Science that Spans 78 Million Acres

Alaska’s sixteen national wildlife refuges span vast landscapes: if placed over a map of the contiguous 48 states, their boundaries would touch the California coast, the state of Georgia, the northern areas of Texas, and to the top of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Keeping track of wildlife across these refuges’ 78 million acres — mostly roadless — takes innovation, planning, partnerships… and a lot of coordination.

A yellow outline of the state of Alaska placed over a lighter yellow map outline of the contiguous United States to show scale from California to Georgia to Minnesota to Texas.
Map showing the scale of Alaska against the contiguous 48 states. Wildlife Refuges spread across the state and touch the extant four directions. Graphic: Ronald Laubenstein, USFWS.

“I remember when I initially met with all of the supervisory biologists from the refuges, one of the first things they identified as a need was just basic inventories, just finding out what’s out there. Because it’s so expensive, and it’s just so hard, you really want to make sure that you’re gathering this data that’s going to be useful.”

Dr. Diane Granfors came to Alaska in 2010 as the first regional coordinator for the newly formed Inventory and Monitoring Program within the National Wildlife Refuge System. She leads a team that supports science on Alaska’s refuges, helping prioritize species and ecosystems of concern for monitoring, developing concrete objectives, and framing survey methods and plans.

A woman with a backpack sits on a hill with wildflowers and trees in the background.
Dr. Diane Granfors at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. 📸 Kristin DuBour/USFWS.

“Basically, anything that involves the refuge collecting data on a natural resource, potentially, we can help. At refuges, especially up in Alaska, one of the biggest things we do is collect data on species’ habitats and keep tabs on how they are doing.”

A sheer dark cliff face with hundreds of small white and black murres perched along the edges.
Common murre nesting colony in Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

After over a decade of leading refuge science support across the state’s enormous landscapes, Dr. Granfors is retiring from her career in conservation. She recently shared some highlights and reflections on her career path and the Inventory and Monitoring Program in this interview, along with a few of her favorite photos taken at Alaska refuges.

What path did you take to arrive in this position in Alaska?

Dr. Granfors: A very circuitous one [laughs]. I went to Colorado State for my undergraduate degree, and wasn’t sure it was right for me — CSU at that time was very big-game oriented. And I was not a hunter. I didn’t even fish.

I just wanted to study animals. So I got my degree, and got a job with the Missouri Department of Conservation as a data manager. That was when I realized that our wildlife biologists do research, too — so it was perfect.

That got me interested in research and pretty soon I started doing telemetry projects. I learned a lot of mapping skills, and then GIS skills when that came along, and then I went for my master’s degree at Texas Tech. I told myself if that goes okay, I’ll go on to the Ph.D. So I did that at South Dakota State and then went to U.S. Geological Survey, and that was my first full-time federal job, a term appointment for four years in Jamestown, North Dakota, studying grassland birds.

Most of my career before Alaska was in the upper Midwest, studying mostly passerines and then building spatial models for non-game migratory birds to support Wetland Management Districts. There wasn’t a whole lot of data available so I had to start doing monitoring programs and then used that data to develop landscape-scale models.

Blue sky with clouds and a flat landscape of watery wetlands stretching to the horizon.
A wetland of international importance: Izembek Lagoon. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

How did you know you wanted to study animals? Is that something you knew from a young age?

Dr. Granfors: I spent a lot of time outside as a kid — just time in the woods. Like a lot of people from my era, I also watched Wild Kingdom, with zoologist Marlin Perkins.

That’s kind of what I envisioned a wildlife biologist did: go to Africa and study animals out on the plains — it wasn’t something that I thought was very realistic.

I actually started out as a theater major for my first year of college, going to school in Pittsburgh. I pretty quickly learned that this was not for me. I love the theater, and I love music, and I love the stage. But it wasn’t me.

My other big interest was something with animals — biology or something like that. My uncle told me, if you want to study the animals, you’ve got to go where the animals are. He basically said: go West, young woman.

Pink and orange clouds with the sun low over the mountains and an open expanse of water.
View across Cold Bay at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve supported in Alaska?

Dr. Granfors: I feel like there are so many amazing projects I get to support, it would be hard to choose. Occasionally I’ve been able to go out in the field with the researchers and that is always special.

I got to go to Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, it was first time they were conducting a comprehensive survey of the breeding shorebirds on the Yukon Delta, and that’s one of the most important shorebird breeding areas in the world. It took a lot of planning and work with partners.

Looking down on two bright colored tents on the open tundra next to a lake.
A remote field camp at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

It’s not easy to survey something as vast as the Yukon Delta and really get out to enough points that the survey has meaning. Most of the work was done by helicopter to conduct an inventory: what species are out there? And then in what numbers and what habitats are they using?

