Stephen Bethune is the new area wildlife management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Sitka. He replaced longtime biologist Phil Mooney, who retired earlier this year. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spent some time with Bethune to see how he’s adjusting to life in Sitka.
He’s only been here for three weeks but Sitka’s new wildlife biologist, Stephen Bethune, already recognizes what’s important to locals.
“I’ve noted since I’ve gotten here that Sitka is very serious about its baseball,” says Bethune.
He’s pretty serious about America’s favorite pastime too. In fact, he was a shortstop before he became a biologist.
“Well it was my fallback position. I didn’t quite make it as a professional baseball player.”
Baseball aside, Bethune knew from an early age that he wanted to be a wildlife biologist. He grew up on a farm in Oregon City, just outside of Portland, and his love for hunting and fishing led him to his career. But what led him to Alaska? Perhaps it was a pack of crayons.
“It’s funny, the little things in life that can steer you in a direction,” Bethune says. “I remember when I was maybe six or seven years old, my grandparents and some cousins took a vacation to Alaska, and they brought back with them a coloring book from Denali National Park, and I can remember being fascinated by the pictures in it of the giant caribou and moose and dall sheep and bears, and I kind of think that’s the seed that got planted in my mind for going to Alaska some day.”
After spending a year at Oregon State University, Bethune finally made it to Alaska, transferring to the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he earned his degree in wildlife biology. He’s worked for the Department of Fish and Game for nearly ten years, in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and the last eight years on Prince of Wales Island. Sitka’s a bit different, though…
“A lot of my field experiences with bears, mostly with black bears on Prince of Wales. I tell people I’m getting a bear upgrade when moving to Sitka,” Bethune says. “They’re much bigger and browner here.”
There aren’t any mountain goats on Prince of Wales Island either and prospect of researching them has piqued Bethune’s interest.
“We typically try to fly the mountains on Baranof Island every year to count the number of goats which helps us with our management and how to set the harvest limits for the goat hunting season,” says Bethune. “Our population levels have declined over time, and I’m really interested in looking into that and seeing what we can do to turn that around.”
Mountain goat tracking may be a new challenge, but Bethune’s no novice when it comes to bears. Whether he’s being chased or doing the chasing, it seems he has no shortage of bear stories. Sometimes, even the most experienced biologists, take risks. Like the time Bethune crawled into a bear den to dart an awake mother bear so he could check her collar.
“I have pictures afterwards that people were taking, and you can see my feet sticking out of the ground, and the other biologists are kind of standing around, and I kind of expected them to be, like, at the ready with my feet, ready to pull me out, but they didn’t seem to have as much concern as I did,” Bethune says.
When he’s not darting goats or crawling in bear dens, Bethune is spending time with his two young daughters, picking on his guitar, or dall sheep hunting. Bethune and his wife recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. He hopes Sitkans will stop by to ask questions or just share stories. His door is always open.