It would be hard to find someone more in love with bears than Sarah Poole. Currently completing her Master of Science at Trent University, Poole’s lifelong fascination with this furry animal has led her to pursue graduate studies in black bear ecology. She has worked as a field technician for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, holds a degree in ecology from Guelph, and recently met up with the Arthur to talk bears, research, and conservation.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for chatting with me! I think it’s very important to recognize the work that our grad students are engaged in, and I’m curious to learn more about what you do. First off, what made you want to study bears?
Well, when I was nine years old, I did a project on polar bears. I was in grade four and my teacher gave us the option to choose whatever animal we wanted. I had just gone to the zoo and picked the polar bear. As I started doing my project, I became aware of the conservation issues surrounding them, even back then. I decided at that moment that it was going to be my life goal to save the polar bears, or save the bears in any capacity. As I grew up, I kind of changed my focus. Now I study black bears.
Why black bears?
The opportunity arose for me to work with black bears. My project is up in Algonquin Park, which is a convenient location. The project was already started, so it was easy for me to come in and use the data set that I’m working with and the individuals that had been marked.
Can you tell me a little about your work?
Sure. My specific project is looking at site fidelity and fall feeding areas. What I’m trying to determine is how often the female bears that I have marked leave their known home ranges, where they are usually found, to go to areas where there is a potential high energy food source. I also want to know how often they visit there. For example, oak trees produce a lot of nuts every two years, so basically I want to see if the bear returns each year to check on that resource, or do they have a time that they are going back every two years, or five years, depending on the resource.
I’m also looking at movement patterns. I’m looking at how individuals influence each other’s movements, and time overlap between the locations that I receive from the collars. I’m trying to infer behavioural observations from this movement data.
Are you doing this research alone, or with a professor?
I’m working with Marty Obbard, a professor and research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources. He has had collared individuals within the park since 2007. I’m using that data set to answer these questions that I have.
You just returned from a trip to Utah. How was that experience?
It was amazing! I was there for the International Bear Association conference. There were about 300 researchers from all over the world and about 18 countries were represented, all doing research about different bear species. It was refreshing. The research community around bears is very much like a family. Everybody knows everybody. The research that was presented was really interesting, too. I learned a lot about conservation efforts that are going on with Eurasian brown bears in Scandinavia, as well as all the Asiatic species. I think the biggest thing I appreciated about the conference was meeting so many people and getting to put faces to names that I had read about since I was little.
It must have been a journey to get to that point. What did you do your undergrad in?
I studied ecology at the University of Guelph. Guelph has a great environmental science program, but I realized in my second year that I wanted to be more involved [with animals], so ecology was the route I chose.
My next question might be tough to answer. What is your favourite aspect of doing this work?
Hm, well, on the physical side of things, I like just being out in the forest and being able to do field work. I’m very fortunate with my master’s that I do have that component. I also have such a supportive supervisor that provides me with opportunities like going out to the field, attending conferences, and networking with people.
That’s so great. It sounds like you really did follow your childhood dream!
Yeah. [laughs] It’s kind of overwhelming to really sit back and realize that once in a while. It’s also kind of scary because it’s like, “Yep, well. I did what I always wanted to do. Where do I go now?” But that was the other thing. At the conference, I can remember sitting there with this huge smile on my face thinking, “I feel like I made the right life choice. I feel like I belong here.”