Into Alaska’s Heart And Soul: The Faces Of Kenai, Kodiak NWR

Featuring a diverse wildlife ecosystem, two of Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges, Kenai and Kodiak, are featured this winter on Animal Planet’s series Into Alaska.(USFWS/LISA HUPP; BERKLEY BEDELL)

 

The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal

BY CHRIS COCOLES

Bill Leacock and Dustin Rose quietly maneuver their skiff along what could easily pass as a Norwegian fjord.

Their boat slows to a crawl; they whisper instructions to each other as they scan the elderberry- and salmonberry-lined shoreline in search of a Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge local known affectionately as Broken Ear.

As Leacock tells it, the 23-year-old sow bear “would swim from this north island to Camp Island then across the channel on to the shore of the lake. Her cubs would stay on the north island. Broken Ear would then walk over to Thumb Creek and fish all day long. In the early evening she’d return. Her cubs would come to the shore of the north island and watch Mom swim from Camp Island to the north island in anticipation. There would be an affectionate greeting and then the cubs would start nursing.”

In the moment, this place – one of North America’s if not the planet’s most rugged, remote, dangerous yet hauntingly beautiful – is Broken Ear’s home, Leacock’s office, Rose’s classroom and our public-land backyard, albeit a backyard that most Americans will never get to experience in person. 

That is illustrated wonderfully on Animal Planet’s series Into Alaska, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of Alaska’s Kodiak and Kenai National Wildlife Refuges, two of the shining stars among the state’s 16 federal refuges covering roughly 77 million acres of protected land.

“National wildlife refuges in Alaska are representative of some of what makes Alaska so special, from my standpoint, which is its wild nature, its amazing fish and wildlife resources and the connection that people have with those resources. The scope of Alaska is hard to get your head around to begin with,” says Andy Loranger, manager at Kenai NWR. 

“There are refuges literally throughout this state – from the high Arctic tundra on the North Slope through the boreal forest and encompassing several mountain ranges, coastal marine areas and islands. Every ecosystem and every biome in the state is represented within Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.”

Mike Brady, Loranger’s managerial counterpart at Kodiak NWR, has worked on refuges in Maryland, California, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts in addition to his time in the Last Frontier. So he’s experienced wildlife conservation in all corners of America. 

“It just goes to show the dedication of the folks. I’ve moved around a lot for the service and every refuge has its own issues. But it’s really the staff that stands behind those issues working on them every day,” Brady says. “They’re super dedicated, hard-working folks and really like conservation. Whatever it is and wherever it is, they’re very dedicated individuals.”

Into Alaska showcases them, both the lifers like Bill Leacock and the Dustin Rose-types who someday might be following in their footsteps.

“National wildlife refuges in Alaska are representative of some of what makes Alaska so special, and from my standpoint, which is its wild nature, wildlife and the amazing fish and wildlife resources,” says Kenai NWR manager Andy Loranger. (BERKLEY BEDELL/USFWS)

SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA 

First things first: NWR biologists and officers don’t have the easiest of jobs. Their workdays are spent in far-flung locations away from computer screens and desk chairs, and then tedious hours are spent entering data they’ve collected. 

Often they survey salmon streams miles from any paved roads or keep tabs on anglers or hunters to make sure said sportsmen and -women are legally harvesting fish and game.

They’re working with wildlife species that have zero interest in getting national television exposure. So how much more complicated was it to agree to let a cameraperson and a producer tag along, let alone for refuge staffers to have their everyday grunt work filmed?

“It was a big unknown for us, to be frank with you, and we were hesitant for sure. But we felt that introducing the American public to national wildlife refuges in Alaska, our staff and the mission and work of the Fish and Wildlife Service was going to be worth it. That said, we were pretty naïve about what a television production would require,” says Loranger, who appeared on the show during its first month of episodes in November. 

“I think for most of us being on camera was definitely a unique experience; we’re generally not trained to do that. Some of us are a little bit more camera-shy than others. I’m an introvert. But all in all it was a positive experience for our staff, working with the TV crew on a daily basis as well as doing the interviews.”

For Leacock, the Kodiak bear biologist, he felt much more comfortable in the field than when asked to amplify his thoughts back at headquarters. And he requested an intimate crew when it came to following the biologist around during bear work, keeping the entourage to just a camera operator and a producer. 

