Refuge History

Old Tractor at Kanatak

President Jimmy Carter established the 1,157,000 acre Becharof National Wildlife Monument in 1978. On December 2, 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) changed Becharof into a wildlife refuge and made it part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

In 1983, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to manage the Ugashik and Chignik units of the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, the Becharof Refuge, and the Seal Cape area of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge as a "complex" because these areas share resources and common issues.

The Refuge preserves a rich historical legacy. Fossils from the Refuge date back to the Jurassic period, the heyday of dinosaurs. Bones of a pliosaur (a giant extinct marine reptile) were found in the Kejulik Valley of Becharof Wilderness. Marine fossils are widespread; and plant fossils from the coast reveal the climate of the long-distant past. Large sections of fossilized trees erode from the shore of Becharof Lake.

Much more recently, the lands that now comprise the Refuge served as a crossroads where prehistoric cultures from the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, western Alaska coast, and interior Alaska met and merged, creating unique local cultures. There are currently five Native villages within the refuge's boundaries, and numerous other known prehistoric and historical sites on the Refuge. The area was important in the early history of Alaska, with Russian explorers and trappers active in the region. Later, the area played an important role in the early development of Alaska's commercial fishing industry and was the scene of some of the earliest scientific oil exploration efforts in the world.

On Becharof’s eastern coastline, the Pacific village of Kanatak boomed in the early years of the 1900s, growing to hold perhaps 200 people, as a result of oil exploration. The ancient trail over the mountains was enlarged in places to allow wagons and motorized vehicles to cross the pass. A primitive road was constructed to oil drilling sites.

When oil drilling proved unprofitable, Kanatak shrank again to just a few families. By the 1950s, no permanent residents remained. Yet the trail saw continued, if much reduced, use. The imprint of the route remains visible, followed now by bears and other wildlife. A Recreational Trails Grant in 2011 made it possible for the Refuge to bring in a Student Conservation Association crew to clear four miles of encroaching brush from the route. In 2012, the ancient pathway was designated a National Recreation Trail.

Signs of the past are scattered across the Refuge. Traces of old roads may be seen from the air. The wreckage of tractors and trucks crumble to rust where they were left. Covered in summer grasses, ring-shaped mounds reveal where barabaras (traditional semi-subterranean houses) once stood. Lush meadows and brush conceal trash middens layered with bones and shells, evidence of human presence dating back thousands of years.