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Into the wild to study grizzlies

Posted by scott.weybright | May 8, 2018

There’s camping, then there’s Alaska back-country, grizzly bear scientific research camping.

Two yellow tents in a field, surrounded by white posts with orange electrical wires. Huge snow-capped mountains loom in the background.
Joy Erlenbach and her research partner spend up to a month completely isolated in the Alaskan wilderness. Here, they set up their campsite with electric fencing to ward off bears.

That’s how WSU Ph.D. student Joy Erlenbach has spent the past three summers, and where she is right now.

“We get dropped off in the middle of Katmai National Park by a float plane, then we’re on our own for a month,” Erlenbach said before she left this year.

No showers, only one other person to talk to, and surrounded by beautiful mountains, rivers, wildlife, and waterfront. Oh, and bears. Plenty of bears.

“We’ve got two tents, surrounded by an electric fence, with maybe 20-30 bears in the meadow right outside the tent,” she said. “You can’t let your guard down. I mean, bears aren’t there to get you, but you have to always be aware of your surroundings.”

After a month, they get picked up, go shower, re-supply themselves, then head back out.

This year, Erlenbach left in April and will return to Pullman in October. She’s working on a research project with rangers at the national park to see how climate change is affecting bear behavior.

Her job is to take samples, count bears in various habitats, and see if particular kinds of bears are attracted to certain habitats.

“We want to know if females with cubs are using one kind of habitat that maybe adult males don’t use,” Erlenbach said. “We’ve noticed females with cubs often feed in the intertidal areas, land that’s under water at high tide. I can’t remember seeing a male bear out there digging for clams. It’s probably not worth it, nutritionally, for them.”

Joy Erlenbach kneels down next to a anesthetized grizzly bear in an open field with mountains in the background.
Erlenbach takes a blood sample from a bear in Alaska.

Erlenbach cherishes her time spent out in the Alaskan wilderness, becoming familiar with the bears and waking up every morning to stunning scenery. It’s not without its difficulties, however.

“I miss sleeping on a bed and having clothes that can dry out after a storm, but it’s just so beautiful and such an amazing experience,” she said.

Erlenbach got involved in this project as part of her Ph.D. program at WSU. She also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at WSU.

“I started as a volunteer at the WSU Bear Center,” Erlenbach said. “I used to jog down to the center from my sorority to clean out the pens.”

After graduating, Erlenbach, a native of Burlington, Wash., moved to California for a few years. But she returned to start graduate school and hasn’t stopped wanting to work with grizzlies.

“It’s a little scary, but once you know how to read their behavior, it gets much easier,” Erlenbach said. “I can tell when a bear is agitated and doesn’t want me around. And you have to respect that. But for the most part, I’m living out a dream and enjoying these amazing experiences.”