USGS biologist Tabitha Graves, a one-time German literature major now captivated by the charismatic animals (“I believe I did a dance of joy,” says Graves, upon hearing she'd been offered an opportunity to work on bears for her degree)—knows most of them by name. On the wall in Graves’ office space is a map of the region studded with push pins and bits of yarn revealing a complex network of family ties amongst some one thousand individual bears. A pin for each bear: Bluto, HanSolo, Jaspar, Kiyo, Jewel.
Mapping relationships between the bears of Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Tabitha Graves.Graves’ colleague, biologist Kate Kendall, initiated this genealogy of the wildest, extracting DNA and therefore family history from clumps of bear hair collected from trees and barbed wire set up to collect these so-called “hair snags.” “We have at least three generations collected between 1998 and 2012,” says Graves, her eyes sparkling when she talks about this wealth of data. The data allow the biologists to track how far offspring wander from their mothers and whether they are traversing mountains or roads. Through modeling says Graves, “we can answer both how far young bears can go and also how likely it is that a young bear will disperse across a high road density area versus a low road density area.” And they can tell that brother bears like Sourdough and Weisner had crossed paths at least once over the course of two weeks. The goal is to one day use these data to figure out who goes where and when—which in turn may lead to developing better plans to connect dispersing bears from the Glacier area to further west in Montana. Ever since settlers moved west, the fate of these bears has been in our hands. “The limitation has been people killing bears,” explains Graves. Once the slaughter stopped when the bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act populations bounced back. Glacier is not just warming: on average, it is warming nearly 1.8 times faster than other parts of the globe. There are fewer really cold days and more really hot days, the cold is coming later and the warmth of spring is arriving earlier, snowpack is declining, trees are moving up slope, and seasonally dependent life events in both plants and animals are shifting in time. By some estimates Glacier National Park may be bereft of its namesake glaciers in less than two decades. How climate might impact grizzly populations in anyone's guess. And so, along with bear genealogy, Graves is joining the growing number of scientists working the front lines to assess the impacts of one of humanity's greatest follies. have the space to move into wilderness. Grizzlies, says Graves, could move north towards Canada along a wildlife “corridor,” which brings us back to the yarn and push-pins, an oddly low-tech approach to data handling in this high-tech mathematical modeling world. “The family tree,” explains Graves, “is a fairly complex network. I wanted to visualize the tree, and understand any odd relationships.” Graves wanted to “get to know the data at a deep level.” Knowing how young rambunctious teenage bears find their way through forests and meadows, around towns and across roads, can help define corridors to protect moving forward. Once defined, maintaining these wildlife corridors may mean the difference between a robust grizzly population and one needing continued human protections, particularly in an age when movement will be essential for both grizzlies and other species that might need to move north to weather the impending climate storm. Whether thanks to those French women or not, we saw nothing more than bear scat and a few tufts of blond hair. Even so, as anyone who has walked in the footsteps of grizzlies knows, just being in the proximity of a being far more powerful than us awakens ancient senses numbed by the daily experience of an overdeveloped world. Now, we face an overheated world. At the very least we can strive to keep the wild things in the wild; for both their sake, and ours.