacophony of bird calls would crescendo until flocks of ibises, egrets, pelicans, herons, wood storks and roseate spoonbills flew off the island by the hundreds to forage for the day. Observing this made me feel as if I had discovered one of nature’s secrets. I’ve never seen birds use a space the way they do Pelican Island; even neighboring islands do not see this amount of activity. These images and sounds will stay with me forever.
Monitoring the Pelican Island Wilderness is important to understanding the impacts – both intentional and unintentional – that humans may have on the birds that nest here year after year. Climate change, sea-level rise, and marine debris all have the potential to change the unique character of the Pelican Island Wilderness. We have to know what’s changed before we can know if – and how – to respond.
Protecting Nesting Loggerheads at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
Wait. Why, you ask, would the refuge build structures in a wilderness? Isn’t wilderness meant to be structure-free? Not to worry. The hatcheries are only temporary, and they’re extremely necessary.
Cape Romain is home to a significant population of nesting loggerhead sea turtles. On one of the refuge’s wilderness islands, Cape Island, sea turtles build an average 1,000 nests per year, making it the most significant loggerhead nesting beach north of Cape Canaveral.
Because loggerheads are a federally threatened species, the refuge is required by law to help protect these guys – to prevent nests from being dug up by predators such as raccoons and to make sure that eggs laid too close to the water aren’t submerged by the tide. One creative solution: installing large wire-mesh cages, called hatcheries, where nests can be carefully relocated. These hatcheries are placed far enough from the high-tide line that nests are safe from washover and erosion. They keep the bad guys out while simultaneously allowing turtle hatchlings to head to the water when they're ready. When nesting season ends, in August, the cages are removed.
While working at Cape Romain, I got to spend a few days helping refuge staff install these hatcheries. The refuge has put a ton of effort into developing an installation process that minimizes the impact on the wilderness. It was inspiring to work with people who paid such close attention to the effects of their actions. The coolest part about it is knowing how essential our work was. Without these protective measures, nest loss can be as high as 95 percent – as the refuge has seen on other islands. The sad news is that sea-level rise is rapidly destroying the little habitat that's left for these turtles to nest on, and that is a challenge that the refuge won't be able to meet singlehandedly.
Through the Wilderness Character Monitoring program, begun in 2011, Wilderness Fellows conduct wilderness character assessments on refuges to evaluate the impacts of nearby development, climate changes, management actions and other factors on wilderness character to better ensure the preservation of the these wild areas for future generations. Fellows spend six months in a wilderness refuge, taking training courses, developing an inventory and monitoring strategy, and producing baseline data about wilderness characteristics.