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Resource Management

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Historic  

When what is now the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was established as the Kenai National Moose Range in 1941, populations of its namesake were declining after decades of commercial guided hunts.  Caribou were extirpated circa 1917, and wolves were thought to have been extirpated about this time due to human persecution.  Red foxes were heavily harvested for both pelts and to seed commercial fox farms that were started in the 1920s. Salmon populations were so low that bounties were offered by the Territory of Alaska to reduce seal populations in salt waters surrounding the Kenai Peninsula.  Mining had been commonplace since the 1898 Gold Rush on what was to be Refuge lands.   In 1951, the Sterling Highway was completed across the Kenai National Moose Range, which brought more homesteaders and visitors.  In 1957, the first oil in Alaska was discovered on the Moose Range, setting the stage for decades of commercial oil and gas development on leased lands within the Refuge.

During the early years, the Kenai National Moose Range responded to this historical legacy in multiple ways.  The Kenai Moose Research Center was jointly-established in 1966 with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to conduct research on the nutritional requirements and physiology of moose, the effects of habitat manipulation and browsing on carrying capacity, and the development of methods for measuring and monitoring moose habitat carrying capacity.  Giant LeTourneau tree crushers were used to create moose browse in the Kenai Lowlands.  Trumpeter swans were a high priority during the early years, and commercial hunting camps, float-plane access and other sources of human disturbance were removed or regulated.  Caribou were successfully reintroduced from the Nelchina herd in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. Wolves naturally recolonized the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1960s after being absent for at least twenty years  and was the subject of intense research, culminating in a seminal Wildlife Monograph  on wolf ecology (Peterson et al. 1984). 

Contemporary  

In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act established the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge with one of its two primary purposes to “conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity”.  In response to this new mandate, the Refuge broadened its resource management.  Fire management was refocused on ensuring a natural wildfire regime, particularly within Congressionally-designated Wilderness.  The Interagency Brown Bear Study Team was established in 1984 to collect data useful for managing brown bears across jurisdictional boundaries on the Kenai Peninsula.  The interagency caribou management plan was completed in 1994 and revised in 2003 to reflect the recognition of four herds on the Kenai Peninsula.  A 1996 management plan for moose habitat provided guidelines for the use of prescribed fire to enhance habitat and the monitoring of moose demographics, established management objectives for population composition, and recommended the assessment of mortality including predators and highway vehicle collisions.  A 1988 Furbearer Management Plan implemented a trapper permit system that mandated annual reporting for better monitoring of harvest.  To protect vegetation, snowmachines were prohibited above treeline in alpine areas, and elsewhere on the Refuge when snow was sparse; all terrain vehicles (ATVs) were prohibited all together.  Remediation of oil spills, accidental release of xylene, PCBs released from a compressor plant explosion, and other industrial accidents on leased lands within the Refuge were (and are) a management priority (see 2001 Contaminant Assessment).  The interagency Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan was developed in 1986 (and revised in 1997) to ensure cross-jurisdictional coordination of management of fishery and wildlife resources, sensitive habitat areas, recreational, and development activities within the Kenai River Special Management Area.

 In more recent years, issues associated with an urbanizing landscape outside Refuge boundaries have become the focus of management.  Prescribed fire is now authorized for use in Wilderness, primarily to reduce fuels loads along the wildland urban interface.  Early detection and rapid response (including herbicide use) for exotic and invasive plant species has been practiced since 2005 with the primary goal of protecting the refuge interior. To eradicate northern pike, illegally introduced to the Kenai Peninsula and a threat to native salmonids, Rotenone™ will be applied to a lake adjacent to the Refuge boundary for the first time in 2012. Riparian areas heavily used by recreational anglers have been restored (including the use of boardwalks) at several sites on the Kenai River.  Increasing wildlife-vehicle collisions, compromised stream flow from overhanging culverts, and concerns about reduced wildlife movement across the Sterling Highway (and other roads) have prompted culvert replacements and interagency discussions on highway mitigation for wildlife. 

Future

Managing the effects of rapid climate change will be a challenge to the Refuge’s primary purpose of conserving fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity.  The impacts of a warming climate are already dramatic and forecasted to become even more so.  The Kenai Refuge was the epicenter of a spruce bark beetle outbreak that devastated 4 million acres of Sitka, white and Lutz spruce forest in south-central Alaska over a 15-year period, sustained by consecutive summers of above-average temperatures.  As the climate has warmed and dried over the past 50 years, treeline has risen 50 meters in the Kenai Mountains, wetlands have decreased 6-11% per decade in surface area, the Harding Icefield has decreased 5% in surface area and 21 meters in average elevation, and available water has declined 55%.  The fire regime seems to be changing:  late summer canopy fires in spruce are being replaced by spring fires in bluejoint grasslands, and a 2005 wildfire in mountain hemlock was well outside any historical fire regime.  Water temperatures in nonglacial streams are already exceeding physiological thresholds for salmon during July.  eBird records show 13 new bird species in the last 5 years, and earlier arrival and later departure dates, respectively, for 33 and 38 species of migratory birds. Spatial modeling forecasts a future landscape in 2100 that is very different than what now occurs on the Refuge.  Alpine tundra will almost certainly be replaced by forests; however, forecasts for lower elevations range from more hardwood to almost catastrophic deforestation.  Interagency planning to facilitate adaptation to climate change is currently underway.     

 

Last Updated: Jul 30, 2012
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