Learning of a prospective promotion, Brian Glaspell’s first instinct was to take himself out of the running for a gig that would have brought him home to oversee vast swaths of Alaska set aside for wildlife.
Since coming on as the National Elk Refuge manager 2 1/2 years ago, he’s been open about his “10-year plan.” One part of that vision was to see through construction of a new multiagency visitor center on refuge property. But the centerpiece was to realize a long-promised goal to reduce elk numbers and curb the wintertime feeding that the Jackson herd depends on today.
“I’m leaving a whole bunch of things hanging that keep me up at night,” Glaspell told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “I didn’t intend to do that.
“I felt really strongly that there was a whole bunch of important work left undone here,” he said, “but I talked to my current boss in Denver and my future boss in Alaska, and they said you’ll never have a job where there won’t be a lot of important things left undone.”
He took the advice to heart. In late July he will take over as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant regional director for Alaska, where he was born and raised. The job, he said, is a “huge promotion” that will make him second in command of tens of millions of acres of national wildlife refuge that includes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he managed for four years before coming to Jackson Hole.
“There are about 100 million acres of refuge on the continent, and 77 million acres of them are in Alaska,” Glaspell said. “In terms of significance to the overall refuge system, Alaska is a big part of it.”
Glaspell replaces Mitch Ellis, who is taking over as Fish and Wildlife’s chief of natural resources out of Washington, D.C. Cris Dippel, the refuge’s deputy manager, will step in as the refuge manager on an acting basis.
The post that Glaspell is sliding into falls short of the upper-echelon “senior executive service,” but it ranks high on the federal pay scale and is classified as “GS-15.” His predecessor, Ellis, made $158,000 in 2017, the last year detailed by the accountability website FederalPay.org.
Glaspell stressed that his departure was entirely voluntary. One hurdle was OK’ing the move with his 12- and 15-year-old children, who live in Bozeman, Montana, and are part of the reason he took the job in the Lower 48 in 2017.
“They were both born in Alaska,” he said, “and when I told them I was considering this job they were very excited about it because they missed having that connection. I was really sheepish about telling them, and they said, ‘Hell no, we’d love that.’”
During his brief tenure as manager Glaspell was known to bluntly critique elk feeding, a century-old western Wyoming practice that’s been sharply criticized by scientists, wildlife managers and even neighboring states like Montana, largely because of its potential to spread disease.
“The preponderance of science, every major wildlife organization in the nation and our neighboring states in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have all come out, if not outright condemning feeding, saying that it’s likely to exacerbate the effects of chronic wasting disease,” he told an audience this winter at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Symposium. “Feeding only occurs in a handful of counties in Northwest Wyoming. Everybody else thinks it’s a bad idea. Let’s just be honest about that.”
The refuge has struggled for a decade to reduce elk numbers in pursuit of a federally mandated population target of 5,000 animals, which in theory would allow for a reduction in supplementary feeding. A plan aimed at achieving the goal has been held up for years, and decisions about its contents and release are being made outside Jackson Hole at Fish and Wildlife’s regional office in Denver.
“The really big issues rise above the local level, and that’s something you sign up for,” Glaspell said. “I expected that the big decisions would be above my pay grade, but, like anybody else who’s ever come to Jackson, I didn’t realize how high-level those things would be.”
Frustrations aside, Glaspell said he will look back fondly on his time in the valley, which he likened to the “crucible of conservation.” One story that’s not told often enough, he said, is the Alaska-Jackson connection that is immortalized by the legacies of Moose residents Mardy and Olaus Murie, who successfully plotted the preservation of much of the Last Frontier.
“So many big ideas get hatched and decisions get made here,” Glaspell said. “I respect it and value it and am proud to be a part of it. I wasn’t ready to leave and give it up, at all.”