Learning To Study Black Bears In Their Natural Habitat

In “Wild Life,” Dr. Rae Wynn Grant tells the story of her first days tagging and tracking black bears for her PhD.

The following is an excerpt from Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World by Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant.

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Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World


Nestled in the breaks of the Sierra Nevada lies the cerulean depths of Lake Tahoe. Rocky shores border the lake as snow-capped mountains disrupt the water’s infinite stretch to the horizon. Fir trees and stately pines flank the shores and provide shelter for the region’s wildlife: yellow-bellied marmots, mountain lions, American martens, and, of course, the largest of the Sierra carnivores—black bears.

I had been studying black bears since I started my PhD in the fall of 2010. And for that first year, while I was meant to become an expert on the subject, I still hadn’t seen a bear in real life. I felt like such a fraud—rigorously starting my research career on an animal I’d never encountered.

My new project would take me back to the same region where I’d first explored the outdoors as a schoolgirl on my Yosemite National Park class trip. I would be researching a small black bear population in the Lake Tahoe Basin, on the California-Nevada border, in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From 2011 to 2013, I’d swing like a pendulum between my research project in Tahoe and my home base in NYC.

Early on in our research, as a rite of passage, my research collaborators, Dr. Jon Beckmann and Carl Lackey, took me on a long driving tour of all the different habitats bears use in the Lake Tahoe ecosystem. For the first time, I saw the mountains, forests, lakes, and deserts of my birth state and the bordering state of Nevada, all within a few miles of each other. That same day, they drove me to a secluded area of the forest and patiently taught me how to shoot a tranquilizer gun, a tool I’d use throughout my many years of work with black bears.

The timing couldn’t have been more ideal, because the next day we captured what we all called “Rae’s First Bear.” Its fur wasn’t black, but light brown, which is typical for western bears. As I’d soon learn, North American black bears come in various shades, even stark white, and their coats often correspond to their native regions.

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I learned how to process the bear, which wasn’t much different from how I’d process lions in my earlier years studying African wildlife: weigh and measure the animal, check its temperature (rectally—you haven’t lived until you’ve done this), comb through its fur to look for ectoparasites, take hair and blood samples, and give it an ear tag and a GPS collar so we could track its movements and learn about its ecology.

Although I always want to appear to be a cool, collected, well-seasoned field biologist, it was impossible for me to contain my excitement during this first experience catching and tagging a black bear. As soon as it was tranquilized, I pulled out my smartphone and texted pictures of me and the giant animal to my friends and family. The next day was another bear, and the day after that, another. The work energized me, and I was awestruck by how naturally black bears fit into this ecosystem that housed both people and wildlife.

Yet what seemed a “natural fit” to me didn’t necessarily reflect the experiences of many people I met during my first days in Tahoe. These people, having built homes and livelihoods in bear country, often perceived bears as a nuisance and occasionally as a threat, either to their safety or to their prosperity. This tension between humans and bears on this shared landscape struck me as a conflict in need of mitigation, a problem I was determined to use science to solve. What came out of my commitment, however, was less of an ability to make sweeping recommendations to eradicate human-bear conflict in Tahoe and more of a deep understanding of the ways human lives and values are distinctly intertwined with bears.

Days later, we captured an adult female black bear with her two “cubs of the year,” about six months old. They wrestled and played with each other while we processed their mother, placing a GPS collar around her neck that would allow us to track her movements into the winter as she made a den for herself and her cubs. Once we had finished, we hid in a nearby bush to monitor the cubs’ safety while the mother slowly arose from her sedated state.

It is rare for people to be able to observe the behavior of a mother bear with her cubs, as this is often a dangerous scenario. Watching the playfulness of the little ones, as well as their seeming sense of relief when their mother began to stir again, connected me to these animals in a way I’ll never forget. Upon waking, the mother’s first order of business was to nurse her cubs, an instinct familiar to all mammals. Reunited and well fed, the troupe of three then calmly walked back into the depths of the forest.

I was hooked on this work for life.

Excerpted from Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World by Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. © 2024 by Rae Wynn-Grant. Used with permission of the publisher Get Lifted Books, an imprint of Zando, LLC.

Meet the Writer

About Rae Wynn-Grant

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a wildlife ecologist, the co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: Protecting the Wild, and the author of Wild Life. She’s based in Santa Barbara, California.

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