Even bison are returning. In 2005, after a century without them, the group trucked in 16 plains bison from South Dakota. Today, the herd numbers 800. Wynn-Grant sees promise for the return of large carnivores, too. Grizzlies are already spilling out of protected areas such as Glacier National Park, located across the state in mountainous northwestern Montana.
But there are challenges. “The bears are quite literally walking on their four paws toward the prairie in search of high-quality habitat and getting killed along the way,” she said. In June she heard that two young grizzlies had been killed 100 miles from the reserve. Conservation groups are already working to minimize human-wildlife conflict on the prairie. For instance, Defenders of Wildlife pays the salaries of range riders who observe where predators and cattle (or people) might mix and then keep them apart.
Wynn-Grant’s main task so far has been predicting which habitats will attract bears. Obtaining data to model habitat selection has required negotiations with researchers from conservation groups and state and federal agencies.
Over the coming year, she’ll set up camera traps to collect data on bear movements. (Black bears will serve as proxies for grizzlies.) Those sightings, she expects, will help fine-tune her understanding of habitat preferences.
It’s not the first time Wynn-Grant has tracked wildlife. Back when she was a student at Yale, she tracked lions in Tanzania for four months on a project run by Laly Lichtenfield ’05 Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of African People and Wildlife. It was later, while completing her doctorate at Columbia, that she first started doing hands-on black bear research.