Growing up in his beloved home state of Montana, Wes Larson, a wildlife and bear biologist known on his social media platforms as “grizkid,” had two things on his mind: wildlife and dinosaurs. His obsessed nine-year-old self kept a constant lookout for whatever he could find in his backyard and in nearby ponds and streams - endless species of bugs, turtles, snakes, frogs, deer, foxes… even the occasional bear. One particularly prevalent frog species fascinated him. He'd catch a Northern Leopard Frog, take it home for a day or two, and release it into the pond behind his house. Then he’d catch another, “like a rotating pet,” he recalls. “I’d catch them all the time.” Eventually he remembers noticing their numbers beginning to dwindle. One day, they disappeared altogether.
“At that point I still had this young idea of nature and wildlife, thinking everything was eternal and infinite,” says Larson. To a kid his age, the local loss of that species felt personal. “I lost something I really cared about that brought me a lot of joy,” he explains. “I had this paradigm shift in my mind: suddenly, not only did I love animals, but I also wanted to protect them.”
After graduating college with a major in biology and then a brief stint shadowing an optometrist — who eventually pulled Larson aside to tell him he should pursue something else, because “you seem happiest when you’re outside” — he attached himself to Tom Smith, a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who was working on bears. Larson spent almost two years getting to know Professor Smith and finally, eventually persuaded him to take him on as a graduate student. “I was just persistent,” Larson recalls. “He knew I wanted it the most.” Together, they worked on a polar bear project for a total of almost seven years and then studied black bears together for another four. Since then, Larson has worked with everything from sloth bears in India, pangolins and African wild dogs, alligators, spotted eagle rays, elephant seals, raptors, hellbenders, and green sea turtles. “Yeah, I think that’s about it,” he says. Now, once again based in Montana, Larson is doing research and outreach for a number of non-profit organizations and specializing in bear-human conflicts.
In the trajectory of your career, did you feel like there was a point where everything shifted to being about climate change and conservation? Or was it always about that?
I started my career with polar bears, at the end of 2011. By then we knew about climate change and its effect on polar bears and sea ice. So from day one, climate change was very front and center. It’s only become more and more important as it’s gone on, because it’s actually accelerating even quicker than we thought it would. The models weren’t quite as drastic as they needed to be. With polar bears, I had to worry about climate change, which is the greatest threat facing our wildlife. But then, I also got to do this black bear project. And while every animal on the planet is affected in some way or another by climate change, black bears are so adaptable — able to live on the fringes of society — that they are probably going to be around for a long time.
It was interesting for me. On the one hand I had this species that had this huge, existential threat hanging over them, that literally required the entire planet to change its behavior. It was really daunting and scary and challenging. On the other hand, I was working with a species with whom I could tackle little problems that were happening. How they were aggressive in backcountry campsites, for example, or what we could do to prevent conflicts with them and campers.
What makes the black bears so adaptable?
It’s really just their diet. Polar bears evolved to a point where they live in such a harsh climate and in such an interesting niche that they can really only eat seals to survive. They need really high fat content food. If they don’t eat stuff that has that high fat content blubber that seals have, it’s not energetically viable for them. So they have to hunt seals to survive, and if they lose the sea ice they can’t hunt, so they’re dying out. Whereas black bears are the ultimate opportunists. They have a huge range of food they can eat. They eat a ton of vegetation, they eat plants, they eat insects, they eat meat… really whatever they can find. And that adaptability and plasticity gives them a huge advantage. It allows them to take advantage of a wide range of food sources instead of being stuck to such a narrow one. On top of that they’re very good at avoiding confrontation.
Where did you study black bears and where do they live?
I studied black bears in Bryce Canyon National Park. Both in the park, and on the plateau that the park is part of — that’s called the Paunsaugunt Plateau. They’re spread out throughout the US. They’re not many in the midwest, but we have them in the southern parts of the US, the northeast, the west. They’re actually the most numerous bear species on the planet. There are eight species of bears in the world, and the totals for the other seven species is roughly half the total of black bears. There are around 800,000 black bears in the world and about 400,000 other bears. [Black bears] are doing great.
Are there changes you’ve seen that make you hopeful?
I’ll reiterate that it can be a very discouraging job. It’s exciting and it’s fun and it’s something I’m passionate about, but when you think about the prognosis for some of these species, it can be very discouraging. We’re talking about hope, but that hope is really just a little glimmer. I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. If they get better.
One thing that gives me a lot of hope is something that is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology can really negatively affect habitats and wildlife. For example, as fishing technology gets better, we’re completely just destroying the ocean and taking all the fish out of it. But as technology gets better, we’re also coming up with innovative solutions to a lot of really big problems -including climate change. A lot of what gives me the most hope are solutions for climate change that revolve around technology and innovation. Ways to harness energy, to reverse some of the effects of climate change. So technology is one thing that I really am probably a little optimistic -- a little too optimistic -- about.
Another is how easy it is for people to communicate and access information now. It really makes it hard for problems to go unnoticed and not cared about for as long as they used to be. There were lots of things in the ‘80s and ‘90s and even early 2000s that were happening with wildlife that people just didn’t know about. Had they known about it, there probably would have been some kind of public reaction and stop to it. Now, because everything is out in the open and we’re able to share videos and information with people instantly, a lot of these issues that have been undercover for a long time are coming to light, and people won’t stand for them. That’s one thing that gives me hope: collective outrage at stuff that’s happening around the world.
What are scientists doing about climate change? What can we do?
I’m very new in the field and I’m not on the frontlines of understanding climate change. But that’s what some scientists are doing. And they need to figure that out as soon as possible so they can testify before Congress and make these changes for polar bears. Some of my colleagues who’ve been working with polar bears their entire career — you can see in their eyes how upsetting it is that they’ve seen this species get pushed to the absolute brink. For them, all they can think about anymore is what they can do to change that.
One thing I think is really important — and this is kind of one of those answers everyone gives, but I really do believe in it — is just education. Through social media and other channels, I’ve been able to tell people about some of the issues that are going on. Creating that awareness does cause people to make changes in their lives that are going to be beneficial for wildlife. When it comes to climate change, really the only change a person can make that I think makes a difference is who they’re voting for, because climate change isn't going to be solved on a personal level, it’s going to be solved on a government level. Those are the things that need to change for us to solve climate change.
Are there any projects that you’re excited about or make you feel hopeful?
My dream as a wildlife biologist is to be able to go study some of these animals and look at their interesting natural history, like how do polar bears hunt walruses? These things we don’t know that much about, but conservation biologists are usually relegated to look at “how can I save this animal,” and it takes some of the fun out of the job. But it does add an extra level of passion to it. You really feel like you’re helping an animal or a species that is significant. That probably sounds a little too heroic. Some of my studies have been very much like, how are oil industry trucks disturbing denning polar bears? Which plays into climate change and it plays into this bigger picture, but it’s a very small problem.
One thing that’s been really cool for me lately is being able to work with nonprofits. With research biology, it’s very big-picture -you’re writing a paper and it’s getting logged into a journal somewhere and hopefully people cite it in their research. It’s that whole kind of academic process. But working with some of these nonprofits, you get the chance to be part of stuff on the ground, and it’s a little more tangible in terms of results.
For example, I work with this non-profit in India, called Wildlife SOS. There’s this problem in India where they had all these dancing bears. This tribe would go out and capture cubs- lost bears and they’d drill a hole in their muzzles and put a chain in there. When they grew up they’d take them on the street and pull on the chain so the bear dances. They spent their life in pain - it was really brutal. But it’s also part of that tribe’s culture, their tradition. This organization realized that and realized they had to approach this problem in a sensitive way. So they’d go in and offer enough money to buy a corner store, and they would take their bear. They rescued every single dancing bear in India, hundreds and hundreds of bears, and now they’re all on this reserve in India where there is great enrichment and food. They’re living wonderful lives. To see an organization narrow in on issues they want to solve and just solve them was really cool and really refreshing. When I am being bogged down about some of these huge issues like climate change or habitat loss, thinking about some of those little success stories is always really refreshing.
To learn more about about Wes Larson and his work, follow him on Instagram @Grizkid.