Science is the cornerstone for how fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats are managed at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  Refuge biologists are always working to identify new flora and fauna, to assess historic and future ecological change at multiple spatial scales, to ensure that game and furbearer species are managed responsibly, and to better understand how a warming climate, an increasing urban interface, recreation and other human activities impact our natural systems.  Biologists apply cutting-edge approaches in GIS and spatial modeling, database management, conservation genetics, and biological inventorying and monitoring to address these needs.  They also work collaboratively with fellow scientists from other agencies, universities and organizations.  The Refuge maintains a 600 ft2 laboratory, an herbarium, and arthropod collection.  

Graduate researchers, visiting scientists, and biological interns are often hosted by the Refuge to support relevant research.   In recent years, graduate research has focused on the historic fire regime, shrub encroachment into drying peatlands, carbon cycling in wetlands, rising treeline in the Kenai Mountains, exotic earthworm invasion, American marten colonization of the Kenai Lowlands, insect diversity and distribution, shorebird populations on Chickaloon Flats, and soundscape modeling. 

Inventorying and monitoring refuge resources are also critical components of the science program. The Refuge’s Long Term Ecological Monitoring Program (LTEMP) was launched in 2004 to monitor changes in biodiversity.  Working collaboratively with the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program, over 1,000 species of vascular plants, lichens, mosses, liverworts, birds, and arthropods have been inventoried on 255 plots systematically distributed at 5-km intervals across the refuge. 

In addition to LTEMP, birds are monitored on two Breeding Bird Survey routes, the Christmas Bird Count, and an Alaska Landbird Survey site at Birch Lake.  Breeding and wintering bald eagles are monitored by fixed-wing aircraft and boat, respectively.  Aerial surveys to monitor trumpeter swan productivity have been flown for over 50 years.  Migrating waterfowl and shorebird populations are routinely monitored at Kenai Flats in Cook Inlet and Chickaloon Flats in Turnagain Arm.    

Refuge biologists work with their Alaska Department of Fish and Game counterparts to monitor abundance and other demographics of caribou, moose, goat and sheep populations with aerial surveys and radio telemetry.   Wolverine densities in the Kenai Mountains were recently estimated from aerial winter track counts.  The brown bear population was recently estimated on the Refuge and Chugach National Forest using a DNA-based mark-recapture approach.  Snowshoe hare population cycles are monitored on five long-term plots. 

Vegetation responses to fire are monitored on 71 plots established during 1994-2001 using protocols outlined in the National Park Service’s Fire Monitoring Handbook.  Eleven long-term “Hakala” plots were also established in 1950 in the aftermath of the 1947 burn.  Seven fenced moose exclosures of varying sizes were established in the 1960s and 1980s to assess how moose browsing (or the lack of it) affected vegetation.  Invasive plants are monitored on 74 long-term plots established within the human footprint of the Refuge.

Climate and weather are monitored at several Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS); NRCS SNOTEL, Snow Course, and snow benchmark stations; and one NOAA Climate Reference Network station. Spatial modeling and the forecasting of species redistributions in response to a changing climate are new areas of scientific research.  Using down-scaled climate data from the Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning, Refuge biologists have modeled changes in species, species richness, and vegetation distributions over the remainder of this century to help us plan for climate change adaptation.