It’s not an unreasonable request, given that it’s hard enough to get close to a Kodiak brown bear, a bald eagle – in another episode Kenai warden Chris Johnson captures an injured raptor in order to get the bird to a vet for treatment – or most other animals without added distractions. 

“When they first proposed this project, we emphasized to them that we want to keep the crew as small as possible; two max. And they understood that. Bears aren’t really comfortable with bigger groups,” says Leacock, confessing that indeed the more people the safer the group is from potential bear attacks. 

Still, smaller was better in this project. Leacock was instrumental as coach for Bear Etiquette 101, starting with proper body language around Kodiak’s giant
furry superstars.

“We definitely wanted to keep the sizes of groups as small as possible. There was a difference between four people and two people,” he says. “For people who don’t know how to minimize their disturbance toward bears, it’s a challenge.”

But it’s one that by all accounts both the refuge and Animal Planet crews pulled off efficiently. 

“Bill does have this special talent and has a very calming presence. I’ve been lucky enough to go up salmon streams with Bill before and he truly is a bear whisperer. A person like myself would never just walk quietly up a bear stream yelling, ‘Hey bear! Hey bear!’” Brady says. 

“But you’d probably never go to some of the areas that Bill goes to because of the concentration of bears. But Bill is very calm and I’ve gone up to (the O’Malley River bear viewing area) with him before, and it’s just an amazing experience. He has a lot of respect for the bears and he knows what he can and cannot do. It’s not something that you can do on your own.”

Salmon like these sockeye at Kenai are such a critical part of the ecosystem and habitat of these refuges. “All these salmon coming bring in all the nutrients from the marine ecosystem,” bear biologist Bill Leacock says. “And they spawn and then they die and fertilize everything.” (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

WORKING FOR CONSERVATION 

For Kenai NWR’s refuge manager Loranger, his current love started at an early age. 

“I was always interested in science. My favorite subjects were the biological sciences. My long-term interest in conservation and the outdoors may go back to some of my fondest memories of youth in New England when Dad would take us fishing” Loranger says. “We’d round up a group of kids from the neighborhood, grab our fishing poles and head out for the afternoon or evening. We’d fish bass, sunfish and catfish until dark, or later if Dad didn’t need to get back.”

It wasn’t until late in his undergrad college journey that he had his first real experience plying the trade he’s made a distinguished run out of. He pursued and was ultimately offered an internship with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  

There, he accompanied biologists checking wood duck boxes to measure nesting success, rocket-netted and banded waterfowl on the north shore of Boston and conducted studies on river otters’ food habits. It was a life-changing experience for Loranger, who was named the USFWS Refuge System manager of the year for 2018. That volunteer work was “the light bulb going off.”

“I immediately knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.  The biologists at MDFW all advised me to go onto graduate school, and I did that. I was then able to hire on seasonally with the Fish and Wildlife Service in western Minnesota for two summers” Loranger says. “Like many people, I had a lifetime interest in seeing Alaska, so my wife and I just decided to move up before knowing for sure we had jobs. Thankfully, I was able to continue my career here with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Loranger often makes the approximate three-hour drive between the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage. But he still makes it a point to stop along the route to take in the scenery, not unlike the tourists who flock to Kenai, which unlike most other Alaska refuges is located on the road system and offers salmon anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers easy access to its wild front- and backcountry. 

Loranger, who along with his wife arrived in Alaska years ago before they had children, can still remember his first silver salmon he pulled from the Little Susitna River. Now when he plays instead of works he can enjoy the same lands he helps protect. 

“We love these places for the opportunities they provide us. But I think what’s really important to remember is that what we have in Alaska is very unique, not only in the U.S. but globally,” he says. “Keeping these places wild to ensure that people have these opportunities in the future, so that they can be as awestruck as I am every time I’m on the Kenai River or make that stop on the drive – that’s important to me and important to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

And when you’re talking 77 million acres of federal refuge land, call it Alaska’s controlled chaos of salmon, moose, caribou, fox, lynx, Dall sheep, mountain goats, wolves and black and brown bears, among so many others. Kenai features just about all you would envision when dreaming of this state.  

“The Kenai Refuge and the Kenai Peninsula have been nicknamed Alaska in miniature because many of the state’s habitats are found here,” Loranger says. 

