Excerpted from Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World by Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. © 2024 by Rae Wynn-Grant. Used with permission of the publisher Get Lifted Books, an imprint of Zando, LLC. Image credit: Celeste Slowman
Excerpt from ‘Wild Life’ by Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant
Nestled in the breaks of the Sierra Nevada lies the cerulean depths of Lake Tahoe. Rocky shores border the lake as snow-capped mountains disrupt the water’s infinite stretch to the horizon. Fir trees and stately pines flank the shores and provide shelter for the region’s wildlife: yellow-bellied marmots, mountain lions, American martens, and, of course, the largest of the Sierra carnivores—black bears.
I had been studying black bears since I started my PhD in the fall of 2010. And for that first year, while I was meant to become an expert on the subject, I still hadn’t seen a bear in real life. I felt like such a fraud—rigorously starting my research career on an animal I’d never encountered.
My new project would take me back to the same region where I’d first explored the outdoors as a schoolgirl on my Yosemite National Park class trip. I would be researching a small black bear population in the Lake Tahoe Basin, on the California-Nevada border, in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From 2011 to 2013, I’d swing like a pendulum between my research project in Tahoe and my home base in NYC.
Early on in our research, as a rite of passage, my research collaborators, Dr. Jon Beckmann and Carl Lackey, took me on a long driving tour of all the different habitats bears use in the Lake Tahoe ecosystem. For the first time, I saw the mountains, forests, lakes, and deserts of my birth state and the bordering state of Nevada, all within a few miles of each other. That same day, they drove me to a secluded area of the forest and patiently taught me how to shoot a tranquilizer gun, a tool I’d use throughout my many years of work with black bears.
The timing couldn’t have been more ideal, because the next day we captured what we all called “Rae’s First Bear.” Its fur wasn’t black, but light brown, which is typical for western bears. As I’d soon learn, North American black bears come in various shades, even stark white, and their coats often correspond to their native regions.
I learned how to process the bear, which wasn’t much different from how I’d process lions in my earlier years studying African wildlife: weigh and measure the animal, check its temperature (rectally—you haven’t lived until you’ve done this), comb through its fur to look for ectoparasites, take hair and blood samples, and give it an ear tag and a GPS collar so we could track its movements and learn about its ecology.
Although I always want to appear to be a cool, collected, well-seasoned field biologist, it was impossible for me to contain my excitement during this first experience catching and tagging a black bear. As soon as it was tranquilized, I pulled out my smartphone and texted pictures of me and the giant animal to my friends and family. The next day was another bear, and the day after that, another. The work energized me, and I was awestruck by how naturally black bears fit into this ecosystem that housed both people and wildlife.
Yet what seemed a “natural fit” to me didn’t necessarily reflect the experiences of many people I met during my first days in Tahoe. These people, having built homes and livelihoods in bear country, often perceived bears as a nuisance and occasionally as a threat, either to their safety or to their prosperity. This tension between humans and bears on this shared landscape struck me as a conflict in need of mitigation, a problem I was determined to use science to solve. What came out of my commitment, however, was less of an ability to make sweeping recommendations to eradicate human-bear conflict in Tahoe and more of a deep understanding of the ways human lives and values are distinctly intertwined with bears.
Days later, we captured an adult female black bear with her two “cubs of the year,” about six months old. They wrestled and played with each other while we processed their mother, placing a GPS collar around her neck that would allow us to track her movements into the winter as she made a den for herself and her cubs. Once we had finished, we hid in a nearby bush to monitor the cubs’ safety while the mother slowly arose from her sedated state.
It is rare for people to be able to observe the behavior of a mother bear with her cubs, as this is often a dangerous scenario. Watching the playfulness of the little ones, as well as their seeming sense of relief when their mother began to stir again, connected me to these animals in a way I’ll never forget. Upon waking, the mother’s first order of business was to nurse her cubs, an instinct familiar to all mammals. Reunited and well fed, the troupe of three then calmly walked back into the depths of the forest.
I was hooked on this work for life.
Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World will be published by Get Lifted Books on April 2, 2024 wherever books are sold. Pre-order your copy here.
About ‘Wild Life’
Growing up in the diverse and bustling California Bay Area, renowned wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant always felt worlds away from the white male adventurers she watched explore the wilderness on TV. She dreamed of a future where she could spend sleepless nights under the crowded canopies of the Amazon and the starry skies of the savanna. But as Rae set off on her own journey in the wild, finding her way in a profession where there were few scientists who looked like her, she saw nature’s delicate balance in a new light. In her quest to study the ever-shifting relationship between humans, animals, and place, Rae has realized the vital roles we each play not just as stewards for our land and water, but also for our communities, each other, and ourselves.
Wild Life follows Rae from her urban childhood in California and Virginia, to her adventures and explorations in some of the world’s most rugged and remote locales. Hers is a story about a career in the wild spanning nearly two decades, carving a niche for herself as one of very few Black female scientists, and the challenges she has had to overcome, expectations she has had to leave behind, and the many lessons she has learned along the way. Through her personal story of resilience and adaptation, Rae argues for a more connected, more socially and ecologically conscious world. An incredible journey spanning the Great Plains of North America to the rainforests of Madagascar, Wild Life sheds light on our pivotal relationship and responsibility to the natural world and the relatives—both human and otherwise—that we share it with.
About Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant
Rae Wynn-Grant is a wildlife ecologist with an expertise in uncovering how human activity influences carnivore behavior and ecology. She received her BS in environmental studies from Emory University, her MS in environmental studies from Yale University, and her PhD in ecology and evolution from Columbia University. She is a Research Fellow with the National Geographic Society, with whom she has appeared on a variety of televised nature programs and for whom she’s currently on a 20-city speaking tour as part of Nat Geo Live. She serves on The North Face’s Explore Fund Council, co-hosts Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild on NBC, hosts the podcast “Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant,” produced by PBS, and has been featured in Vogue, Forbes, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among many others. She lives in California.