A stint in retail slinging toys was all the motivation Cris Dippel needed to buckle down and get the grades he needed to pursue a career in biology.
The perspective was helpful for the man who’d go on to become the National Elk Refuge’s deputy manager.
“I got kicked out of college for a semester after my freshman year, and I ended up working that fall at Toys R Us,” a COVID-19-wary Dippel said from the confines of his open garage last week. “I realized that I needed to get my s--- together and get back to school. So I became a little bit less of a rebel without a cause, and I did what I was supposed to do.”
Back at Illinois’ Greenville College, Dippel took a biology class and liked it. He strung together a bachelor’s degree with a master’s in wildlife biology at Emporia State University in Kansas, where he researched the effects of wildfire on prairie vole populations. The short of his findings was that after the prairie ripped with fire, voles thrived, about doubling in population. Dippel’s methods for identifying new voles from old during his surveys will make you wince.
“At the time, you clipped toes to mark them,” he said. “Used a little fingernail clipper.”
Whole toes? Yep.
When Dippel exited grad school in the mid-1980s, the U.S. economy wasn’t exactly humming, and he worked a few odd jobs before he was able to break into his chosen field. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s offshore Prince William Sound, spilling nearly 11 million barrels of crude oil.
“It was hard to get a job at that time,” Dippel said, “and I probably wouldn’t have got one if it wasn’t for Captain Joe.”
Exxon Valdez was an ecological disaster. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought Dippel on. Home was in Homer, Alaska, but the gig was mostly ocean based, counting birds like murres and kittiwakes from a 25-foot Boston Whaler for two weeks at a time. They didn’t fare well.
“It wiped out basically anywhere from 50% to 70% of the breeding population,” Dippel said.
Dippel loved Alaska, but his job was a term appointment and he sought to become a permanent full-time employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency shipped him off to manage a remote refuge at the French Frigate Shoals’ Tern Island, some 400 miles west of the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“Cool spot,” Dippel said. “I could go find manta rays to swim with, and we’d go snorkeling all the time.”
There were obvious downsides.
“They didn’t want you to live in a remote island for too long,” Dippel said, “because they were afraid you’re going to go crazy.”
And people did. He recalled a staff spat over the incredibly important issue of emptying ice cubes into a tub in the freezer. Some of his employees did it; others took one cube at a time.
“It became a big issue,” said Dippel, who championed always refilling the ice cube tray. “We had to have a whole staff meeting on ice cubes and the protocol.”
Another time, the Tern Island crew’s olive oil stocks were quickly being depleted. Dippel headed an investigation and found that one employee was taking a shot of the cooking oil every day, convinced there were health benefits.
“The point is, after two or three years you’re pretty much ready to leave,” Dippel said, “even though it’s a cool spot and a place very few people get to see in their life.”
Departing Tern Island, Dippel wanted to get into nitty-gritty wildlife biology instead of staying in the management track. Fish and Wildlife plopped him onto Kauai, where he was tasked with monitoring four endangered endemic waterbirds along with the other suite of species near the Kilauea Lighthouse and Hanalei wetland refuges.
“I thought that I wanted to be a biologist the rest of my career,” Dippel said, “and that job showed me I didn’t have what it took to be a biologist.”
The rigidity and structure put him off, and he wanted a return to management.
Dippel was looking to leave, and by that time he had a pregnant wife in tow. A job offer brought him to the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which stretched along the Mexico-Arizona border.
He liked the desert life, but the professional turnstile continued. Next up was a pit stop at eastern Oregon’s National Antelope Refuge, where he was the station manager.
“It was a remote spot,” Dippel said. “We were 65 miles from town and the nearest grocery store.”
Not remote enough, evidently. Dippel next took a job in Alaska managing the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, a massive unit south of the Alcan Highway. His now ex-wife, Kelly, gave birth to his third child, a son, and they lived in Tok, home-schooling their children, Sarah, Emily and Jake. He spent seven years there, which was his longest professional tenure in one place, before heading south to Colorado’s Browns Park Refuge.
Browns Park had deep history — it was a hideout for Butch Cassidy — and checked the box as a remote place, at about 90 miles from the nearest decent-size city.
“Life happens and we got a divorce, and I ended up with custody of the kids,” Dippel said. “With custody, I couldn’t be be 90 miles from a town.”
There was a hiring freeze at Fish and Wildlife Service at the time, and the only two openings were at a Nebraska refuge 45 miles from the nearest town and the deputy manager job at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson.
“By default because of the situation I was in,” Dippel said, “I came here.”
Jackson’s too big for Dippel and he’s not a big fan of tourist towns, but he also didn’t want to uproot his children one more time. Six years later he’s still here, and now he’s almost an empty nester: Jake is a senior. Dippel has been grounded by a new wife, Sarah Beth Dippel, who he met at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church, and by a job that he considers “excellent,” albeit the most political job he’s had to date.
Free time is spent hunting and fishing and revisiting a 1,000-plus-strong DVD collection amassed over a lifetime of never living in a place (until Jackson) that had a movie theater. He’s also been honing a new hobby, knife-making, which he took to after taking a blacksmithing class from Steve Fontanini.
Dippel values the stunning landscape and wildlife the refuge offers: He’s seen grizzly bears feeding on elk carcasses and wolves on the hunt. But it’s also nothing new after a career having lived and managed wild country.
“After permanent status, every job I’ve applied to I’ve applied because I thought it would be fun,” Dippel said. “I don’t apply to move up or for some sort of career thing.”
“I’ve worked in really cool places, and I’ve seen things that people would pay tens of thousands of dollars to see,” Dippel says. “And I’ve got paid to do it.”