From the moment conservation biologist Wes Larson entered the long sandstone tunnel, he could see the black bear at the other end. The 350-pound (159-kilogram) mammal simply stared back, the glint of Larson’s headlamp in its eye. Larson was in a remote area of Bryce Canyon National Park, trying to trap the bear to change its radio collar, which had dying batteries.
“My brother crawled in behind me but repeatedly told me to turn around,” said Larson. “I finally told him to shut up because he was making me nervous.” Larson didn’t turn around. Instead, he crawled within eight feet (2.4 meters) of the bear, sat motionless to see if the bear might get aggressive, then finally jabbed it with a syringe full of tranquilizers affixed to the end of a pole. Nothing happened. So he administered another dose.
Eventually, the bear crawled groggily out of the cave, where Larson was able to affix a new radio collar, weigh it, measure it, and take vital signs. Then he pushed the bear back into the den and covered the entrance with loose snow.
The trapping is part of a multiyear study Larson, 33, is working on for his master’s degree in wildlife and wildlands conservation at Brigham Young University. He is a new breed of scientist, sharing his work not only in academic papers but also with laypeople through a robust Instagram feed (@grizkid), where snapshots of himself with sedated bears; his pet orphaned raccoon, Pants; and other wildlife have snagged more than 90,000 followers.
Growing up in western Montana, Larson was always curious about wildlife, fishing, and backpacking and exploring creeks for frogs, turtles, and snakes. He studied biology in school but planned to go into optometry, which seemed like a respectable profession. But after shadowing an optometrist, he realized it wasn’t for him. Instead, he decided to follow his passion for bears and approached Tom Smith, a bear expert at Brigham Young University, to take him on as a grad student. Smith said no. So Larson went into his office about every other week for about a year. Finally Smith hired him as a field tech to work on a study of polar bears in the Arctic.
Now, as a master’s student and research apprentice, Larson primarily works on two bear studies. With a team in the Prudhoe Bay region of Arctic Alaska, he helps find polar bear dens and monitors hibernating females to determine exit times, denning behaviors, and any effects on the animals from oil industry activity. The work can be grueling—he has withstood temperatures of minus 65°F (minus 54°C), cold enough to make his eyeballs freeze—but he insists polar bears aren’t as terrifying as their reputation might suggest.
“Polar bears are curious, and when they do want to investigate a person as a potential food source, it’s scary just because you know they’re trying to eat you,” says Larson. “But we’re working with females that are denning, and they truly want nothing to do with us. They want to protect their young.”
Larson is also working on a study of black bears in Bryce Canyon, a national park best known for its amphitheater full of reddish hoodoos and other spectacular geology. But the park also harbors stands of ponderosa pine, juniper, and oak and good food for bears.
Several years ago, black bears broke into tents and swatted a visitor in a string of incidents in Bryce Canyon that concerned rangers. Under Smith’s supervision, Larson is radio-collaring bears by trapping them, as well as crawling into dens so that he can monitor their movements through the park, their water and food sources, and what trails and campsites they frequent. He is also evaluating backcountry campsites for conditions that might increase the risk of bear-human conflict, such as abundant food sources.
Already he has learned the bears’ general home range size and observed that they do tend to use trail corridors. Findings are still emerging and the report, to be completed late this year, will help National Park Service wildlife managers decide whether to move campsites or take other action to reduce bear conflicts.
The work can be tiring and dangerous. A bear has bitten his shoe (no injury sustained), and a cub scratched him up when the youngster got stuck in a trap. Larson once climbed a tree to track a bear and sedate it, and then fell and broke his ankle. For several hours he waited for help beneath a tree with a bear in it.
While most science is a long, detailed, and often not so glamorous process, these activities naturally make for sensational social media. And over the years, Larson’s Instagram feed has evolved from a way to share his daily adventures with friends to a method for getting non-scientists interested in conservation biology.
“It’s a way to spread a conservation message outside of the typical scientific formula,” says Larson. “I think my posts on Instagram and some of this other outreach helps laypeople understand a little more about how conservation works and how biologists are actually out there trying to learn more about wildlife to protect them.” Ultimately what fuels Larson, however, isn’t a penchant for screens but a passion for animals.
“The thing I like so much about bears is the fact that they require these big tracts of wilderness,” says Larson. “They can adapt to a certain amount of human presence, but they’re not an animal that can just completely adapt to us, like the coyote or the fox. They need wilderness to survive—and I think, in a weird way, we do too.”