Student View

Bear Protector

Rae Wynn-Grant wants to help people and predators peacefully coexist

PETER HOULIHAN

HEALTH CHECK: Wynn-Grant examines a tranquilized black bear.

Rae Wynn-Grant trudges through the woods. It’s the middle of winter, and snow covers the ground. She spots a hole in the forest floor: a bear’s den. Inside, a mother bear is hibernating. She’ll remain in a deep sleep until spring. Her cubs, though, are awake and cuddled next to her. Wynn-Grant is here to check up on the animals.

Wynn-Grant quietly crawls into the den and quickly injects the mama bear with medicine to keep her asleep. Then the scientist eases the wiggly cubs out of the hole. She measures their height, weight, and fur thickness and listens to their heartbeats. It’s cold outside the den, so she tucks the cubs into her parka, using her body heat to keep them warm.

Wynn-Grant is a carnivore ecologist who studies large meat-eating animals. She currently focuses on grizzly bears and black bears in the U.S. and is researching how human activity affects them. Wynn-Grant has done similar research on lions in the African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. She spoke with Science World about what it’s like to work with these amazing creatures.

How did you become interested in ecology?

I grew up in San Francisco, California. I was a curious city kid who loved nature shows on TV. They ignited a passion. But I didn’t realize wildlife conservation could be a career. When I started college, I planned to study medicine. But it wasn’t something I loved. Fortunately, I had a good mentor who noticed how excited I was by nature and guided me toward ecology. I knew I’d found the right field.

COURTESY OF TSALANI LASSITER

TRACKING BEARS: A tracking device allows Wynn-Grant to locate bears wearing a GPS collar.

What inspired you to focus on carnivores?

In college I participated in a study abroad program. I’d never been out in nature before, so I chose the most extreme option I could find—wildlife management in southern Kenya. I was fascinated with the large predators there, which include cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, and lions. These carnivores help to maintain the delicate balance between species in their ecosystems—communities of organisms interacting with their environment. From there, I decided to focus my studies on African wildlife and went on to do research on lions in Tanzania.

Why did you shift your focus to bears?

Working in bear conservation in North America has allowed me to look at similarities and differences between carnivore species across continents. Much like lions, black and grizzly bears often live on the fringes of human communities. If these wild animals end up crossing paths with people, it can lead to conflicts. That can include everything from vehicle collisions, which are dangerous for both bears and people, to bears breaking into people’s homes or going through garbage cans. I hope to help find ways for people and carnivores to coexist.

What do you love most about your work?

Winter field work is extra special because that’s when I focus on baby bears. I put GPS collars on adult female bears in the summer. Then I can find them in the winter when they give birth to cubs. We visit their dens to learn how many babies a mother has had, the number of males and females, and whether they’re healthy. We place microchips under the cubs’ skin so when we return next season, we can find them and track how they’re doing. If they’re thriving, that tells us the forest they live in is healthy. If the cubs aren’t doing well, something is off in the ecosystem and we need to find out what’s going on.

What’s it like working in conservation science as a person of color?

Black people are underrepresented in this branch of science. So being Black in this field can feel somewhat isolating. I’m always aware of being different from my peers. It’s not something I struggle with—it’s just a fact. That’s why I’m involved with programs that encourage people from nontraditional backgrounds to pursue careers in ecology and conservation.

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