USFWS Losing A Difference Maker In Conservation

Mike Spindler through the years. From top right, a close-up a few years ago; at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge with colleagues in 2012; at the radio studio in the late 1990s; on Agattu Island in 1976. Photos by USFWS

The following is courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s publication, Open Spaces:

With the retirement of Mike Spindler next month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is losing a consummate professional, an inspiring mentor and an extraordinary storyteller.

From his early days on the marine research vessel Aleutian Tern to his most recent work as Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge manager and co-chair of the Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Mike has profoundly shaped conservation in Alaska – a legacy that will continue far into the future.

When the Aleutian Tern was delayed, sometimes for weeks, the small crew on remote Agattu Island – now part of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge – survived by eating from the seashore. With no radio communications and difficult logistics, the crew still successfully worked to make the island nearly fox free, enabling the recovery of several bird species not long afterward. Mike was on that crew in 1976– it was his first Service job.

He went on to become the first wildlife biologist at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There he helped shape techniques for shorebird, sheep and moose surveys.  He also spent more than 400 hours with pilot and mentor Don Ross. When fog made it impossible to land where they wanted to and fuel was low, Ross found a clearing and landed in the hills, where they simply made camp for the night. This taught Mike that stopping is OK when it’s too risky to continue, and to be prepared for anything.  Mike didn’t know then that he would become a skilled instructor-pilot and mentor in his own right for more than two decades – but one senses that Ross probably did know.

In 1984, Mike flew Selawik National Wildlife Refuge’s first plane, making connections between inland waterfowl nesting areas and coastal estuaries; then he moved to Koyukuk and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges, where he discovered a significant decline in white-fronted geese.  Mike worked hard to reverse the decline, but he didn’t know those efforts were truly successful until years later – when former chief of the village of Allakaket, P.J. Simon, pointed to Mike and said, “You, you brought back the geese – thank you.”

Those efforts led to a radio show. The show, Raven’s Story, co-created by Mike, encouraged elders to tell what they know – to benefit present and future generations. The late Catherine Attla, from the village of Huslia, once told Mike on the show, “I used to feel different. I used to hide with my belief because I was ashamed … but so many people tell me, ‘Your knowledge is as good as or better than what we know.’ ” She went on to become a respected author of traditional Koyukon Athabaskan stories.

Mentors like Mike help us learn the lessons worth knowing, and they inspire us to act on those lessons. I have worked with Mike at Kanuti Refuge for over a decade. His greatest lesson and greatest conservation accomplishment might be these three words: “Share our story.”

Mike taught me that stories, once shared, are infinitely and profoundly powerful. They can, and do, change minds, hearts, circumstances and the future.

-KRISTIN REAKOFF, Interpretive Park Ranger, Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge