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Portrait: Tabitha Graves
Melissa Hatfield Riggs

Bringing Talent to Bear

Bear Cub

Grizzly Back Scratch

Grizzly and Cub

It must take an extra dose of courage and caring to do field research with grizzly bears. Bear biologist Tabitha Graves, now a forestry doctoral student at NAU, spent a number of years tracking, trapping, and studying one of America’s largest and fiercest.

So it's no surprise to hear her say, “I try to have a life where I’m 100 percent alive. I feel very lucky to have lived in places where I have the opportunity to do that—Wyoming, Montana, Arizona: places where I’m not isolated from nature but instead right in the middle of it experiencing monsoons coming down full force, seeing lightning hit trees and watching them fall, observing avalanches in the mountains, diving into ice-cold glacier lakes, canyoneering....”

Included in that tally of heightened experience are more than a few close encounters with grizzlies.

“Mostly, bears run the other way,” Graves says. “A couple of times out in the field, standing still, bears walked up on me as close as 30 feet without knowing I was there. Because they were coming into my space, and rather quickly, I made a quiet noise. The bears looked up at me, turned around, and ran the other way. If I had been walking toward them while they were eating berries or something and saw them first, I would have just backed up, still facing them, and not let them know I was there. More than once while trapping, I’ve had a bear with his foot in an Aldrich snare charge me. It was still scary, although I knew the bear couldn't reach me.” 

“One of the few times I actually pulled my bear spray, I was walking by thick vegetation and heard bears ‘woof’ at me. I kept walking because I had already passed them, and they stayed in the woods. Generally if you come upon grizzlies, stay calm and back up slowly, make a quiet noise—don’t surprise or startle them,” she cautions.

Ask Graves why she chose to study bears, and she’ll tell you that she didn’t, initially. “I was interested in animal use of landscape and in working on applied conservation questions. But because of their large home ranges, conserving bears also protects other species and ecological processes."

Tabitha and "Jake": The team collared Jake to learn about bear movements. The oxygen and mask help smooth out the anesthesia.
Tabitha and "Jake" 

Finding her way to wildlife

Graves’ undergraduate degree was in German literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, building on a high school exchange year in Austria. But she also racked up a lot of coursework in environmental studies and helped develop an alternative transportation plan. Later, she left to explore new directions, and a subsequent internship with the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center in Wyoming focused her interest on wildlife. She followed up with coursework in GIS and the sciences, as well as field experience as a research assistant and GIS tech in Wyoming working with bighorn sheep, elk, vegetation, and raptors.

Not knowing that it was virtually required to already have a funded project and a professor who wants to work with you, she next moved to Missoula hoping to enter the University of Montana’s wildlife biology master’s program. At that time, approximately 200 people applied per year for six slots. She wasn’t accepted, but she stayed, got a position as a field biological tech, and continued to touch base with the department chair frequently. When a project was advertised examining the effects of motorized recreation on grizzly bears Graves applied, and she was in. Her advisor Chris Servheen hired her to continue working with him as a bear biologist after the master’s degree, and she spent an additional two years as the wildlife spatial analyst on the USGS Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project (NDGBP), led by Kate Kendall. 

It was here, in her post-master’s work, that Graves began working with the incredible data set she is analyzing as a doctoral student. The NDGBP researchers used “hair traps” to gather 30,000 hair samples representing 545 grizzly bears detected at 2,000 locations within a 12,000-square-mile Montana landscape. Graves’s doctoral dissertation will examine, in part, how landscape patterns correspond with the genetic patterns among these 545 bears.

One type of hair trap
Bear hair snare sample

Next, NAU

NAU came to Graves’ attention thanks to an e-mail announcement about NAU’s Integrative Graduate Education, Research, and Traineeship (IGERT) Program, which seeks to identify key links between genes and the environment and trains exceptional graduate students in molecular genetics, environmental sciences, and spatio-temporal modeling. The program looked promising to someone who had just spent two years mapping and analyzing genetic data about bears. When Graves looked up NAU professors and discovered that Paul Beier taught here, her choice for doctoral study was made.

“Beier wrote one of the first wildlife papers I ever read, a paper concerning the connectivity of cougars in California,” Graves says. “It’s a very famous paper, and it got me interested in the whole issue of keeping wildlife populations connected to enhance genetic diversity and long-term viability.”

Work with Beier has proved a good partnership. They have collaborated on publications, conference presentations, and a $247,468 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Since 2007, Graves has been awarded or co-awarded more than $386,000 in research grants and scholarships, plus $35,000 this year from Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) and American Association for University Women (AAUW) fellowships.

Graves’ doctoral research has focused on the spatial ecology of grizzly bears in northwestern Montana, linking the influences of habitat, environmental characteristics, and human development to grizzly bear population size, dispersal, and gene flow (which tracks animal movement and reproduction). Her dissertation results will identify key wildlife corridors to facilitate movement and genetic diversity in grizzly bears of the Northern Rockies.

Even more impressive, the study sets forth an innovative approach that will help conservation planners design better wildlife corridors for any terrestrial species in any landscape. The newly emerging field of landscape genetics has been limited by its reliance on an "expert opinion" methodology in designing corridors. Graves is developing a new method based on genetic data that allows scientists to bring much greater statistical validity to estimates of how difficult it is for animals to move across a particular kind of habitat. Any type of environmental variable and any number of variables can be incorporated. The two NSF programs that have helped fund her work (ecology and geographic analysis) praised the project’s novelty and concluded it could have a transformative impact on these disciplines.

“Tabitha is one of a new breed of scientists with high-level skills in ecology, GIS, population genetics, and statistical analysis," Beier says. "Her PhD project addresses a key issue in landscape ecology and landscape genetics, namely the issue of how to rigorously estimate the resistance of landscape features like land covers, terrain, rivers, and highways to gene flow in animals. The study will use new statistical procedures and an important expansion of ecological circuit theory that for the first time can consider all possible paths for gene flow, and the approaches she develops will apply to conservation of other species and landscapes.”

Beyond the PhD

Graves is knee-deep in dissertation statistical analysis and writing—a different kind of heightened experience, perhaps—and still submitted four journal articles over the summer. Will bears be a lifetime career?

(Photos provided by Tabitha Graves and the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Project.)

Tabitha Graves

“I don’t know that I’ll work with grizzly bears forever, but wildlife, yes: the effects of population growth, animal survival, demographic questions,” Graves says. “When we decide we’ll do more development, we need to do it in ways that are smart and allow people and animals to coexist, ways that allow animals to survive and have healthy populations. It’s important to me to make a difference in what I do. I ended up choosing wildlife as a place where I can do that—and enjoy myself, too.”

—Melissa Hatfield Riggs, Graduate College