“We don’t have polar bears or musk oxen, but the diversity of habitats on the Kenai from the Harding Icefield, glaciers, the Kenai Mountains and alpine tundra at higher elevations to the boreal forest, riverine systems, including the world-famous Kenai River, and coastal estuaries at lower elevations supports many of Alaska’s most iconic fish and wildlife species.”

As for Brady, his nomadic rungs on the job ladder included working with condors at Southern California’s Hopper Mountain NWR, to the opposite coast studying Canada geese and other waterfowl at Maryland’s Blackwater NWR.

Now in his second tour of Alaska – he was formerly assigned to Alaska Peninsula and Becharof NWRs – Brady sees the value of learning while working with interns featured on Into Alaska. That includes Rose and Laura Bashor, who in an episode joined Kenai biologist Ken Gates and fish technician Chelsea Pardo at the Funny River salmon weir to sample data from spawning Chinook. 

“You’re preparing them for the next level, so to make them a good biologist they need to see what you do and they learn from what you do. And hope for the best when they work down the road. We all come from that intern/volunteer level and work our way up through the ranks,” Brady says. “We know what it takes, so you try to give them every available nut and bolt so they can cobble something together. Even if it’s not with the Fish and Wildlife Service, we hope they bring that conservation (approach) forward, whether it’s for a state agency, a nonprofit or whatever.”

Biologist Bill Leacock has studied bears for the last 22 years, including his time at Kodiak. “Every time I’m out there I learn something new about bears,” he says. “I wish I could climb into their head but I can’t. It gives you little glimpses of about what’s going on of what they may be thinking, how they behave and how they interact with each other.” (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

THE ‘BEAR WHISPERER’ 

In fourth grade, Bill Leacock was given a project assignment and chose brown bears as the topic. Today he has an ursine obsession. 

Years later in the early to mid-1990s, Leacock was working for the Swedish International Development Agency Lao-Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme. He had accrued a couple months of annual leave and ended up volunteering to help out George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was trying to carry out wildlife surveys in the Annamite Mountains of Laos near the Vietnamese border. 

“(Schaller) expressed a need for some help from someone that was a fluent speaker of Lao and was bush-savvy in a Lao sense,” says Leacock.

Schaller, a University of Alaska alum and revered biologist who was one of the first mammalogists to work with mountain gorillas, had a life-changing discussion with Leacock.  

“I was helping him out with some surveys up at the Laotian/Vietnamese border and was picking his brain about potential projects,” he says. 

“Oddly enough he said they were looking for two: One was the Bactrian camel in Mongolia and another one was someone to do the first brown bear project in Kamchatka, Russia, back in 1995. And I said, ‘Camels sound pretty cool but brown bears in Kamchatka sound great.’ So that’s where I really got immersed in the study of brown bears and that started in (the Kamchatka Peninsula).”

In that far eastern region of Russia – some of its protected areas might hold Earth’s most dense concentration of brown bears – Leacock was given a welcome-to-bear-research shock therapy. During a pilot trip with Schaller in August 1995, the duo was on the Vechinkya River, which flows into Kurliskoye Lake in the Kamchatka Sanctuary. 

“I’d never seen anything so spectacular in my life: salmon stacked on top of each other going up creeks that were 12 inches deep. I was just kind of thrown out there to sink or swim,” he recalls. “There were 18 bears around me and I didn’t know what the hell to do. But the odd thing was they would just look at me and let me go on my way down the stream and they would just go about their business.”

Leacock’s 22-year run studying bears took him from Russia to Alaska’s Yukon Delta NWR and now bruin-friendly Kodiak, a refuge that has pristine salmon spawning habitat and sustains 3,500 bears.

Working with Rose, a University of Idaho student, only reassured Leacock that his tireless research and admiration for these giant predators and rock stars of Alaska’s animal kingdom is his muse and likely in good hands years from now. 

Rose, who did two tours in Iraq in the military, always aspired to pursue a career in fish and wildlife enforcement but now ponders more of a research gig. He couldn’t ask for a more seasoned teacher in figuring out these fascinating and often misunderstood giant predators.

“It’s a very challenging place for a person like Bill to get around and do the work that he’s doing for everyone. Bear conservation is very important. It’s been a great history here at Kodiak,” Brady says. “We want to make sure that bear is there for the next generation and the habitat is there for the next generation. We have this giant intact ecosystem, which many other managers in the Lower 48 don’t have. We’re really lucky here in Alaska to be able to work on such a large animal on such a large canvas.”

