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Tsalani Lassiter

Where the Bears Were

For much of her career, Rae Wynn-Grant has studied bears in the mountains of Nevada. But a new opportunity has sent her into the prairies of northeastern Montana, where these iconic animals were once common — and where a nonprofit now wants them to return.
Rae Wynn-Grant ’10 M.E.Sc. had been studying bears in Nevada for seven years when the National Geographic Society sent her to northeastern Montana to work for a group she’d never heard of, the American Prairie Reserve (APR). That meant leaving behind the mountains, where black bears are still common, and moving to the grasslands, where they are not.

“The mountains were in my rearview mirror — and it felt so wrong,” she said.

A year later, Wynn-Grant sees things differently: As a student of Ursus americanus (the American black bear) and Ursus arctos horribilis (the grizzly), she’s beginning to feel she belongs here. Because, as it turns out, the bears do, too.
The prairie is the native home of all of America’s large mammal species, bison being the most iconic, but also elk and mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears.
— Rae Wynn-Grant ’10 M.E.Sc.
“The prairie is the native home of all of America’s large mammal species, bison being the most iconic, but also elk and mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears,” said Wynn-Grant. “As white settlers came through from east to west, they exterminated wildlife and native peoples in the grasslands and drove them into the mountains.”

The APR wants to see those animals roaming the prairie again. Funded by donations, the 18-year-old nonprofit is restoring Montana’s northern prairie, buying private land to stitch together vast tracts of fragmented protected lands. It is building the reserve around the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, 1.1 million acres near the Saskatchewan border. The organization’s consulting biologists estimate that a thriving ecosystem with room for migration will require 3.2 million acres. (By comparison, the state of Connecticut comprises 3.5 million acres.)

“APR is taking old cattle ranches and restoring them,” said Wynn-Grant, whose work with the group is funded by a National Geographic Society fellowship. “They start with grass: They get rid of crappy annual grass that cows graze on and they reseed with native grass species. The grasses just take off. With the native grasses back, the insects come back, and with the insects, the birds.”
Fall 2019 Canopy cover image
This article was originally published in the fall 2019 edition of Canopy magazine
Even bison are returning. In 2005, after a century without them, the group trucked in 16 plains bison from South Dakota. Today, the herd numbers 800. Wynn-Grant sees promise for the return of large carnivores, too. Grizzlies are already spilling out of protected areas such as Glacier National Park, located across the state in mountainous northwestern Montana.

But there are challenges. “The bears are quite literally walking on their four paws toward the prairie in search of high-quality habitat and getting killed along the way,” she said. In June she heard that two young grizzlies had been killed 100 miles from the reserve. Conservation groups are already working to minimize human-wildlife conflict on the prairie. For instance, Defenders of Wildlife pays the salaries of range riders who observe where predators and cattle (or people) might mix and then keep them apart.

Wynn-Grant’s main task so far has been predicting which habitats will attract bears. Obtaining data to model habitat selection has required negotiations with researchers from conservation groups and state and federal agencies.

Over the coming year, she’ll set up camera traps to collect data on bear movements. (Black bears will serve as proxies for grizzlies.) Those sightings, she expects, will help fine-tune her understanding of habitat preferences.

It’s not the first time Wynn-Grant has tracked wildlife. Back when she was a student at Yale, she tracked lions in Tanzania for four months on a project run by Laly Lichtenfield ’05 Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of African People and Wildlife. It was later, while completing her doctorate at Columbia, that she first started doing hands-on black bear research.
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Peter Houlihan
As a large carnivore ecologist, Rae Wynn-Grant gets up close and personal with America's largest predators.
While she remains a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York — and spent three years teaching there as a postdoctoral fellow — she decided to step off the path toward a full-time academic job when she discovered the opportunity with National Geographic.

The fellowship has allowed her more time to develop her skills in science communication and storytelling. Wynn-Grant views this role as something of a public service. It was the nature shows that she’d watched on television as a child that sparked her interest in big mammals. At the time, it didn’t occur to her that she was learning science. “I was being entertained,” she said.

“Being a part of Nat Geo has given me much more of a media presence, which is exciting and fun,” she said. Her audiences range from science-loving teenagers in Manhattan to rural Montanans. She values, in particular, speaking to people of color. “Being able to talk about my career and why it’s important is raising awareness in a community that hasn’t historically been involved in this work.”

Back when Wynn-Grant was collaring bears in Nevada, she found an unexpected commonality between the animals and humans: a fondness for the rainbow coffee cake donated by Walmart to lure them. Years of close contact with bears have revealed more meaningful similarities — bears and humans alike seek safe places to raise offspring, each prefers habitats with abundant food, and both like living near water.

“I’m a large omnivore myself,” she said. “I really feel passionate about finding coexistence for all of us.”
PUBLISHED: December 20, 2019
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.