I also loved being out on the Arctic tundra and coast, again looking at monitoring projects for shorebirds. I remember flying into Kaktovik and thinking: wow, I am on the edge of the earth. It’s really beautiful.

Three caribou walk along a gravel beach with a small skiff in the foreground and open ocean with ice chunks in the background.
Along the Arctic coast near Kaktovik: caribou and sea ice. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Did you find any similarity between your work in the grasslands and surveying out on the tundra?

Dr. Granfors: people will say that you don’t really appreciate the prairie until you look under foot. Because that’s where it’s all happening. It took me awhile to appreciate. I grew up in the woods, and when I started working with Eastern Meadowlarks in Kansas I felt the opposite of claustrophobia, where the space feels too open and exposed.

Then, my Ph.D. project took me up to South Dakota and I started really falling in love with the prairies. Watching the clouds and the weather move and being out on the native prairie, just the number of species that are there. The way you can see birds and hear them from everywhere is just amazing.

A small white and brown flecked shorebird standing among the lichen and grasses of the tundra.
A western sandpiper on the tundra of Yukon Delta Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Going out on the tundra, you get a lot of that same feeling. It’s so open. The sky and the land and the wetlands and everything is incredibly beautiful. I love that.

How do you use inventory and monitoring data to connect science across Alaska’s large landscape?

Dr. Granfors: Well, even as big as these refuges are, we still have to pay attention to what’s going on outside their borders. When I think about climate change, that becomes even more important.

So if there’s a species on your refuge that you’ve been monitoring for a while and you think your refuge is really important for them as a home… but the habitat is changing. It may not be able to support that species in the future. Is that something that you need to really hold a line on and resist the change to make sure that species stays on your refuge, or will it be able to move to another refuge or a park or state lands with new available habitat there? And there may be new species coming to that refuge that will become your new focus.

Sun sparkling off of the water and strips of green vegetation partly submerged.
Eelgrass at Izembek Lagoon. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

This is where we start to apply the concept of RAD — Resist, Accept, or Direct, which plays really well into landscape scale thinking. We can either resist the changes that we see happening and try to hold a steady state of what the historic conditions were like, we can accept that change and just say, Mother Nature is going to figure this out. Or we can have models that predict what might be and choose to direct change to something that helps in the direction we want. It really depends on what your values are and what you think is going to meet the needs of people and sustain the refuge system into the future.

Yellow flowers growing in clumps on a small hill with rocky outcrop.
Alaska poppies on the edge of a mud volcano, Yukon Delta Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

How do you integrate ways of knowing and values into the science you support?

Dr. Granfors: One of the other things I’m really interested in is structured decision making. And that is all based on your values. So one of the things I’m really excited about, and I’m kind of sad to be leaving at a time when I think we’re on the precipice of really starting to figure out how to work better with traditional knowledge and the Alaska Native and rural communities in and around refuges.

I’m hopeful that will be a bigger part of the program in the future and people will start to recognize how much stronger we could be if we combined traditional knowledge and Western scientific knowledge.

grey and black geese with white heads in a small flock flying over open blue water.
Emperor geese fly over Izembek Lagoon. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Say more about Structured Decision Making…

Dr. Granfors: It’s about: what is it that you really want, what are the objectives you are trying to achieve? Those objectives are always based on your values. It is a different approach than looking at a bunch of alternatives and choosing which one you think is best. Instead, we ask the question, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve here? And what are our objectives towards solving that problem? Then we can start talking about alternatives. So the objectives, the values, are the foundation. You could also call this value-based thinking.

What is something that has surprised you about this job?

Dr. Granfors: I didn’t know that this was going to be a supervisory position, but I now have a team of twelve people with eight direct reports.

One of the really gratifying things in my job is helping people achieve their dreams and making sure that they’re doing work that they value and means something to them.

Helping to coach people along and seeing them grow in their careers has been kind of a surprise benefit. I really do like being in a position where I can help people do what they want to do.

A woman sits in a camp chair and writes in a notebook. A lake and trees are in the background.
A scientist journaling after a day of work in the field at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Part of what gives me hope for the future is just how dedicated people are to figuring out challenges like climate change. Also, for Alaska — given how vast it is, I guess I’m also hopeful that Mother Nature will figure things out. This place is really resilient.

A lake with lily pads and blue mountains in the background with storm clouds and and a dark blue gray sky.
A storm moves into field camp at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. 📸: Diane Granfors/USFWS.

Story compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Specialist with Alaska Refuges, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it. Follow us on Facebook/Twitter

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service