Get This Job: Bear Biologist

What does it take to research one of nature's most powerful creatures for a living? A good education and the tenacity of a mama grizzly.
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Move over, astronauts and rock stars, there’s a new dream job on the block: bear biologist.

For those who love working outdoors and want an in-depth look at a fascinating animal, then this may be the job for you. But be forewarned: To make a career out of studying bruins, you'll need to be ready to put in a lot of work.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), statewide population surveys estimate black bear populations are at their highest in decades, and that the species has spread over about 52,000 square miles. The population is estimated to have grown from 25,000 to 32,000 in the last 20 years.

One of the people leading the way in population and management studies in the state is a CDFW bear biologist Jonathan Fusaro.

The 32-year-old Fusaro started his foray into the study of bears with an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana, which has one of the top-ranked wildlife programs in the country. He then received his master's in wildlife biology at Utah State University, (prospective bear biologists will most likely need a master’s degree or a Ph.D.), but emphasizes that networking and volunteering are also key to get into his field.

“Meet as many people as you can and keep your mind open to different types of employment,” he says. “Don’t just focus on one thing when building a foundation.”

Don't get tunnel vision

Fusaro worked with all types of wildlife before he got to the point where he was heavily focusing on one species. Each creature he studied helped him build an overall wildlife repertoire, and the knowledge he collected over the years comes in handy all the time when working with bears.

“I knew I was interested in conservation and bears,” he says. “Black bears are exceptionally tenacious and smart, so I knew they would be a challenging species to study in an urban setting, especially as human populations grow along with bear populations and people have to learn to develop and recreate around bears.”

He also notes that you may need to work constantly and take low paying jobs to climb the ladder up to official bear biologist.

“I jumped on every opportunity possible,” Fusaro says.

Tools of the trade

As a bear biologist, you can expect to become familiar with the use of hair snares, which were developed in the 1990s to survey grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. It’s one way to determine population numbers and habitat expansion by unobtrusively collecting hair samples for study. 

In a hair snare, a corral made of a single strand of barbed wire is about 2 feet off the ground is set up around bait, usually fish oil. To get the bait, bears have to walk over the wire, leaving some hair behind. The hair collected is then analyzed, and DNA is then gathered to determine how many bears have passed through. The data provides a better picture of the bear population in a given area.

Bear biologists may also trap bears in order to evaluate their health and study them further by fitting them with GPS collars and ear tags. For this tactic, Fusaro says that roadkill deer carcasses are placed in a box trap mounted in a trailer, and curious bears are immobilized by tranquilizer dart once in the trap. After data collection, they're released at the same location where they were captured.

“Being able to get your hands on an animal as majestic as that is really special,” Fusaro says. “You develop an affinity for the animal and its ability to survive in a diversity of habitat types.”

Daily grind

However, a typical day in the field doesn’t always mean hands-on interactions with the furry research subjects themselves.

“Typically I run surveys and manage crews,” Fusaro says. “I set up survey stations and collect data, but I may never see the bears I am studying.”

And in the winter, when the bears hibernate, you won’t see a ton of action.

According to Fusaro one of the biggest perks of the job is getting to do something he would pay people to take him to do, in addition to getting to be out in the mountains on a regular basis.

However, that freedom comes at a price. Hours are long. And the pay is low: Salaries usually run from about $28,000-$60,000, depending on experience. But working outdoors and studying one of North America's most interesting mammals? It's hard to put a number on that. 

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