Refuge History 1945 to Present


1947 - Caught in the Middle Again
When the Ice Curtain of the Cold War drops between Alaska and the Soviet Union, the refuge islands were again caught in the middle of warring nations. The U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard all maintain bases on refuge islands, some still active today. Nuclear bomb tests would soon rock Amchitka Island and threaten Cape Thompson’s First People.

1949 - Back to Business
The end of World War II means getting back to the business of managing the refuge. Bob Jones first arrived in the Aleutians as a serviceman and becomes the refuge’s first resident manager, based in Cold Bay. Later known as "Sea Otter" Jones for his efforts to recover the depleted sea otter population, he also spearheads a program of removing foxes from the refuge to restore native bird populations.

1950 - Sea Otters and Military Secrets
Amchitka Island’s sea otters are increasing and offer the best hope for the future of a species nearly extinct 40 years ago. Refuge Manager Bob Jones patrols Amchitka for poachers and finds secret military activities instead, eventually leading to underground atomic testing in the next decade. The refuge receives money to move some sea otters and Jones and associates spend the winter learning how to do that.

1956 - Support for Refuges
The Fish and Wildlife Act establishes a comprehensive national fish and wildlife policy and broadens the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to acquire and manage national wildlife refuges.

1958 - Teller and His Bomb
"We will change the earth’s surface to suit us," states the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, upon announcing that his proposal to use nuclear blasts for civilian benefit is given the "green light" by the Atomic Energy Commission. The proposal – called Project Chariot – is to detonate three nuclear bombs to blast a harbor out of the tundra at Cape Thompson on lands that are now part of the refuge. This project is scrapped in 1962, but others are underway.

1959 - Number 49 in ‘59
Alaska achieves statehood. Some refuge lands and waters are eventually transferred to state ownership under the Alaska Statehood Act.

1962 - It’s an Aleutian Goose!
Refuge Manager Jones discovers a remnant group of about 300 Aleutian cackling geese on Buldir Island – after many thought them extinct due to predation by foxes introduced for fur farming. Buldir was too rugged and exposed for such enterprises to succeed, so this small species of cackling goose survived there. Jones returned the next summer to capture goslings for a captive breeding flock in the first step toward returning the geese to their former abundance.

1964 - Preserving the Wilderness
The Wilderness Act creates a special designation for preserving the wild and untrammeled character of lands where people can experience solitude and natural beauty without the scars of development. Wilderness designation was later applied to many refuge islands in 1970 and 1980, adding more than 2.5 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

1965 - Amchitka’s First Nuclear Blast
"Long Shot" is the first of three underground nuclear tests exploded beneath Amchitka Island by the Atomic Energy Commission. The eight kiloton blast is "like a firecracker" compared to the later tests, but it still causes local damage to nearby streams and tundra.

1969 - Milrow - Nuclear Blast #2
Officials detonate the second underground test "Milrow" under Amchitka Island. At 1.2 megatons, it is 150 times more powerful than the first test.

1971 - Cannikin Bomb Rocks Amchitka Island
"Cannikin" is the third and final nuclear test conducted under Amchitka Island. At five megatons—more than four times larger than Milrow—it is the largest underground nuclear blast in U.S. history.

1971 - Native Land Claims Settled
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act resolves more than a century of land disputes between Native tribes and the government. Several million acres of federal public land are subsequently transferred to tribal ownership. This law also paves the way for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, slicing 800 miles down the center of Alaska to transport North Slope oil to the Port of Valdez.

1972 - Protecting Marine Mammals
The Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizes regulations to protect marine mammal species, several of which inhabit the refuge, including Steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, walruses, and polar bears. Only Alaska Natives are permitted to carry on traditional subsistence hunting to gather meat for food and hides and ivory for handicrafts.

1973 - Geese Declared Endangered
The Endangered Species Act authorizes an unprecedented course of action to save species that are threatened or in danger of becoming extinct. The Aleutian cackling goose (then known as the Aleutian Canada goose) is one of the first species formally listed as Endangered.

1974 - Marking Geese to Discover Winter Home
Although endangered Aleutian cackling geese are known to nest on Buldir Island, no one is certain where they fly when they leave the island. Some think Japan. Biologists put bands on some of the nesting geese in hopes of discovering where they spend the winter.

1975 - Marked Geese Reveal Their Secret
The first banded Aleutian cackling geese are spotted – in northern California, offshore on a rocky island much like Buldir. Counts of the geese in the area in spring reveal 790 birds. From this baseline, the endangered species recovery team designs a long-term plan to rebuild the population and eventually remove the goose from the Endangered Species List.

1976 - We’re in the Biosphere
The Aleutian Islands are named an International Biosphere Reserve. These nature preserves form a world-wide network to promote the protection of biological and cultural diversity balanced with sustainable economic development.

1980 - The Refuge as We Know It
Signed into law by President Carter, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act represents the greatest designation of public lands for conservation uses in U.S. history, adding some 54 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System and several million more named as National Parks and Forests.

