Memories of close encounters with wildlife are often among our most prized stories. Nature series and films like Planet Earth are enormously popular because of people’s desire to see the fascinating behavior of wildlife in its natural habitat. The ability to actually view some of these moments in person gives a thrill like no other and strengthens our connection to these creatures. One of the most common reasons people visit wild places like Alaska is to increase the chance of these encounters.
Whenever people come to visit me here, it’s a high priority of mine to make sure they see wildlife one would not ordinarily find wandering through their own backyard. On my parents’ recent visit to Alaska, my mother made it clear that her trip would not be complete without seeing puffins and whales. Fortunately, the Kenai Fjords National Park delivered several opportunities to see both of these creatures. But a far rarer sighting came our way the next day in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
We were driving through the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area (SWRA). As we ambled down the bumpy Skilak Loop Road, my father suddenly slowed the car to a crawl, saying he thought he saw something crossing the road just in front of us. Brown bear sightings are fairly frequent in this area; in fact, we had just seen a mother bear and cubs about 10 miles earlier, so I assumed we had come upon another one. My father brought the car to a stop where he thought he saw the creature crossing and we looked to the right to see an adult lynx sitting in the brush along the side of the road not ten feet away!
As a fairly avid outdoor sport enthusiast I had seen a great deal of the wildlife Alaska has to offer: moose, Dall sheep, brown and black bears, and even wolverines, but this was my first sighting of this very elusive creature. Lynx are fearful of people and very stealthy so even if they see you, it is not often that they will allow you to see them. This lynx, however, sat calmly in the brush and allowed us to watch it for several minutes.
The SWRA was designated in the refuge’s first Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) in 1985 with the goal to “increase opportunities for viewing wildlife.” CCPs are documents that provide the framework for management decisions on a refuge for a 10-15 year period. Each time the plan is drafted and updated it goes through a thorough public review process. The National Wildlife Refuge Association explains that CCPs “give citizens the opportunity to have a say in the future management of individual national wildlife refuges and to ensure that wildlife conservation and compatible recreation remain priorities. Refuge managers at times must make tough decisions to protect wildlife, such as eliminating jet-skiing, harmful agricultural activities or other actions; the CCP process allows all stakeholders to be heard and for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) employees to discuss the consequences of various management decisions.”
As with any refuge, there are a variety of opportunities for recreation, and the management of the refuge strives to ensure that visitors can enjoy these interests while maintaining the ecological integrity of the habitat as a whole. An area like the SWRA allows wildlife to wander without the threat of hunting and provides visitors with a peaceful place to recreate. The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area constitutes only 2% of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and is the only part of the refuge with such restricted hunting opportunities.
But in March of 2013, the Alaska State Board of Game (BOG) adopted a proposal to allow firearm hunting and trapping of lynx, coyotes and wolves in the SWRA. This measure is entirely inconsistent with the refuge’s management plan to protect this area for wildlife viewing and recreation. The SWRA contains some of the best access into the refuge through the Skilak Loop Road and the trail system and campsites that spur off it, and allowing hunters to have access could have a significant impact on the wildlife that travel through this area. It would also disrupt people’s use of the SWRA for peaceful hiking and skiing, and could greatly diminish opportunities to see wildlife.
This summer the refuge held hearings concerning the BOG’s measure and many people, including those who hunt locally, came to speak out against it. Defenders supports the refuge’s decision to keep the hunting restrictions in this area. It’s important to maintain the diversity of uses on the refuge.
Seeing the lynx in the SWRA was a rare opportunity, and I was all the more glad that I got to share it with my parents. These moments remind us of the importance of respecting wildlife in their natural habitats and allowing them places to persist with minimal interference from humans. It is an encounter I will not soon forget.
Claire Colegrove, Alaska Representative