There’s not much that scares Wes Larson.
For most of us, crazy adventures in the wilderness happen once in a lifetime —if that. For this ‘Grizkid’ bear biologist, it’s all in a day’s work.
Larson, whose 118,000 Instagram followers enjoy impressive shots of mountainous landscapes and videos of wide-eyed cubs, is a pin-up boy for modern conservation. Bringing biology and science to the masses, one bear selfie at a time.
There are three types of bears in the U.S. Grizzlies (proper name Brown Bears), polar bears and the smallest, but no less dangerous of the three, the black bear. Most of Larson’s work involves the latter, which used to be common in forested areas throughout the whole of North America – from northern Canada down to central Mexico. Although not endangered, these animals are facing increasing problems caused by rampant human development.
Splitting his time between Utah and Northern Alaska, the 34-year old also works with polar bears, who were upgraded from a species of “least concern” to a “vulnerable” species back in 2006. Climate change means melting ice caps – these ice caps provide the crucial hunting ground the polar bears need to find food. It’s safe to say their situation isn’t improving. Amuse caught up with Larson when he was fresh from a weekend break to Colorado.
He speaks pretty frankly about the inhospitable landscapes that constitute his office in remote Alaska: “It’s so unbearably cold that when we go out to do your research we just go out and come back inside, the conditions are terrible. You can’t go exploring.” Larson and his team are put up by the oil rig companies out there, in dormitories made of shipping containers. It sounds bleak.
Luckily, it’s offset by the daily adrenalin hit of getting to work up close and personal with polar bears. But he assures me they aren’t as scary as they sound. The more terrifying part of Larson’s job is back in Bryce Canyon National Park, climbing into the dens of the black bears he’s worked with since 2014.
These bears Larson is tracking – as part of work with Utah’s Brigham Young University – have GPS collars fitted to them, so he can see where they’re spending time, eating, and what routes they’re using to move around. He then overlays this data with maps to see their vegetation and the landscapes they need to survive.
Why the Grizkid climbs into 80 foot tunnels with sleeping bears at the bottom of them
But GPS collars run out of battery, and mid-winter the bears need health checks. To check the collars are working and assess the bears’ health while they’re in a deep sleep (known as a torpor), Larson has to climb right down into their dens. This is not work for the faint-hearted.
What happens to your senses when you’re climbing into a pitch black hole with a defensive 200lb mammal at the bottom of it? “That’s hard to explain” concedes Larson.
“There’s kind of a primal feeling you get where you’re in a place that you know from millions of years of evolution that you’re not supposed to be in.
“There’s kind of a primal feeling you get where you’re in a place that you know from millions of years of evolution that you’re not supposed to be in. You’re in a hole with a predator that eats you, but you just have to push past a lot of stuff that we’re conditioned to be afraid of” he continues. “It’s something that takes a lot of concentration, you just have to force yourself.”
Larson is no cowboy conservationist – he’s disarmingly professional and conscientious about his work. He also knows how to avoid danger. The most he’s ever armed with is a can of mace – which is no use in a den anyway because there’s nowhere for the bear to run. One time he found himself down an 80-foot long tunnel (against the protests of his teammates) with an angry bear glaring back at him.
“Had it done anything even semi-agressive – I would have just got out of there”
“The whole time the bear was looking at me as I’m crawling down into the den, the people that were with me were telling me that it was too dangerous and I shouldn’t do it – but we really had to catch that bear so I just kept going” explains Larson. “Then I stopped about 8 feet from it and just watched him and watched for any kind of aggression.
“For me, I think the thing that helps the most in that situation is just understanding the behaviour of the animal and knowing when it’s upset and when it’s not upset” he elaborates. “We don’t really have a defence for an aggressive bear in a den. I would never dream of shooting one, because I’m entering their den, I’m putting myself in its area. It feels wrong to do that.”
“With black bears, when they are being aggressive they’ll lower their head, they’ll swing their heads back and forward, they’ll pop their jaw and they make a smacking noise with their mouth as well. Those are all signs that the bear isn’t happy, it’s ready to charge. I was just looking for anything like that and had it done anything even semi-agressive I would have just got out of there.”
Once inside the den Larson will sedate the bear using an 8-foot ‘jab stick’ with a syringe on the end of it which automatically compresses when it makes contact with the bear.
He’s quick to point out that sharing this whole process on his Instagram has its downsides – he doesn’t want to encourage people to try and find bears themselves as the more humans interact with the animals the more likely they are to have problems.
He’s no Timothy Treadwell, though
Soon conversation turns to Timothy Treadwell, the bear lover who’s footage was turned into cult documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog. Larson’s own mentor and professor Thomas Smith was working in the same part of Alaska when Treadwell was up there.
“I’ve been able to talk to Tom and get a first-hand account of it” says Larson. “I’ve seen the film and on the one hand I can really respect his passion for an animal and how much he truly loved those bears, but then as a scientist and a conservationist, there are really big flaws to what he was doing.
“Asides from his personal safety, obviously, he was conditioning them to be around people which is not a good thing for bears because the more they get comfortable, the more likely they are to run into people who want to shoot them, or they decide humans are a good source of food – and they go and eat out of someone’s trash, and become a nuisance. Then someone might shoot them.”
“Even though in [Treadwell’s] mind he thought his presence there was protecting those bears, he was actually doing them a pretty big disservice,” says Larson objectively. “He paid the ultimate price for it with his life – and the life of his girlfriend.”
The biggest tragedy for Larson himself is if one of his bears is shot by a hunter. “It is a disappointment,” he says. “The North American conservation model is based on hunting. All the money that goes into it – like hiring guides and so on – a lot of that goes back into conservation projects like mine. So there is a value to it. But the mindset, I don’t understand why you’d actually want to kill a bear.”
This has only happened a couple of times though, as the bear’s tracking collars are easy to spot and generally hunters are conscientious of the money and time invested in them. The conservation work is crucial to the future of their sport, too.
But spending all this time tracking the same bears and working with them, it must be hard not to get emotionally invested. “I do have to have a level of professionalism when I’m working with them” concedes Larson, although he admits to naming the first two bears he worked with Gilbert and Cindy – after his parents. Another favourite got the nickname Homer.
“It’s hard not to have an emotional response to an animal that is as impressive as a bear,” says Larson. “I get excited and thrilled to see that my bears are thriving and having cubs, there’s definitely an emotional response to see your efforts pay dividends.”