The law forms the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge by combining 11 existing refuges and adding other lands, making it the world’s largest seabird refuge. Totaling 4.9 million acres, the refuge spans a distance equal to that from California to the Carolinas. The law directs the refuge to conserve fish and wildlife, provide opportunities for traditional subsistence activities, fulfill international treaties, ensure water quality and quantity, and manage a national and international marine science research program.

1982-85 - Buying Bird Cliffs
The spectacular seabird cliffs on the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George are purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the local village corporations and added to the refuge. The red-legged kittiwake nests here and three other places in the world – Buldir and Bogoslof islands in this refuge and the Commander Islands of Russia.

1987 - Sailing for Science
The M/V Tiglax, a 121-foot (37 m) vessel commissioned by the Alaska Maritime Refuge, begins its first season of work in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Today its captain and crew navigate some 20,000 miles (32,000 km) every year to visit hundreds of islands in support of refuge biologists and other scientists working throughout the refuge.

1989 - Oil Spill Disaster
The Exxon Valdez oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound and pours 10.8 million gallons - or 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools - of oil into the ocean.

This spill is the largest crude spill to date in American waters and is widely considered the world’s worst in terms of environmental damage. The spill’s destruction is far reaching, affecting islands more than 150 miles (240 km) away. Oil is found on refuge beaches in the Pyle and Chiswell islands near Seward, as well as on the Barren Islands near Homer. Sea otters and murres are particularly hard hit.

Oil remains buried under some beaches today, even after four summers of cleanup work and more than 15 years of natural weathering. A more hopeful legacy of the spill is the formation of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which distributes settlement funds for research and monitoring on the refuge and other lands within the oil spill region.

1990s - Species in Trouble
The Steller sea lion is officially listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and later elevated to Endangered status as the population continues to plummet. Most of the world’s Steller sea lions breed on refuge islands. No one is certain why they have declined to only 20% of 1960 levels.

Other species in the North Pacific and Bering Sea regions are showing widespread changes as well, with increases in some and decreases in others. Steller’s eider and spectacled eider are added to the list of threatened and endangered species. Sea otter populations in the central Aleutian Islands fall to only 10% from what was counted in the 1960s. Northern fur seal numbers are only half of what they were earlier in the century. Scientists are attempting to understand the causes for these changes and develop strategies to halt the demise of troubled species.

1997 - Wildlife First and Foremost
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act strengthens earlier refuge laws and establishes that the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants is the mission of the system. It also gives priority to certain wildlife-dependent recreational uses on refuges – hunting and fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. Other uses may be allowed when they are compatible with the refuge’s purposes and the system’s mission.

2001 - Bringing Back the Goose
The Aleutian cackling goose becomes one of the few endangered species success stories! It is removed from the Endangered Species List after almost 40 years of effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other agency partners, and the public. Recovery strategies included moving goslings to former nesting islands after alien foxes are removed, raising flocks in captivity to provide more geese for other islands, and adding the winter homes of the geese to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

2003 - Bringing the Refuge to the People
Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center opens at refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska. More than 75,000 visitors have a chance to learn about the refuge in the center's first year of operation.

2003 - Celebrating a Century of Conservation
Officially designated as the "Year of the Wildlife Refuge," this year marks the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Happy 100th Birthday!

2004 - Shipwreck!
After losing power in a winter storm, the cargo ship Selendang Ayu grounded and broke up on the refuge side of Unalaska Island killing six crew members and spilling oil and soybeans and killing wildlife. The incident brought attention to the dangers of the Great Circle shipping route which takes Asian-West Coast traffic through the refuge in two places - Unimak Pass and near Buldir.

2005 - Even Refuges Need Friends
Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges was formed by a dozen refuge lovers in a meeting at the Kenai Refuge. Many of the founding members were former volunteers for the Alaska Maritime Refuge. One of their first projects was a weed pull and invasive plant education at Unalaska Island.

2008 - Ridding Rat Island of Rats
First rats taken off of an Alaskan Island. The refuge, along with partners The Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation, removed Norway rats from Rat Island in the central Aleutians. The rats were introduced via a shipwreck in the 1780s and had been altering the native habitat and killing birds ever since.

2008 - Hot Times on the Ring of Fire
No one suspected that long dormant Kasatochi Volcano, the site of a refuge annual sea bird monitoring camp, would blow with just a few days warning obliterating life on the island, burying the refuge cabin, the bird cliffs and the sea lion rookery and sending the biologists fleeing for their lives. Okmok Caldera and Mt. Cleveland also erupted during that "hot" summer. Kasatochi provided a perfect research opportunity to study how life returns to a remote island totally engulfed by a cataclysmic eruption.

2009 - The Refuge Turns 100!
President Theodore Roosevelt designated the first five units of the refuge - St. Lazaria, Chisik, Bogoslof, St. Matthew and the Pribilof islands of Walrus and Otter as "bird reserves" in 1909. These were among the first refuges in the newly created National Wildlife Refuge System.