Meet the New Refuge Managers!

By:Poppy Benson, Friends Board Vice President

One holds dual citizenship and moved to Fairbanks from Amsterdam; one came to Alaska after googling “Duck Jobs”; the third’s passion is herpetology but his refuge only has one amphibian – the wood frog – and no reptiles.  Arctic, Selawik and the Koyukuk/Nowitna/Innoko complex all have new refuge managers, and their stories are fascinating.

Merben Cebrian has taken what has to be the most unusual and worldly path to Refuge Manager of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Not only does he hold dual US/Dutch citizenship and have a Dutch wife, but he grew up in the Philippines where he spent much of his childhood in nature.  The US Army took him to Africa, the Middle East and Fairbanks where he ended his military career and enrolled in the University of Alaska Fairbanks earning a wildlife biology degree.  Merben spent 20 years in Alaska as a wildlife biologist on the Tetlin Refuge and with the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Glenallen.  

Merben Cebrian, Arctic Refuge Manager with a tufted puffin chick on the Alaska Maritime Refuge where he took a seasonal job last summer as a “trial run” for a return to Alaska.
He left Alaska to become the Bureau of Indian Affairs Midwest regional biologist and program manager working with 36 federally recognized tribes.  This was challenging with intensive human-nature interactions in a highly political landscape.  The past few years he has lived with his family in the Netherlands working as a free-lance biologist.  But Alaska was on his mind.  So last summer Merben took a seasonal job on the Alaska Maritime Refuge as an opportunity to experience a new ecosystem, check out job possibilities and see how his family would do with him away. Arthur Kettle, his supervisor on that job, called him a “big thinker” and very diplomatic.  That is what Friends noted as well when we met with him in Fairbanks last month. Merben says he hopes his broad background will serve him well in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of the Arctic Refuge.
Yes, googling “Duck Jobs” and a passion for waterfowl hunting got Wil Wiese to Alaska even though neither Alaska or the Fish and Wildlife Service was on his radar.  His background of growing up hunting and fishing in Wisconsin, a biology degree and, most of all, lifelong experience running skiffs and fixing motors won him a volunteer waterfowl survey job in the Arctic.  He was smitten by the Arctic coastal plain, working in remote field camps and the village of Kaktovik and never left.   Wil was hired permanently by the  Arctic Refuge before becomingSelawik Refuge’s Deputy Refuge Manager and now Manager.  Wil switched from biology into management because, “I do like wildlife a lot but I actually like people a lot better.  Working with people and helping them come up with solutions to conflict is what really gets me excited.”
Wil Wiese, Selawik Refuge Manager, said “I love living as a guest of the Kikiktagrukmuit and being surrounded by Iñupiat Ilitqusiat (values). I’m welcomed by the respect, humility, generosity, and humor that abound, and admire the hard work and adaptability required of folks.”

Wil writes that Selawik Refuge in northwest Alaska is a place often overlooked by those seeking scenic vistas but he finds stunning beauty in the snow-covered, seemingly endless tundra, spruce blanketed Waring Mountains, and meandering bends of river and stream.  The best part of the refuge to him is in what it provides for the people who live in it and from it.  You can’t eat scenery, but you can eat from Selawik Refuge because its waters teem with sheefish, whitefish, pike, and salmon; the wetlands are thick with waterfowl, expanses of tundra are blanketed in berries, and caribou migrations flow across the landscape. You can hear more about Wil’s personal journey in a podcast My Life Wildlife.

_______________________________________________________________________________When I asked David Zabriskie, “What is a snake guy doing in Alaska?” he responded “Making money to fund my snake hunting trips!”   David has the most experience of the three with the National Wildlife Refuge System having begun his career as a student trainee at the Wheeler Refuge in Alabama, followed by refuges in Mississippi, on remote Pacific Islands, Tennessee, Alaska, and Arizona before returning to Alaska to work as the Deputy Manager and now Manager of the Koyukuk/Nowitna/Innoko Refuge Complex on the Yukon River.

David Zabriskie, Koyukuk/Nowitna/Innoko Refuge Manager on Johnston Atoll in the North Pacific where he was working at the time.

I also asked David what he liked most about his refuges and he replied, “These three refuges are in the heart of salmon country. These intact ecosystems support an amazing plant and wildlife diversity. The opportunity to work with the indigenous communities along the Yukon River on resource management is fulfilling.”  Managing three refuges, two of which are bigger than any refuge found in the Lower 48, is a daunting task.  Add to that David was the lead on the Alaska Region’s first plan for a Wild and Scenic River, the Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) for the Nowitna River. I asked him what he saw as his biggest challenge and he said, “Besides limited staff and budgets, the biggest management challenges are climate change and food security for the subsistence users in this region.”

Congratulations to our new managers!  Friends look forward to working with you.