Watching Leacock and Rose in action on Animal Planet was a reflection of one generation of conservationists mentoring the next, regardless of where the youngster’s career path takes him. Take a closer look at their bearded faces and you might confuse Bill and Dustin as father and son. 

“Even before he came up here Dustin had an intense and strong interest in wildlife in trying to figure things out and why things are the way they are. So that was really nice, but he was really new to bears,” Leacock says. “(But) he’s one of the most observant that we’ve had. He’s watching things and trying to figure things out. He was very comfortable, even though he was new in bear country.”

What also impressed Leacock about his protégé was Rose’s individuality. Yes, the rookie listened to what the veteran recommended, but Rose was also confident enough to offer his own viewpoint “and maybe challenge me sometimes,” Leacock says, a good sign that he’s well on his way to making his own mark whatever and wherever it might take him.

Bashor admits she’d never really handled a fish before meeting up with Gates and Pardo, but here was the college kid jumping into a weir with flopping Chinook and caddying Pardo as they scooped up one particularly energetic female. One of Into Alaska’s gifts is hopefully passing a proverbial torch to the next wave of wildlife working men and women. 

“What’s a better place than Alaska’s national wildlife refuges to introduce young people to the work that we do and perhaps spark an interest in conservation?” Loranger asks.   

“These internships are great learning and grounding experiences, and it’s rewarding for us to see a young person decide ‘This is important to me and this is what I’d like to do for the rest of my career.’” 

Broken ear – note the right side of her head – is one of many Kodiak bears that biologist Bill Leacock has gotten to know over the years. (TIP (MOON) LEACOCK)

FINDING BROKEN EAR

Leacock and Rose spot bald eagles perched among cottonwoods, streams filled with spawning sockeye and a young bear frolicking along the water’s edge. But no Broken Ear. The sow got the name because “her right ear was evidently torn in a fight with another bear at least 13 years ago, at least since I’ve known her,” Leacock says. “Her right ear is barely hanging onto her head by a thin piece of skin about half an inch wide.” 

Leacock has been around these bruins for so long he knows several of them by name, and he’s been an acquaintance of Broken Ear since first spotting the sow in 2006. 

On this day, it doesn’t appear that he’ll reunite with the old gal on this outing as he and Rose cruise back toward Camp Island after their surveying is complete. 

But then it happens. “I see her right there,” the intern says as he peers over from the port side of the skiff into the brush. Sure enough, Leacock recognizes the animal right away.   

“Yep. There she is,” Leacock proclaims as Broken Ear emerges from the bush. “She stood up and as if to say hello.”

A few yards away down the shoreline they spot Mom’s two cubs engaged in some wrestling; in other words the usual sibling horse-, er, bearplay. 

They both take a few minutes to breathe in the moment. They’re working, of course, but you get the sense on camera that they’re as in awe of what’s around them and don’t take for granted what these refuges represent. 

“Been learning a lot of about how bears behave and how to behave around them,” Rose says back at their primitive Camp Island cabin. “I’ve grown a lot fonder of bears.” 

And even Leacock and Rose can take the time to simply be wildlife watchers and admirers. In an early episode, they spy a cub – one of Broken Ears’ brood – and a fox chasing other like a golden retriever and beagle at the neighborhood dog park. Leacock leans up against the porch railing. Rose breaks out a smartphone to record a play-by-play memory. It’s the quintessential national wildlife refuge moment.

“My hope or our hope is that through this program, we’re going to be able to raise a little bit of awareness with the public about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuges at Kenai and Kodiak and what they’re all about,” Leacock says. “(Showcase) the kind of work we do and build a little bit of support for the effort we make for the landscapes and the waters that we’re trying to conserve.” ASJ

Editor’s note: New episodes of Into Alaska (animalplanet.com/tv-shows/into-alaska) air on Monday nights on Animal Planet (check your local listings), with a new episode set to air tonight. Check out the official websites for more on Kenai (fws.gov/refuge/kenai) and Kodiak (fws.gov/refuge/kodiak) National Wildlife Refuges.

Bald eagles, large mammals, salmon; these iconic figures in Alaska are all huge parts of what the state’s national wildlife refuges are about and featured on Into Alaska. (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

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