Refuge Notebook: Blessed to live the Alaska dream

Ed Bangs in 1984 with the first female brown bear radio-collared on the Kenai. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Ed Bangs in 1984 with the first female brown bear radio-collared on the Kenai. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Note: In celebration of the Refuge’s 80th year, the Refuge Notebook articles will periodically feature stories from past members of the refuge team reflecting back as we look to the future. This article is the first installment.

My childhood dream was to live in Alaska. My mom’s only sibling, Bob, wisely chose the judge’s offer of the U.S. Air Force over jail. He was stationed in Anchorage right after World War II and did three extended tours in Alaska.

I grew up hearing his stories of Alaska and reading Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” and other Alaska stories. So many fish that no paint was left on lures, and when the Nelchina caribou were crossing the highway, folks filled their trucks with them — abundance without limit.

In 1965, my dad, mom, little sister, and I drove 3,500 miles from California to Alaska to visit my Uncle Bob. We had a small camper and carried extra gas.

In Mount McKinley National Park (now Denali), we were one of two trucks camped at Wonder Lake. I was fishing by myself when wolves howled. In the camper, I went, but I still remember that rush.

We drove the gravel road down to the Kenai to fish. Soldotna then was little more than a fork in the road.

Coming back in the summer of 1966, I lived with my uncle in Anchorage. We fished for salmon on the Kenai and hunted moose near Skilak Lake and Hope. My uncle, steeped in the anti-predator fervor of his era, stopped along Turnagain Arm to shoot at a swimming seal. I was in awe of everything Alaska.

My only interest was the outdoors. I wouldn’t have graduated high school if not for gym class and metal shop. I thought I’d be a welder, but my dad insisted on college.

So, I went to community college taking basic-level English, math and biology. One course was ecology, where we studied plants and animals from the beach to the desert. I had no idea that there were jobs in nature and my path was set.

I then went to Utah State for a degree in game management. I paid for college by working on a cattle ranch and in the Utah oil fields. After graduation, I sent out 100 biologist applications.

My first offer in 1975 was from the Kenai National Moose Range. They wanted a biological technician to assist with campground maintenance and biological studies. I was ecstatic.

After six days of driving from the Lower 48, I drove past a couple of buildings and thought, “I’m almost to Kenai.” After two minutes, I was in the forest again and realized I had driven past town.

The Moose Range Headquarters was in Kenai in a Quonset hut. I lived in the “bunkhouse” (an old toolshed) with six others. It turns out there wasn’t a wildlife program. I was hired because I had operated a big hydraulic truck to feed cattle, and for the first time, the Moose Range had bought a hydraulic garbage truck to respond to increased visitation and garbage.

I operated the garbage truck and did campground maintenance all summer. But I spent all my free time outdoors.

I almost didn’t return the following summer, but the Moose Range hired a wildlife biologist and started doing wildlife studies.

While my job was the same as the first summer, to maintain the campground and operate the garbage truck, I volunteered to help with wildlife fieldwork during my days off. I helped when the first wolf was radio-collared. I ended up working part-time for five years and conducted my master’s research on Kenai small mammals.

The Moose Range became the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in 1980. I eventually became the Refuge Biologist, assisting Dr. Ted Bailey with the study, capture, management and monitoring of almost every species of wildlife.

We studied wolves (extirpated on the Kenai by 1915, returned on their own in the mid-1960s), brown and black bears, coyotes, lynx, moose and caribou. The latter was also extirpated by the early 1900s and reintroduced in 1965 and 1966 and again in 1984 and 1985.

The list of projects would include sheep and goats, marten, wolverine, hares, small mammals, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, passerine and sea birds.

It was the perfect field job for me at that time, and I had the adventures of a lifetime. Topping it off, my dad was a Shell Oil drilling superintendent in Cook Inlet, and we got to visit often as he passed through town. I hunted and fished throughout Alaska. My childhood fantasy was fulfilled.

But all things come to an end, and with two kids, Nanette and I made the difficult decision to be closer to grandparents and open to new experiences. So, in 1988, after 13 years on the Kenai, I moved to Helena, Montana.

I have visited Alaska many times since leaving. The changes to the Kenai since I first was there in 1965 are astounding, especially outside the refuge. Then, roughly 9,000 people lived on the Kenai; today, close to 60,000 people call the Kenai Peninsula home.

It is difficult to imagine the change in just 50 years. Nor is it easy to think about the future and plan for what challenges may occur.

Change is the only constant, but most of us dread it, finding comfort in what we know. It is easy to be like a slug and simply react to salt because planning and taking action for a desired future is complicated and risky.

I continue to strongly believe it is better to figure things out rather than rely on best guesses to conserve what we hold important.

Science, while certainly not perfect, is self-correcting. It will eventually result in a better chance for a positive outcome and is more reliable for decisions than the shifting sands of opinion. I was lucky to experience Alaska at the stage of life I did. I experienced a place just being discovered and learned the value of science.

Unfortunately, many of my mentors have passed on. But I am amazed at how small and connected our world is. Kris Inman, who started her career working for me as a seasonal biologist in Montana, is the new Supervisory Wildlife Biologist on the refuge, where my career began.

It gives me comfort that National Wildlife Refuges are meant to preserve wildness, wildlife and wildlands for future generations. Refuges embody much of what attracted me to Alaska as a young man. It comforts me they will still be there for generations yet unborn to dream about, experience and enjoy.

Ed Bangs was a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1975 until retiring in 2011. After leaving Alaska in 1988, he became the USFWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Northern Rocky Mountains. He led Federal, State, and Tribal interagency efforts to reintroduce and manage wolves in the northwestern United States. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html and stay connected https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

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