Alum returns to WSU after years studying wildlife in Alaska

If you love wildlife, working for Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game is basically the ultimate job.

Two men look toward the camera, one with binoculars at his eyes, as they sit outside. A grizzly bear is in the distance behind them.
Tony Carnahan, left, and his friend Tom Griffin, McNeil River sanctuary manager, watch for bears in Alaska.

“As a research biologist, I worked with moose, river otters, wolverines, wolves, brown bears, black bears, mountain goats, and probably a few others I’m forgetting,” said Tony Carnahan, currently a Ph.D. student at WSU.

One of his jobs involved guiding groups of up to 10 people at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to watch brown bears for seven-to-ten hours a day. McNeil River has the largest congregation of brown bears in the world, with the highest official scan having 69 bears in view at one time.

“That was one of the best jobs ever,” said Carnahan, who was born in Pullman and went to high school in Yakima. “I was able to just sit there and watch the different behaviors of bears. And they were really predictable because we were, too. To them, we were basically flies on the wall.”

Carnahan guided at McNeil River for two seasons and was later able to guide for a few weeks each summer as a state research biologist for a total of seven seasons. This experience made Carnahan an expert at reading a brown bear’s body language, the primary way bears communicate with each other.

“The way they walk, their posturing,” Carnahan said. “There are so many layers of bear communication. It’s really cool to peel them back.”

Carnahan earned a bachelor’s degree from WSU, where he volunteered at the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center. The adult bears at the center today were just cubs when he volunteered over a decade ago.

Tony Carnahan holds a river otter in two hands in a forest setting,
Carnahan holds a river otter in Alaska while he worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

After graduating, he left for Alaska where he earned a master’s degree and started working for the state. But he wanted to improve his skills in areas like statistics, so he decided to go back to school for a doctorate.

His friend and fellow WSU Ph.D. student, Joy Erlenbach, mentioned that WSU professor and bear expert Charlie Robbins was looking for a new student to investigate grizzly bear energetics. Carnahan said he’s always been fascinated with animals and how they manage to live in different environments with different food resources available.

“Working on this energy study is perfect for me,” Carnahan said. “Bears have such different lifestyles from other animals. They have to make sure they have enough energy stored away to make it through the winter. Being able to work under Dr. Robbins’ guidance is an honor for me.”

When he finishes his Ph.D., Carnahan plans to return to Alaska.

“Honestly, I’d love to have my old job back,” Carnahan half-jokes. “It’s a dream position, and hopefully, with all the new knowledge I’ve gained working with the WSU bears, I’ll be even better at it.”