Wildlife Biologist Trading Caribou for Wolverines
Wildlife management in the Last Frontier has changed considerably since Pat Valkenburg took a job as a state wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1977.
"All the field work back then was done by flying around in airplanes and walking around in the woods looking for whatever you could find--bones, hair, feces," he said, recalling his early days as a wildlife biologist in Alaska.
Nowadays, biologists use radiocollars, some with global positioning systems, to track the movements of individual animals on a daily, and even hourly, basis. Some biologists don't even have to leave their desk to track an animal's movements.
"Now you have collars that will uplink to satellites and send GPS locations to a satellite that can be downloaded," he said.
While he admits technology has opened the doors of wildlife management much wider, there are still times when Valkenburg yearns for the good old days of tromping through the woods looking for carcasses, like he did for two years in the Alaska Range while doing his thesis on grizzly bears north of Denali Park.
"It was a very inefficient way to get work done but I think it's absolutely critical that biologists do that at least once in their career," Valkenburg said. "You can't become a good naturalist by flying around in an airplane."
To be sure, Valkenburg has spent his fair share of time in the woods and on the tundra for the last 30 years, whether it be as a biologist, hunter, trapper or pilot.
"He spends a hell of a lot of time in the field on the job and on his own," said David Klein, a wildlife professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who has known Valkenburg for 30 years, first as a UAF graduate student and then as a a biologist for ADF&G.
Valkenburg, a skinny, bespectacled man who usually wears a pair of blue jeans, flannel shirt, X-Tra tuff neoprene boots and a faded, blue ADF&G ball cap, will have more time to spend in the woods starting in July. After studying caribou and wolves for all or parts of four decades in Alaska, Valkenburg is pulling the plug on a 26-year career as a state wildlife biologist so he can join his wife, fellow biologist Audrey Magoun, studying wolverines in Ontario next year.
"Audrey has always wanted to study furbearers," Valkenburg said of his wife. "To make this project work it needs someone based with an airplane."
Klein said the state will be hardpressed to fill the hole Valkenburg will leave.
"He's one of those top-notch guys that not only has good scientific capabilities but who is also a practical guy," said Klein, now a professor emeritus at UAF. "He's a good example of a person who takes advantage of new technology to get information you can't get any other way and at same time he's out there observing animals. He's a keen observer. He sees things other people would miss."
That's high praise for a guy who grew up on the outskirts of New York City and pursued a career in wildlife management only when his high school guidance counselor told him there was such a thing.
"She realized I was very interested in animals and the outdoors," Valkenburg said of his counselor, whose name he can't recall. "She found out there was such a major as wildlife management and she showed it to me and said, 'This is what I think you want to do.'"
That advice more than 30 years ago set Valkenburg, who was born in South Africa and grew up shooting doves with a pellet gun before moving to New York at the age of 10, down a trail that he is still blazing today as one of the world's leading caribou researchers.
It was 1972 when Valkenburg, then 21 and fresh out of the University of Maine, came to Alaska to work as a field assistant for his future wife, Magoun, who was doing her master's thesis on the scavenging activities of arctic animals. The plan was to stay the summer before heading to graduate school at Brigham Young University. But after living in a tent in the Brooks Range much of the summer, Valkenburg couldn't bring himself to leave.
"I liked it so much I decided to stay," he said.
Valkenburg got his master's degree in wildlife management at UAF and hired on with Fish and Game. His first assignment was to investigate the crash of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd on the North Slope.
"To be around huge numbers of caribou was exciting," Valkenburg said. "The country was so remote ... only a few people had ever done work there."
That was also back when biologists didn't know much about caribou. It wasn't until biologists began to put radiocollars on individual caribou in 1978 that they began to realize how distinct different herds were.
"We had no idea there were 30-some caribou herds in the state when we started," Valkenburg said. "Biologists thought caribou moved between herds.
"We found out there was almost no movement between herds and that all herds are true populations," he said. "The ability to follow individual animals makes it possible to see what's happening ecologically. We can determine birth rates, death rates, causes of death and things like that."
So Valkenburg, a pilot, plans to pack his bags and plane for Ontario, where he will spend parts of the next two years helping his wife. It's his turn to take a back seat.
"She's basically let me do what I wanted to the last 25 years," Valkenburg said.
While he's retiring, Valkenburg will be staying busy. In addition to the work he will be doing with his wife, he plans to write a monograph on 25 years of research on the Delta Caribou Herd. Valkenburg is also organizing the North American Caribou Conference that will be in Anchorage next year.
"I'm definitely going to stay involved in wildlife management one way or another," Valkenburg said.
In doing so, Valkenburg will return to his roots, walking around in the woods looking for whatever he can find.
News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 459-7587.
Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 671670, Chugiak, Alaska 99567-1670