DILLINGHAM - During a month of counting Pacific walrus and nesting seabirds at Bristol Bay's remote Round Island, Tim Dyasuk slept in a simple metal weather-port, cooked dinner on a small stove and walked everywhere he went.
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It was a formative summer for the young college student, and it helped convince him to pursue a career in wildlife biology.
Dyasuk, of Dillingham, is an alum of a near decade-old program called the Bristol Bay Summer Youth Stewardship Program. It is designed to give local Native students an opportunity to work in ecological research projects.
"I'm really glad I went out on the walrus haul-out project because it was kind of like the beginning of a good thing," Dyasuk said. He is now a student in biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The summer program is a cooperative educational venture of the Bristol Bay Native Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Helen Chythlook of the Bristol Bay Native Association says the program has one primary goal: "To expose our young Native students to science." And so far, the program seems to be working.
"We have picked very enthusiastic interns in the past, and several of them have gone on to natural resource and other science majors," she said.
Last summer, Karen McCambley, 22, joined the internship program at Cape Pierce on the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
"It was beautiful. It's probably one of those once in a lifetime experiences," the Dillingham resident said. "I think by hiring locals to go out and participate in the project is invaluable. Not only to the local community, but to the person that gets to go out and participate."
The ongoing walrus study is an important component of a body of research that spans the North Pacific. Most of the world's Pacific walrus migrate to the Chukchi Sea, but thousands of walrus congregate in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr and in Bristol Bay. All four walrus haul-out sites in Alaska are in Bristol Bay: Round Island, Cape Seniavin, Cape Peirce and Cape Newenham.
"These are critical habitat areas in Bristol Bay where walruses have come to rest between feeding bouts. These isolated locations are filled up with up to tens of thousands of animals out there nesting," said Joel Garlich-Miller, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service walrus biologist based in Anchorage.
In addition to developing young Native scientists, the objectives of the Bristol Bay Walrus Haul-out Monitoring Project include tracking trends in the number of walruses using haul-out sites as well as monitoring the number of human disturbances near the resting walruses. The number of walruses in Bristol Bay is declining, and this long-term project will help develop management plans for the species.