Wildlife and their Habitats


The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, often called "Alaska in miniature", is home to a wide diversity of wildlife including moose, eagles, brown and black bears, lynx, wolves and trumpeter swans. The Refuge's current SPECIES LIST includes 2,183 species: 208 vertebrates, 848 invertebrates, 182 bryophytes, 531 vascular plants, 372 fungi, 27 protozoans, and 15 algae.  

Biodiversity is unusually high for this latitude because of the juxtaposition of two biomes on the Kenai Peninsula:  the northern fringe of the Sitka spruce-dominated (Picea sitchensis) coastal rainforest on the eastern flank of the Kenai Mountains, and the western-most reach of boreal forest in North America on the western slope of the Kenai Mountains.  Elevations range from 6,600 feet (Mt. Truuli) to sea level where the refuge extends to Chickaloon Flats in Turnagain Arm.  


Transitional Boreal Forest - The marine-influenced boreal forest extends from sea level to 2,000 feet.  Forests are dominated by white (P. glauca), black (P. mariana), and Lutz spruce (P. sitchensis X glauca) with an admixture of aspen (Populus tremuloides), birch (Betula neoalaskana and Betula kenaica), and cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa and Populus balsamifera).  Extensive Sphagnum peatlands are interspersed among spruce in the western Kenai Lowlands.  Lichen-dominated tundra replaces mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) and sub-alpine shrub above treeline in the Kenai Mountains and Caribou Hills.  Wildfire, spruce bark beetle epidemics, and snowshoe hare eruptions are important natural disturbances in forests on the refuge. Forest habitats are important sources of food and shelter for moose, black and brown bears, lynx, wolves, coyotes, porcupine, weasels, red squirrels and snowshoe hares.  The Kenai Lowland Herd, one of four caribou herds on the Kenai Peninsula, functions as a woodland population, wintering in mature spruce on the Kenai Lowlands where it feeds on arboreal lichens.  The forest also contains important habitats for nesting summer migrants including orange-crowned and myrtle warblers, olive-sided flycatchers, fox sparrows, ruby crowned kinglets, and Swainson's and hermit thrushes.  Local resident birds include great horned owls, hairy and downy woodpeckers, spruce grouse, red-breasted nuthatches, and boreal and black-capped chickadees. 


Ice Fields & Glaciers - These habitats are harsh, cold, and barren, covering less than ten percent of the Kenai Refuge. At least 14 major glaciers feed off the 700-mile2 Harding Icefield including Skilak, Killey, Indian, Tustumena, Truuli, Chernof, Dinglestadt, and Kachemak; the southern unit, across Kachemak Bay from the City of Homer, include Nuka, Dixon, Portlock, Grewingk, Wosnesenski, and part of the Doroshin glaciers.  Iceworms (Mesenchytraeus solifugus) are the primarily inhabitant of glaciers, feeding on interstitial green algae (Chlamydomonas nivalis). Springtails, tiny spiders, microscopic nematodes, and tardigrades are also part of the glacial community.  Nunataks, which were exposed mountain peaks during the Wisconsin Ice Age, still jut from the Harding Icefield, offering habitats for mountain goats, gray-crowned rosy finches and white-tailed ptarmigan, as well as safe zones (from predators) for calving caribou. This landscape is critical for water regulation and has immense importance for river-dependent wildlife such as salmon, bears, and eagles.  


Mountain Tundra - Tree line ends at 1,500 to 2,000 feet, with low growing tundra plants such as crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and shrubs (Salix spp., Alnus viridis) continuing upward to persistent snow and rock fields at 4,000 feet.  Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou roam this rugged country alongside willow ptarmigan. Hoary marmots form colonies on talus slopes, where rock ptarmigan may be common. Brown bears graze for berries in the fall and occasionally prey on marmots and sheep. Wolves and golden eagles can be successful hunters of young sheep. Wolverines scavenge the carcasses of dead sheep and goats.  


Lakes & Wetlands - The northwestern portion of Kenai Refuge is dotted with thousands of small lakes surrounded by wetland tundra, peatlands, or forested hills of spruce and hardwood.  Seventy percent of the surface area of lakes are connected to the ocean by outlet streams large enough to allow passage of migrating anadromous fish such as salmon, Dolly Varden and hooligan. The remaining 30% of the surface area of lakes is landlocked, where at least nine resident fish species complete their entire life cycle including arctic char, kokanee salmon, rainbow trout and sticklebacks.  Here, migratory birds such as common and pacific loons, grebes, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, ducks, and shorebirds nest. Caribou, moose, beaver, muskrat and mink make their home here. The Chickaloon River Flats is the largest estuary on the Kenai Peninsula, serving as a staging area for thousands of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, haul-out for harbor seals, and a feeding area for beluga whales


Rivers - The Kenai Refuge is drained by nine large river systems including the Kenai River, renowned for its wide variety of sport fish including Chinook (king), sockeye (red), and coho (silver) salmon, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout. Nesting bald eagles are often sighted perched in tall cottonwoods along the riverbanks. Brown and black bears are attracted to the rich fish resources in summer and fall. Moose, beaver, and mergansers are commonly seen along these rivers.  Harlequin ducks and American dippers are resident species in the upper watersheds of these rivers and their tributaries.