As a wildlife biologist, Wesley Larson’s focus for the past 8 years has specifically been on polar and black bears. During that time, Wes’ work took him from the United States to Africa, and even all the way to the Arctic.. He also assisted on a number of other wildlife conservation efforts for species such as African wild dogs, golden eagles, American kestrels and many more. This year at TEDxVienna’s About Time conference, I had the chance to interview him on wildlife conservation before his talk.
You have done a lot of research on polar bears and black bears and you’ve shared these processes on your Instagram account @grizkid as well. How did you decide to become a wildlife biologist who specializes in bear species? What was the starting point of your research on polar bears and black bears in Bryce Canyon National Park?
I was actually thinking I was going to study medicine, so I did a biology degree for my undergrad degree. I shadowed a doctor for that and I hated it. That kind of pushed me back. I found a professor who was working at Brigham Young University, Tom Smith. He was doing bear research and it just fit. After about a year-and-a-half of me trying to get involved in these researches he gave me a job just helping out with the polar bear project, and then he gave me a position as a researcher.
Both of the projects that I worked on at Brigham Young University are based around human-wildlife conflict. With the polar bear project, we were specifically looking at how oil industry actively might be affecting polar bears living in the same areas, specifically looking at how passing trucks or planes might be disturbing the females. For that one, all we needed to do is set up cameras and everything; we didn’t actually interact with those bears. The black bear project that was looking at bears and international Park and they were having some problems with bears entering the campsites and potentially threatening the visitors. They wanted to know what could be done to make their campsite safer for the visitors and also for bears. In that project, we put GPS collars on black bears and with that data we learned what they were eating, where they were spending their time and where they were going. I also went into each of those campsites and looked at potential food sources for the bears, if the campsites were nearby the water where bears would go to drink, if they were on trails that bears use etc.
I compared those two sets of data looking at what the campsites had and what the bears were using. With that information, we helped National Park make their campsite safer.
You wrote that you believe that wildlife conservation is not only essential for the preservation of the world’s animals, but also for the continuation of the human spirit.
As a biologist working so close with these animals, where do you see the connection between wildlife conservation and continuation of the human spirit?
As biologists we are really careful not to attribute human characteristics to animals, so we try not to get too emotionally attached to bears we are working with. Sometimes it is really hard because it is easy to see ourselves in these animals fighting to survive and raise their young. On top of that, I see it mostly as just the amount of joy that wild life brings to people. If you’ve ever been around people seeing and animal for first time in their lives, it’s such an incredible experience for them. At some national parks in the US, everyone wants to see a bear, and when they do, it just makes their entire trip. We are so excited about them, and that’s because we have connections with these animals, especially with the predators. We’ve evolved with them and we know that they can hurt us but there’s also this power from this relationship we’ve formed over evolution. I think without animals to observe, things are a lot emptier. When you’re not missing those animals, I do think it affects human spirit in a positive way and it makes us fully experience our trips.
Recently you said, we as humans screwed up things to the point where we have to help animals to survive. The part of the society that lives in the cities are still not fully aware of how they threaten nature with their lifestyles and how to help or prevent this damage. How can we make the world more livable and sustainable?
Well, I think if you’re actually trying to make cities more livable for the animals, that’s already a battle in a lot of ways. There are certain animals that are adaptable enough to life in the cities, black bears being one of them, but other animals can’t really coexist with us people.
For someone who wants to help, there is a lot of stuff they can do. First of all, there are countless organizations they can donate to. If there are certain species that you are fascinated with, I guarantee you that there is someone working with them and a simple internet search can help you find that. Outside of that, I think there are three things I’ll bring up. People should make smart decisions on how they spend their money; By not supporting companies contributing to habitat loss, not buying products with palm oil, not buying products that supports wildlife trafficking, staying away from seafood that isn’t sustainable or any products containing animal parts… Just making sure they’re not supporting climate change as much as possible by being an informed consumer. Next, being an informed voter is really important, voting for representatives that care about the planet. We have so many politicians right now who don’t. Finally, I recommend going out into nature as much as possible. If you live in a city, go to a park, go to a beach, go wherever you can reconnect with nature. This naturally inspires people to care more about it and make those decisions to protect it. There is a lot of stuff people can do in their daily lives that can support and protect the nature.
Let’s talk about wildfires. Wildfires have been an issue for a long time now, especially this summer when the Amazon wildfires destroyed over 900,000 hectares of natural habitat. Have you worked with species that have been affected by these wildfires?
Yes. I live in the Western United States, my home is Montana. Tthere have been devastating wildfires and it’s getting worse every single year. This year, thankfully, we kind of had a small break from them but the last 10 years I’ve seen them getting worse and worse. That’s a the direct result of climate change. It’s not just that the temperature is getting warmer, but that it changes patterns and it also allows for something people don’t talk about too much: it allows different insects into the ecosystem that historically couldn’t survive there, because it was too cold. Those insects kill the trees and then the trees, because they are dry and dead, burn much easier. There are all these different problems that are coming from climate catastrophes. Wildfires are a huge problem affecting wildlife, people, and air quality.
Finally, are there any unique stories you have from working all around the world in different environments and various species that you would like to share before your TEDx Talk?
Yes, I actually have a story that is in my talk, but that I had to cut short. It is a story from my first season doing my polar bear research. We went out there in the winter and it’s incredibly cold and it’s northern Alaska on the Arctic Ocean! We were using snowmobiles to get to the polar bear camps. To ride on snowmobiles, you have to wear tons of gear. You have to be totally prepared for that kind of temperature. There was one particular day where it was –55 degrees. It was too cold, we shouldn’t have gone out that day, but we had a run that we really need to do. I was going on my snowmobile, my helmet is completely enclosed, it’s heated but I could feel some air getting into it somehow. As the cold air was hitting my face, I knew I was going to get a frostbite. In the first stage of it, you just get a scab on your face or wherever, it’s like you get burnt and I felt that happening. As we were riding, my eyeball froze completely solid! I had to pull over and yelled at the other guy that I lost my eyesight; my eyeball was frozen. I went into a sled, in there it was warm enough that I could pull off my gloves and I just held my palm to my eyeball, prayed that my eyesight would come back. Thank God I could see again, but my eyes still twitched every 20 seconds for about 2 or 3 months after that.
Wes Larson also has a project called Socks for Animals that donates to wildlife conservation projects; “We were kind of talking about the ways we can give people a product that they would like but would have a benefit for wildlife in some way. We didn’t want to add an unnecessary product to the world, so we wanted to take something that people would use already and we settled on socks! The idea is to produce new socks about every month that has a species on it that’s is endangered and threatened. When people buy those socks, 10% of profit goes towards that species conservation and to researchers working with those species. It’s an exciting project for us. We are able to give something to people that they’ll love. Something that is comfortable, well-made and good quality, and then we also get to donate to support wildlife conservation.”