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Sustainability: It takes a village (or at least a refuge)

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I'm off the plane from the East Coast, leaving behind its 100 degree heat and humidity. As I walk outside in mid-June, I'm hit by a blast of cold air. My second feeling is one of awe as I look up at the mountains that encircle Cook Inlet, each one capped with snow. I'm in Alaska, volunteering with scientists and graduate students, attempting to learn how they do what they do, hoping to find the reason for why they do it.

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My name is Robert Usab and I am 16 years old. I live an hour from the Atlantic Ocean on the Delmarva Peninsula where, this fall, I'll be in the 11th grade at The Salisbury School. I want to pursue an education in biology, with an eye towards getting involved in international sustainability. Thanks to Dr. John Morton, I was lucky enough to have a month-long opportunity to explore my future avocation at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.                

The first scientist I was introduced to was Tim Mullet, a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Tim is working on creating a soundscape of the Refuge. Soundscapes depict the amount of sound over an area in a way that can be quantitatively measured. Using 13 microphones, Tim is gathering sound bytes that sample human and natural sounds on the Refuge. 

During the day I worked with Tim, we canoed out to an island in Paddle Lake to retrieve data from one of the sound recorders. Many people don't realize that environments which have true silence are shrinking. Even while hiking on trails, I can still hear planes or the highway a few miles away. Sound is always present in our lives.

I next had the pleasure to work with Matt Bowser. Matt is an entomologist (a "bug" expert) whose goal is to create a DNA library of insects for the Refuge. Collecting samples with Matt was a privilege. Boating out onto Skilak Lake and collecting samples was an enlightening experience for me. I had no idea that a single bush could contain such a large variety and quantity of insects, everything from spiders to ants to mayflies. Each piece of the land is an ecosystem in its own right, and can be just as diverse as an entire mountain range.

Alaska prides itself on its bear populations, especially on the Kenai Peninsula. I enjoyed my experience with Rebecca Zulueta, a master's student at the University of Wisconsin, who wants to learn more about wildlife interactions with people, specifically brown and black bears. So she is surveying public opinions of the Kenai bear population.

This questionnaire addressed topics such as their beliefs on lethal bear killings, the status of the bear population, and what they would do during an invasion of privately-owned space (such as a house or yard) by a bear.

Rebecca completed a human relations course before she could give out surveys, which taught her how to approach houses and improve her chances of getting a survey completed. After analyzing data from more than 400 respondents, Rebecca plans to determine the educational outreach needed to reduce lethal bear incidents.

Toby Burke is a refuge biological technician who is tracking the status of the snowshoe hare population. Hare populations run in cycles. During some years their populations are sky high; in other years they are so low you could go days without seeing one. To get a glimpse of where the population is in the cycle, Toby Burke and a group of volunteers, including myself, set out to sample the rabbit plots on Swanson Road. We counted the number of pellets (hare poop) found in an area. Comprised of 49 plots, the area is inside the burn zone of the 1969 fire. This post-burn hardwood habitat is exactly where hares like to congregate. The hare population cannot be judged from a single collection, but must be continued for years.

Hare populations are extremely important to the Alaskan boreal environment, much more so than many believe.  Scientists have seen a direct correlation between hare and lynx populations. Toby will use these data to determine where in the cycle the hare population is at the present time so that ecological changes can be understood in context.

My last volunteer day was with Deanna Saltmarsh, a master's student at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. She has been studying an invasive species on the Kenai Peninsula. You would think that an invasive species might be something like a fast spreading weed or a tiny beetle such as the birch borer. However, you'll be surprised to hear that what she studies is, in fact, the earthworm.

Your reaction is probably the same as mine: "How is an earthworm invasive?" It's thought that when the last Ice Age came and went, earthworm populations in Alaska were wiped out. Therefore, all earthworms that presently survive in Alaska are in fact an exotic and invasive species, introduced by man's activities. Deanna is attempting to determine how far this earthworm species has spread on the Refuge.

I started out my internship with the belief that I would learn something that would help me change at least one thing about the world. But I learned that changing the world is not something that can be done by one person. You need a group of people to keep even the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge running. What I participated in is just a small part of what the Refuge does every day. 

I had the honor to catch just a small glimpse of what scientists and graduate students at the Refuge are accomplishing. They work on keeping the wilderness and nature pristine and intact. When I began this adventure, I was under the naive impression that believing something is going to happen is the same thing as making it happen. I found out that you must work at something to achieve anything. 

Bobby Usab was a biological intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov  or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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