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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN PABLO BAY NWR: Sister Refuge Wows Bay Area Kids with Visions of Alaskan Wild

Region 8, February 10, 2017
Students at Blue Oak School in Napa, were able to try on a a hat made of Lynx fur during the Yukon Flats NWR presentation.
Students at Blue Oak School in Napa, were able to try on a a hat made of Lynx fur during the Yukon Flats NWR presentation. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Carmen Leong-Minch

Seventeen California fifth graders from Blue Oak School in Napa recently took a virtual tour of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The students have never visited Alaska, but seeing stunning images was just enough to pique their interest.

“Awwwwwww,” the students said in unison as a photo of black cubs flashed on the projector screen. “They’re kind of ugly,” said one of the admirers. It wasn’t long before the coos turned into laughter.

Bringing employees from the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the San Francisco Bay Area was the brainchild of Nathan Hawkaluk, deputy manager at the Alaska refuge. “I wanted people outside of Alaska to know about our refuge and how it relates to the rest of the world,” said Hawkaluk.

Yukon Flats NWR is the third largest national wildlife refuge in the United States, and an extremely important breeding site for ducks. Tracking data has shown that birds that breed at Yukon Flats NWR migrate to 11 foreign countries and 45 of the lower 48 states. One of the key species that the refuge protects is the canvasback duck. Nearly one-third of canvasbacks that were banded at Yukon Flats migrate to the Bay Area.

“It made sense that the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which at one time had the largest wintering population of canvasbacks on the west coast, be selected as the sister refuge of Yukon Flats NWR,” said Hawkaluk.

Employees from both refuges gave presentations at the nearby schools in the Bay Area and at the annual San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival in Vallejo, California. The presentations not only introduced Yukon Flats NWR and how it is connected to San Pablo Bay NWR, but also an Alaskan lifestyle where people depend on resources found on the Yukon Flats basin for their survival.

The students at Blue Oak made those connections between the two refuges. They learned that in order to adequately protect migratory birds, we have to think globally, protecting breeding and wintering grounds to ensure bird populations survive and make the journey back up north.

Refuge Wildlife Specialist Heather Bartlett described to the class what field work is like in the wild lands of Alaska; where roads were minimal, the mosquitoes abundant, and the scenery and wildlife breathtaking. Unlike San Pablo Bay NWR, traveling within Yukon Flats NWR is mostly done by snowmobiles, canoes, and Cessna airplanes. Field work within the refuge takes an inordinate amount of coordination, but is well worth the effort.

One of the highlights of the presentation came when native Alaskan and Fort Yukon Elder Julie Mahler shared stories of life in the bush. She spoke of people who live in villages along the Yukon River and its tributaries who do not have indoor plumbing or electricity and subsist off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing their own vegetables.

“We use all parts of the animal,” said Mahler. “We use the hides for clothes, we eat the animals, and we use bear fat for cooking, for waterproofing our clothes, and as a moisturizer [to protect our skin].” Several photos were shown of Mahler’s family and the work they did getting food ready for the winter. The amount of protein shown in the slides prompted a question from little Mya Oro who was sitting in the front row.

“Are there any vegetarians there?”

Mahler admitted that there were very few vegetarians where she was from. To survive, the residents utilized what they could and what was practical. “Since there are no sidewalks and roads, we use sled dogs to get around,” explained Mahler. “They don’t need gas and they never break down.”

Although the elements may be harsh in the winter and there is plenty of work to do, Mahler said that the kids she taught every year to hunt, fish, and prepare the animals loved learning how to do it. The kids, including her own, also loved being outside; but when it got too cold, they would make up games for the indoors.

As part of her presentation, Mahler passed around animal pelts, so the children could touch the fur of native Alaskan species. She also shared some of the hats, gloves, and boots she had made from animal hides. When the class was asked how many would like to live in Fort Yukon and experience the native Alaskan way of life, several hands shot up in the air.

Now that they know about national wildlife refuges including San Pablo Bay NWR—an accessible wildlife refuge right in their own back yard—the kids may be inspired by their virtual tour of Yukon Flats NWR to explore even farther afield.

Carmen Leong-Minch is the Outdoor Recreation Planner at San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov