Habitat for a Grizzly:
Summer as a Field Technician in the Canadian Rockies
Interview by Andrea Lewis
Ellen Brandell, from West Bloomfield, Mich., is a senior in the UM wildlife biology honors program. She spent her summer in Alberta, Canada, working alongside UM doctoral candidate Robin Steenweg as a field technician in a grizzly bear study and wildlife-camera project. Brandell recently talked about studying wildlife biology, her summer work and her career aspirations.
What drew you to study wildlife biology at UM?
When I was young, I was obsessed with the Animal Planet channel on TV. I couldn’t believe that people got to explore the world and the creatures in it as an occupation. I knew I wanted to go into science, and when I got a little older I actually began to look into the careers that I had watched on TV. It turns out that studying wildlife biology was exactly what I wanted to do. The Wildlife Biology Program at UM is quite renowned, but it was Missoula itself that led me to choose UM. UM has provided me with the resources to create amazing opportunities for myself as an undergrad, such as the project on which I’m currently working. I could not have made a better decision for my undergraduate education.
How did your undergraduate research project come about?
I was looking for summer wildlife employment and went to forestry Associate Professor Mark Hebblewhite because I had worked for him last summer on an elk study in the Bitterroot Mountains and really enjoyed it. Also, he had become my adviser after I applied and was accepted into the wildlife biology honors program, which allows students to do an undergraduate honors thesis. He set me up with Robin Steenweg, who is working toward his doctorate under Professor Hebblewhite. We both thought Robin’s project would be a great way to do my honors thesis and work during summer.
Describe your summer research project.
Robin’s project involves wildlife camera trapping in Banff National Park and in an area located east of the park. There is a grid system containing 50 cameras. As Robin’s field technician, I have been organizing all the photos captured by cameras during the past three years. I also serviced the cameras over the summer. Basically, I hike to the cameras to make sure they are working properly, change the batteries and download the photos they have taken. When I return from the field, I look through all of the pictures and organize them.
Ultimately, how will the photos be used in his research?
Robin will analyze images as part of his work to develop a noninvasive approach to monitoring carnivores and their prey in the Rockies. He is exploring how we can use remote cameras to do noninvasive research and perhaps scale back on some of the more invasive methods, like radio-collaring. He is looking at how species interact with each other, how they react to human activity and development, and even how animals will respond to a warming climate into the future.
What did a typical day look like?
About half of the cameras were fairly easy to get to, and the other half were in much more remote areas. East of Banff, I could drive and do shorter hikes and reach multiple cameras in one day. The cameras inside the park were only accessible by hiking, so I did backpacking trips into the park for a few days. Some cameras were very tricky to access because the rivers were so high this summer. I had to cross the rivers on horseback, or in some areas I had to just wait until the water levels were lower. I really enjoyed exploring the beautiful backcountry of Alberta.
What were some of the most exciting photos the cameras captured?
I am surprised by the number of lynx that have been caught on camera. Lynx are very cool creatures, and so rarely seen by people. I also really like the red fox pictures. I am incredibly impressed by how well they hunt! A few cameras got pictures of resident foxes, and you can see the fox coming back with a meal – like squirrels or snowshoe hares – two or more times a week. It is cool to watch an animal’s life from the sidelines through these pictures.
What will you focus on for your honors thesis?
I will use the camera data to look at co-occurrence patterns between wolves and cougars. I will be determining what the areas look like and the commonalities between them.
What was the most challenging component of your research?
The best part of this kind of work can also be the most challenging: working in the field. Things go wrong, the weather may be terrible, and trails on the map may not actually exist at all and you are stuck bushwhacking for hours. These obstacles can be challenging, but fieldwork is so rewarding in that my “office” is the wild Northern Rockies. The best days far outweigh the worst days, and it is all worth it.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned this summer?
I have learned two very important lessons this summer: 1) You can only do what you can do, and 2) I’ve confirmed that I have definitely chosen the correct career path. When I say, ‘you can only do what you can do,’ I mean that you should absolutely put in your best effort, but it’s also important to recognize limits. I’ve learned that there is no point in stressing out endlessly about something that went wrong because chances are you can fix it. For example, if the river is too high for even the horses to cross, I have to accept that I can’t cross the river for a bit. Soon enough I will be able to get across to do my work. Secondly, this type of work solidifies my decision to go into wildlife biology. Being excited for work every day is something I want to feel for the rest of my career, and it seems like this type of work will satisfy that goal.
Why does this type of work excite you?
Doing fieldwork every day brings surprises and new learning experiences. I saw a pine marten for the first time, I ran into grizzly bears while I hiked, I watched the flowers grow from little seedlings to flowers and then to fruits, and I have made it through tough hikes with a 45-pound backpack. Each of these experiences taught me something.
Any exciting stories from working in remote areas?
In July, I was a bit too quiet while hiking and saw a medium-sized grizzly not too far away. He was grazing in a meadow on the wildflowers. It was remarkable to see a creature so powerful and awesome as a grizzly in the wild, just doing whatever he wanted to do. Don’t worry, I wasn’t too awestruck to forget correct bear procedure, and when it saw me it ran away very fast!
Did you ever think you would be doing anything like this?
Suburban Detroit and the backcountry of Banff National Park are two completely opposite places. I probably surprised a lot of people when I moved to Montana and began my wildlife education and career. Six years ago, I probably would not have believed I would be doing a field job like this, but living in Montana and being surrounded by like-minded people has allowed me to truly be myself. These types of experiences were not available to me growing up, so I didn’t know the possibilities of the outdoors. I think it is so important for people in urban areas to get out and experience nature and different places. I have gained an appreciation for Earth’s vastness and realize there is so much more in the world than just my hometown.
What is your dream job after you graduate from UM?
This fall, I started my senior year, and I will graduate in the spring. I hope to study species being affected by climate change. I have finished the courses I need for a climate change studies minor at UM, and I think it is the perfect complement to my wildlife biology degree. Studying the effects of climate change is a new and rapidly growing field, and having knowledge in this area is extremely important for understanding and predicting changes in wildlife and wildlife management.
Also, there is a negative connotation with climate change as it relates to wildlife, but not all species will be negatively affected. It would be a breath of fresh air to study species that will actually benefit from climate change, and I don’t mean the mountain pine beetle or other invasive species. I want to be able to produce science that can be used to conserve and protect species and important habitat.