By Carla De Lira and Cynthia Hollenbeck

If you’ve ever hiked in the wilderness and seen a large object nearby, you may have asked yourself, “Was that a bear or a bush?” To master’s student in natural resource sciences at Washington State University, Cullen Anderson, the question is an important component of his research. Cullen studies how the black bear population data from North Cascades National Park in Washington state can provide important information for park management decision making.

 Cullen Anderson with Bear Decoy at North Cascades National Park
Cullen Anderson carrying one of his bear decoys for his
fieldwork at North Cascades National Park

For example, although the park’s lower elevation areas are currently forested and moist, because of climate change they are at risk of becoming drier. Affected wildlife, like black bears, will need to move to higher elevation forests in the mountains. However, this migration poses potential issues for wildlife conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of brown bears (last confirmed park sighting in 1990) whose habitats in these higher elevation areas are already occupied by black bears. In addition, because longer summers provide more chances for hikers to run into a black bear, the migration presents complications for recreation management.

Cullen’s fascination with wildlife conservation began when he was a child. “I wanted to be a biologist early on,” he said. “When I was 5, I met Jeff Corwin, host of the ‘Jeff Corwin Experience’ on Animal Planet. He was my hero. My mother was a journalist and writing a story about him. She knew she couldn’t go without bringing me.”

As Cullen came of age, he’d thought of becoming an artist, architect, and astrophysicist, but his interest in wildlife never wavered. “When I started touring colleges in high school,” he said, “I just decided I didn’t want to be a concept artist. I realized my wildlife and conservation interests were constant. I haven’t looked back since!”

As an undergraduate at Auburn University in Alabama, Cullen’s interest in wildlife conservation led to an exciting opportunity to study humans’ impact on jaguars and their habitats in Belize. In addition, he learned about the current black and brown bear populations through an internship at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Cullen applied for graduate school at WSU because of its high concentration of reputable faculty and support for bear research through the WSU Bear Center. Cullen’s studies are supported by the Francis Rush Bradley Excellence Fund. During his first semester of graduate school, he presented, “Variation in Jaguar Occupancy in Response to Differential Land Use Practices by Human Communities” at the Wildlife Society’s 2019 annual conference.

Cullen began his collaboration with the North Cascades National Park by expressing his interest in forming his master’s thesis around climate change and providing answers to questions that might be helpful in park management. The agency provided logistical support, advice, and resources, which included decades of bear-sighting data.

With his adviser, Jeff Manning, assistant professor in WSU’s School of the Environment, Cullen hopes to support park management decisions by optimizing the records of black bear sightings by visitors who are often unreliable in accurately identifying a bear. The data collected by the park needs to be analyzed and corrected for faulty sighting and faulty reporting.

Cullen’s method of analyzing and correcting the data includes setting up black bear-like decoys and asking visitors if they’d spotted them. (Visitors were unaware that the decoys were placed ahead of time.) Cullen chose to forego recording observations by people who only saw the decoy after he let them know it existed.

During his first field collection, Cullen discovered that many visitors walked right past the decoys in plain sight and therefore, made no report. These preliminary observations were in-line with the expectation that wildlife sightings reports understate the true number.

Cullen explains that he would have been surprised if a large majority of people spotted the decoys, especially the ones placed about 100 feet off-trail. “People who missed the decoys were usually surprised. They’d walk back down the trail to see if they could spot them.” He asserts he had not anticipated the sense of satisfaction families would feel from these learning opportunities. “It’s like an ‘I spy’ puzzle with purpose,” he said. “People learned about science and research while learning about bear safety, particularly that we may not see a bear even if it is close by.” Cullen plans to continue collecting data through summer 2021.

After earning his master’s degree, Cullen plans to pursue a Ph.D. “It’s important to me,” he said, “that I diversify my education, so I have access to a wide array of perspectives.” He’d like to gain work experience that involves policy making before pursuing his Ph.D. “I want my research and career to be useful, and I can’t do that without better understanding the systems that academia supports.”

Rather than relying on government agencies or non-profit organizations to tell him what kind of research would be helpful, Cullen wants to experience those perspectives first-hand. That way, when he does start a Ph.D. program, he’ll be able to ask questions and design studies he knows will be useful to policymakers because he will experience all parts of the conservation equation.

Cullen said he’s not sure yet what his Ph.D. focus will look like. He’s interested in continental scale conservation that accounts for shifting climate envelopes, i.e., climate conditions that are suitable for different species. For example, black bears prefer forest conditions with plenty of berries, which is why they may become isolated on mountains because lower elevations become dry and scrubby.

The climate envelope for black bears may shift in elevation. Coyotes, a species that prefers drier and scrubbier habitat, may increase in numbers in those lower elevations. Climate envelopes can also move with longitude and latitude. The northern extent of the Ponderosa Pine is in southern British Columbia, but as the climate warms and becomes drier, they may be able to move farther north.

After earning his degrees, Cullen wants to secure a position in research and/or a management position at a non-profit organization or at a government agency. He wants to be involved in the decision-making process, which will have a lasting impact on the protection of species affected by climate change. “Conservation does not happen without policy making, ” he said. He’s interested in understanding the process of policy making so he can conduct research and support meaningful science.

Cullen’s appreciation for wildlife and their ecosystems is evident through his hobbies as a birder, (or birdwatcher), and wildlife photographer. Recently, he won First Place in the WSU Outdoor Recreation Center’s 2020 Photo Contest under the Wildlife Still Life category. We have included his winning photo: Cedar Waxwing.

 Cullen Anderson's first-place photo of the Cedar Waxwing
Cullen Anderson’s first-place photo of the Cedar Waxwing