The Refuge Information Technician (RIT) program is recognized as one of the most successful public relations programs within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Since the 1980s, RITs have carried the message of wildlife conservation to 100 villages or one third of all of Alaska’s communities. They employ the use of their traditional skills as well as skills learned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring the two worlds together for one cause, the conservation of wildlife for future generations.
Through RITs’ ties to the rural Alaska and native culture they also became teachers to the USFWS staff and managers who were new to Alaska. RITs like Christopher Tulik, became a conduit for information, concerns, and questions that rural residents had for USFWS management policies. The RIT program has broken down many barriers on the road to building relationships between rural Alaskans and the USFWS.
Adapted from episode 15 of My Life, Wildlife:
Tell us about your position as a Refuge Information Technician.
I’m a Lead Refuge Information Technician (RIT) for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge here in Bethel. My primary job is about information and education about the wildlife. We reached out to the villages within our refuge and we talk, or we share information, and we also listen to the concerns. So many of the issues that we deal with here in a refuge are all about subsistence lifestyle, like the Fish and Wildlife people still depend on. Nowadays, people are affected by many regulations and the declining populations and declining migratory birds and all that. So what we do is we meet with people in the villages and talk to the people or the leaders in the villages that we have conservation concerns about certain species, and we must take certain steps to preserve or to protect certain wildlife species.
Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Nightmute. I was born here in Bethel, but I grew up on Nelson Island. Nightmute is one of the three villages on Nelson Island, along the western coast of the Yukon Delta Refuge. Now, Nelson Island looks like it is a part of the mainland. But if you look closely on the map, you will see it is cut off by two rivers flowing out of the large body of water called Baird Inlet along the coast of the Bering Sea. Growing up there, I was raised in a subsistence lifestyle in a traditional way. That’s how I grew up, but I did not grow up in Nightmute my entire life. So we had to travel to our first camp called Umkumiut, which is also our Nelson Island, out along the Bering Sea coast. So I’ve been spending about three months out of the year at our Fish Camp. Then about nine months out of the year, in Nightmute.
What is the meaning of a subsistence lifestyle?
In the 1960s, when the oil was discovered in North Slope, there was a lot of concerns about the land ownership. The people back then never said anything about ownership of the land, because the saying was “the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land.” How the people lived back then was planned primarily subsistence lifestyle. Living off the land and sea, hunting and gathering wildlife that sustain and nurtured us. In 1971, a law was passed called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Now the land was set aside for the people in the villages, which also created corporations. Here in Alaska, we call them village corporations. Since that time, 1971, life has changed dramatically from primarily living off of the land; although, we still do today, we still practice living off of the land and in the sea, but not as much as it was back about 100 years ago. Nowadays, a lot of our people, the villages, all of the villages within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YK Delta) have stores. They’re run and owned by the village corporations. So the diet of the people have somewhat changed over time from you primarily from natural food from the land and sea, to now what we have the stores stocked up with Western goods and all of that, and so that’s all mixed in today.
How did you get interested in working with wildlife?
How I got interested in working with wildlife actually began when I was very young. Becoming aware of the world around me, filled with all species of seasonal birds in the sky from fall to summer. Sea ducks and seals during early spring. Herring, capelin, and at the bottom fishing spring and summer blackfish, pike, freshwater cisco, and burbot beginning from fall, and throughout the winter. Muskrat, tomcod, bering cisco, and flounders during the fall season. Otters, foxes, tundra hairs throughout the winter.
"Watching my father, and my older brothers, bringing back their catch, processed and handled properly taught me how to respect nature."
Aside from the wise words I heard from my elders, to respect all wildlife for the next generation. So, in other words, I was taught to become a careful steward of our fish and wildlife resources. What I do now working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to make sure the next generation understands our resources that sustain our people for millennia.
How did you get started working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
The path I took during the early years of my life was like a rudderless boat adrift and blown aimlessly by the direction of the wind, with no goal in sight. I had thought about and dream of many possible opportunities I could pursue and settle with. I’ve held jobs here and there, but none has proven worthwhile to become my career. One day in the early 1980s, I came across a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advertisement, a local hire, Refuge Information Technician advertisement. Back in the early days of my life, I had told myself that I will never work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, remembering and knowing the harm and pain that was inflicted upon the Alaska Native people caused by short sighted past harvest regulations. This local hire advertisement caught my attention when I read through the qualifications: knowledge or expertise in cultural or natural resources in public lands, knowledge of traditional gathering and use of fish and wildlife resources by residents living in public lands, knowledge of Yup’ik culture, traditions and lifestyle, knowledge and understanding of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and all watershed areas within the Yukon Delta national Wildlife Refuge. Now all of these brought to light that I am qualified for this position. So, I applied for the position and eventually, I was accepted and hired. So I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for about a year and I moved on, but I came back in 2014 and I have been with a service since then and I plan to retire when my time is up.
Can you give an example of types of management efforts you’ve been a part of?
You know, back in the late 1970s, the biologists were beginning to notice that the populations of the four arctic nesting geese, white-fronted geese, cracklers, black brant, and emperor goose, were beginning to decline. That became a concern, a conservation concern. Back in those days, there weren’t any local people working directly with the people in the villages who primarily depend on these migratory birds. Then came along one person, a native person was hired, employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with the people in the villages. That was one of the first things that he had to do to get the people or the villages involved in deciding how these might migratory birds can be protected. That did not come easy. There was a lot of criticism around that. Then, in 1984, we came along when the fourth species of the migratory bird populations was dangerously low. That’s when we were hired as the Refuge Information Technicians, to travel out to the villages and talk to the people in the villages about what is happening with the resources that we depend on so much. It was an accomplishment to see that the migratory birds population can begin to bounce back to a level where we can start hunting again. That is an accomplishment that was made because of our efforts to bring the people into the management and decision-making process of regulating our resources. Now we have our own native people making decisions and advising how these managements should be done. I have seen some of our resources depleted, some of the species are nearly gone. Like the spectacled eider out along the coast that used to nest in great numbers out where I come from near Nelson Island. We can only see a few of them now. Some of the species that we keep dependent on, especially our ancestors depended on for living, we just don’t see those species, like the Steller’s eiders. It’s not easy to be telling people that they shouldn’t hunt or fish for certain species that they’ve dependent on for generations, and telling them to harvest other resources. It’s not easy, but it’s something that we have to do if we are so concerned about the conservation of our resources for the next generation.
“That is the key. The Next Generation must have the same opportunity that we have today. So they can fish or hunt those certain species of resources like we did. What I enjoy the most in what I do is talking and meeting with the people. Talking with laughter and interacting with the people at the villages is not only enjoying, but it is also rewarding in many ways in gaining friendship and trust.”
Compiled by Kristopher Pacheco, Digital Media Assistant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska. Adapted Alaska USFWS Refuge RIT History and from episode 15 of My Life, Wildlife Podcast!
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.