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Pelican lands on nest at Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Greg Thompson, USFWS.

Litzenberger named refuge manager of the year

Ken Litzenberger has a pet name for the part of his job he likes least as a national wildlife refuge manager: the one-eyed monster. It’s the computer, slowly eating his time as he inputs data, completes reports and documents administrative tasks.

The really good days, he said, are the ones spent on a refuge, where he can “smell the roses.”

“Banding ducks, doing wildlife surveys, waterfowl surveys, banding pelicans… Doing some of the first prescribed burns and tree plantings,” he said. “These are the things that you remember, along with the great people you work with.”

But because Litzenberger oversees eight refuges in southeast Louisiana and 23 employees, his main job is to “make sure everybody else is doing their job, and working on our highest priorities. It just comes with the territory.”

However he defines the job – chained to a one-eyed monster, smelling roses or leading a team – Litzenberger produces results. Tonight, he will receive the Paul Kroegel Refuge Manager of the Year Award from the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s one of the highest honors bestowed on a national wildlife refuge manager. It is given in honor of Kroegel, the first manager of the first refuge established in 1903 at Pelican Island, Florida. Today, there are 553 refuges from Alaska to the Caribbean and Maine to the central Pacific.

Litzenberger credits the award to his “tremendous staff that works hard and makes me look good.”

During last year’s BP oil spill, Litzenberger added national spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to his resume. With one of his refuges on the frontline, Breton National Wildlife Refuge in the Chandeleur chain of barrier islands, thousands of journalists wanted to get on the island and talk to wildlife biologists.

Litzenberger and his staff worked nearly non-stop for six months after the well exploded, often wrangling for more boom and faster clean-up at Breton and at Delta Refuge at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The efforts paid off: In spite of the oil spill, 2010 was the best nesting year on Breton since Hurricane Katrina when 70 percent of the refuge washed away in a few days time. More than 4,000 brown pelicans and 50,000 terns successfully fledged.

In its award announcement, N WRA and NFWF said “Ken decisively deployed limited staff and critical resources at the most strategic places and times to accomplish mission critical work. Due to his early action, refuge lands were spared much of the impacts suffered by other areas.”

Litzenberger had some experience in a crisis. He arrived at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex in 2005, just before Katrina. He and his staff were still receiving kudos for putting the pieces back together, from replanting marshes to rebuilding boardwalks, when the oil spill struck.

Ricky Ingram, Litzenberger’s boss and the Area I Refuge Supervisor for the Service’s Southeast Region, said Litzenberger “is one of the most dedicated and hard working refuge managers within the nation. He has one speed, wide open, beginning each day around 5 a.m. before his staff arrives and often working well into the evening or night. Ken has done this for over 30 years because of his passion and love for conservation and management of refuge lands.”

Litzenberger said “a lot of work and a little luck” brought him to the Service 32 years ago. He’d grown up fishing and playing in the surf from the Jersey Shore to the Gulf of Mexico, where he spent his teen years in Panama City, Florida.

He knew he wanted a job outdoors. First, though, Vietnam intervened. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving from 1968 to 1972. His first civilian move was to get a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from University of Southwestern Louisiana.

While still in school, he applied for a job with the Service, unsuccessfully. He went back to school, and earned a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Tennessee Tech.

Shortly before graduation, he finally got the job he was after. He finished his degree on a Friday, moved from east Tennessee to west Tennessee, and started that Monday as a refuge management trainee at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. Through his career, he’s worked on 18 refuges, all in the Southeast.

“I was pretty lucky,” Litzenberger said. “I thought if I could just get a job with the Service and make $15,000 a year, I’d be happy.”

For more information about the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, please visit and


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