Of Bears and Humans

Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2015

By Raphael Pope-Sussman

As a child, Rae Wynn-Grant fell in love with nature through television, watching shows on PBS. She marveled at the large charismatic species—lions, jaguars, tigers—and the exotic places in which they lived. She dreamed of hosting a nature show, traveling to these faraway places and seeing these wild creatures. But that felt impossibly far away. Growing up in the heart of San Francisco, she was within driving distance of the backwoods of Yosemite, but her parents were not the “outdoorsy” type, and the family did not spent much time in nature.

Being a city kid was not the largest obstacle in her mind, though. Wynn-Grant recalls that none of the hosts on PBS when she was a child were anything like her.

“The hosts of these shows, at least back then, were the same kind of person every time,” she says. “It would be an older white man—none of the things I was, as a young black female. Often not even an American, but someone with a British accent or an Australian accent, who seemed very familiar with these places.”

She hasn’t gotten a nature show quite yet, but she seems well on her way. Wynn-Grant recently defended her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at GSAS, but she has been studying environmental science since her freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta. Wynn-Grant recalls attending a department fair soon after arriving at Emory and being approached by a black professor.

“Even after a few moments of talking about my potential interest in science, I remember very distinctly he said, ‘I really think you should try environmental science. It would be right up your alley. We’d love to have you in the department.’”

It was a pivotal moment in Wynn-Grant’s academic life. She says it was then that she understood there was a place for someone like her in environmental science. “He really saw me and listened to me, and I believed him,” she says of the professor.

She immersed herself in the field but was not certain she wanted to pursue it as a career until her junior year, when she spent a semester in Kenya through a conservation biology study abroad program. For five months, she and her classmates camped in a rural, tribal region of the country, where they studied wildlife management and ecology with Kenyan professors. Ten thousand miles from her birthplace, Wynn-Grant was doing research in the very kind of setting she had seen on PBS as a child. “All of a sudden, I realized this was a career path that was available for anybody, not just the people I saw on TV,” she says. “That was ten years ago, and since then I haven’t looked back.”

After graduating from Emory in 2006 with a degree in environmental studies, she took a job as a research assistant at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. She spent two years at the fund and then moved on to the Yale School of Forestry, where she received her master’s in environmental science. In 2010, she arrived at Columbia as a doctoral student. She has spent the past five years commuting between Morningside Heights and the Nevada backcountry, where she studies the effects of human activity on the health and movement of black bear populations.

Black bears need a lot of space to live. Their “home ranges”—the territory they occupy across a lifetime— can encompass more than 40 square kilometers. Wynn-Grant chose to study black bears because their need for space makes them particularly susceptible to the impact of human development. They are a canary in the coal mine, of sorts. And unlike many larger species, black bears are not endangered, which makes it far easier for a graduate student to study one up close.

Wynn-Grant’s research involves plenty of time in front of a computer analyzing data, but also a lot of time in the mountains carrying bear traps and a tranquilizer gun. Every year, she spends months in the Lake Tahoe Basin hiking isolated mountain ranges—sometimes with a small team, but often all alone. In order to tag a bear, Wynn-Grant digs a hole and places a trap, which she baits with fragrant food such as smoked fish or peanut butter. When a bear approaches and reaches into the hole, it releases a lever that snares the bear’s paw in a loop of thick cord that is fixed to a sturdy tree.

This kind of trap is safe for the bear but not entirely reliable. Sometimes the bear will escape, but every few days or weeks, one will be trapped. Wynn-Grant checks her two traps each day to ensure that no bear is left tied to a tree for an extended period of time. When she finds a bear that is trapped, she approaches the bear and, from a safe distance, shoots it with the tranquilizer gun. Once the bear is tranquilized, Wynn-Grant attaches a GPS collar, which transmits the coordinates of the animal’s location every four hours.

Using this information, Wynn-Grant is able to chart the movement patterns of the local population of black bears, giving her insight into how human activity impacts the animals. She has found that bears in the Lake Tahoe Basin no longer settle where there are significant levels of human activity—not only urban sprawl and busy highways, but also ski resorts and forest campsites. “Bears are actually changing how they use the landscape and avoiding certain areas because people are there, but which might otherwise be high-quality habitat for them,” she says.

There is also the problem of garbage. Bears like an easy meal, especially when they are storing energy for their winter hibernation. As humans encroach upon their habitat, bears are attracted to the vast quantity of food waste that humans produce. Venturing out of their ranges in search of this food is perilous for black bears. They may be struck by cars along the highway or captured and relocated by wildlife authorities who are called in to handle a “problem bear”—one that is wandering in populated areas, often rummaging through trash cans.

These encounters are happening all over the country, not just in Nevada. New Jersey, Colorado, California, New York—anywhere there is human activity in bear country, the bear population is threatened, sometimes existentially.

For her dissertation, Wynn-Grant made recommendations on how humans and bears can better coexist in a landscape they increasingly share. Drawing on literature indicating that waste handling has a major impact on human-bear conflicts, she suggested the implementation of better waste management techniques, such as the use of bear-proof containers for garbage. She also recommended highway overpasses and underpasses for wildlife, which allow bears to move across their ranges without crossing treacherous roads.

“As human populations expand and we find ever more creative ways to impact the landscapes around us, we are increasing the potential for conflicts between humans and non-human animals,” says Eleanor Sterling, chief conservation scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation within the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and a thesis adviser of Wynn-Grant’s. “Rae not only explores theoretical issues regarding carnivore habitat use and black bear interactions in human-dominated landscapes, but she is also committed to thinking about management applications of her work to reduce the conflict.”

This summer, with her graduate work completed, Wynn-Grant will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at AMNH, where she will continue her research on the impact of human activity on black bears. She will also serve as a mentor in the museum’s Student Research Mentorship Program and join the museum’s diversity initiative. In this role, Wynn-Grant will advance a cause that has been a focal point of her academic career: promoting diversity in environmental science.

Scholars like Wynn-Grant notwithstanding, environmental science remains a disproportionately white and male field. A 2011 study from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 74.9 percent of the more than three million Americans who reported holding a bachelor’s degree in biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences were white. Only 5.7 percent were black, and 5.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, compared with 13 percent and 17 percent for these groups, respectively, in the general population. Women accounted for just over 45 percent of degree holders.

As a founding member of the diversity committee of the Society for Conservation Biology, one of the largest and most influential organizations in the field, Wynn-Grant is striving to challenge what she describes as this “extreme underrepresentation of black and Latino students or practitioners” in the field. The committee is developing strategies for exposing high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to conservation biology and connecting them with research opportunities.

“Studying the environment is for everybody,” Wynn-Grant says. “It is really important to make sure that more people are exposed and understand that there are opportunities.”

As Wynn-Grant leaves Columbia, she is keeping her mind open about where her research will ultimately take her. She is also holding on to a childhood dream. “In my heart of hearts—I’m going to be completely honest—I have never, ever been able to shake the dream of wanting to host a wildlife show,” she says. “I would love to expose more people, like my younger self who was watching these shows, to environmental science.”