Though he claims it consists of mostly paperwork, the daily life of Montana-raised wildlife biologist Wesley Larson is what childhood dreams are made of. At least, that’s how it appears on his highly-popular Instagram feed. Larson, 32, is a self-proclaimed “bear scientist” and studies polar and black bears in their natural habitats — which means he’s been to some pretty remote places. In fact, his very first experience in the field was in Arctic Alaska.
We caught up with Larson to ask him all about his life as a wildlife biologist, his growing social media following, and what it really takes to make it in a tough and unpredictable field.
THE RED BULLETIN: What inspired you to study bears?
WESLEY LARSON: I grew up in Montana and the wildlife that comes with it. It’s a part of the country that has managed to preserve a lot of wilderness. Knowing that the woods around my house could also contain bears, wolves, mountain lions and other predators always made childhood hikes and fishing trips seem more adventurous.
Preserving that kind of true wilderness experience is really why I got into this field. Bears are an emblem of the wilderness and they depend on large, undeveloped pieces of land to survive. In a weird way, I feel like I have that same dependence on wilderness so bear conservation ended up being a really nice fit for me. Helping preserve bears helps me to preserve wild places.
What does a “bear scientist” actually do?
My photos make it seem pretty romantic but there’s also a lot of tedium to it. I’m currently a graduate student and about 75 percent of my time is spent in the office. A big part of the job is learning how to work cooperatively with the different government and non-government organizations that might also have a stake in the projects. The other 25 percent is the actual field work and it’s definitely the part that I am drawn to the most.
Our field work with polar bears mostly revolved around setting up cameras to observe polar bear behavior as they emerge from their dens around the oil fields on coast of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska.
Our work with black bears has been a bit more “hands on” and my field work has mostly revolved around trapping, sedating and GPS-collaring black bears. The most adventurous aspect of the black bear project is typically during the late winter when we enter the dens with the bears in order to adjust collars and give them a quick medical screening.
What was your first experience in the field like?
My first field experience was in Arctic Alaska and I arrived on a day where temperatures were hovering around -60F. I stepped off the plane and immediately had all the air sucked out of my lungs. The thing a lot of people don’t understand about the Arctic is that it really hardly ever snows. But it also doesn’t ever get above freezing during the winter, so all the snow that has fallen just gets blown around and broken down until it sublimates into tiny ice particles in the air. A couple cases of minor frostbite and one frozen eyeball later and I can honestly say I’ve had my fill of Arctic temperatures.
What does a typical day in the field look like?
It really depends. On our polar bear study, a typical day involves waking up early, making sure all of our gear is working properly, filling out some minor paperwork and putting together a plan. Then we head out on the frozen Arctic ocean to either look for polar bear dens along the coast or to set up camera systems that will monitor dens that we have already found.
On the black bear study, a typical day would generally start out with us preparing bait for the traps. While the actual trigger bait was typically the “sweet stuff” (like donuts, candy and honey), the bait that we put in the back of the barrel was a nightmare to work with. We let rancid pig and horse meat sit in closed barrels for weeks and then every other morning I would go out and cut it into pieces to be placed into traps. I could go on forever about how disgusting it was.
Anyway, each day we’d check the traps to see if we had caught any bears and then re-bait the traps that were empty. If we had caught a bear, I’d sedate it with an injection through the bars of the trap and then take it out, weigh it, attach a GPS collar and take a number of measurements. We have strict guidelines that we follow during this process to make sure that both the bear and the researcher are safe.
When did your social media following start to grow? What is it about your lifestyle that makes people want to follow along?
My social media presence really kind of snowballed this year. I’ve always loved sharing photos, but this year a number of well-known accounts found my Instagram and that kind of led to a lot of people becoming interested in what we’re doing. I think the main tipping point was when a photographer from National Geographic ended up coming to a bear den with us and then posted a photo.
To be honest, I haven’t really figured out how to wrap my head around the attention that it’s brought. It’s been really great in some respects and a little overwhelming in others. But I truly believe that social media is an incredible tool for helping people become more connected to wildlife conservation and to bring a bit of awareness to the public about how research is actually done.
Where do you hope to take your career in the future?
There’s a lot of different avenues for wildlife biologists. Both federal and state governments hire biologists, as do zoos, NGOs and other organizations. Some biologists will go into environmental consulting or work for private industries as well. Another option is to go into media and educational outreach. I’d love to continue working with bears and my dream job would be to work with grizzlies in Montana. Lucky for me, I’m pretty enthralled with all types of wildlife so I’m sure I’ll be happy wherever I end up.