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Biologist Andy Wizik reflects on 9 years at CIAA

Andy shares his thoughts about brown bear encounters, answering public questions, and the welcoming nature of Alaskans.

by | January 30, 2023

CIAA Biologist Andy Wizik
This is the first time Andy Wizik got to intentially hang out with a brown bear. In 2018, CIAA sent him and a coworker to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to receive training on the Sanctuary’s approach to interacting with bears. This trip was under a special permit granted to CIAA so that our staff could learn the best techniques for safely living and working among brown bears, especially at CIAA’s Paint River Ladder.

It is amazing how fast nine years flies by, especially when you’re having fun. With my time at CIAA coming to an end, I wanted to reflect on a few things I’ve learned since arriving here.

First, brown bears are much less of a problem than I thought they’d be. As someone who has spent most of his life outdoors I usually don’t have to think twice about wildlife safety.

My previous job put me in contact with wolves, moose, and black bears, and I spent countless days in the field, cautious, but unarmed. I remember being at the zoo seeing brown bears as a kid and thinking, how can people live with these things? I didn’t feel safe, and I was behind ballistic glass!

It was my first consideration when I was deciding if I should take a job leading folks into the field. I was hired for my outdoor acumen but could I, not only handle it, but lead others into the field, and do so safely?

Fast forward a few years and a few hundred bear encounters and I am realizing that TV lied to me again. It still amazes me every time I am able to get these giants to move along with just the sound of my voice, and how well behaved most bears are if you just let them know you are coming.

Bringing everybody home

Several years and seasonal staff later, I am proud to have spent nine seasons in the field training and working with staff to ensure we all made it home every night. During all of the nights walking though devil’s club, on slippery rocks, in rushing creeks, and flying around in the bush, we were able to complete tons of work to improve salmon habitat while making sure we kept all of our fingers and toes.

Some of my favorite sayings involve safety and I hope they live on despite me leaving. The first thing I try to impress on people in training is that humans are the most dangerous animals. Especially people with guns. I also like to remind everyone that nothing we do needs to be dangerous and we don’t need to sacrifice our lives to count salmon. I am glad everyone has listened.

It depends

Another thing that I have learned is that the answer to most invasive northern pike questions is: it depends. Will pike kill all the salmon in the lake? It depends. Can we control pike using gill net suppression? It depends. Should we be killing pike? It depends. 

In some systems where there is little pike habitat and lots of deep cold salmon habitat pike and salmon may be able to coexist, or maybe at least not run into each other too often. Other areas may offer refuge for pike in hard-to-get-to areas that make netting difficult or allow pike to constantly move in to replace the pike you are killing.

While each pike killed in a salmon lake will likely save some juvenile salmon, not all lakes with invasive pike need to have pike reduced in order to maintain decent salmon production and some may continue to be dominated by pike despite reduction efforts.

One thing is for certain, many of the lakes that produce salmon in our region are shallow and weedy. If we chose to do nothing, we would have many fewer salmon-producing lakes. The key is identifying areas where we can make a difference.

We can agree to disagree

One of the most important things I have learned in my time at CIAA is that the people of our region are welcoming and we can agree to disagree without becoming enemies. I have eaten dinner with several folks who don’t agree with pike suppression. I have collaborated with others who don’t agree with everything I do. And I have been stuck in the field and sheltered by Alaskans who hardly knew my name.

This position has done more for me than introduced me to the people and natural beauty of Southcentral Alaska. It has helped me integrate into a community I love, buy a house, meet my wife, and start a family. In my new role I will still be working to continue protecting the salmon and habitats in and around Cook Inlet.

I will be keeping many lessons, memories, and friends with me and will be forever grateful for my time at CIAA.             

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