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Kodiak Spotlight: Bear biologist Joy Erlenbach

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This article was originally published in the July 17, 2020, edition of Kodiak Daily Mirror newspaper.

 

Joy Erlenbach didn’t spend much time outdoors as a kid. One of four children of a single mom who was always working, Erlenbach never really had the chance to go outside except to do chores. 

So to this day, she says, it boggles her mind to think about how and why she became enamored of wilderness experiences.

The love affair started when she was a teenager in Burlington, Washington.

“When I was in high school, a friend and I saw an advertisement for a search and rescue organization that needed volunteers, and so I joined and went through a bunch of training,” she said. “That was my introduction to backpacking and surviving in the woods. And I just sort of fell in love with being outside.”

Meanwhile, Erlenbach had always harbored a love for animals that made her think she would someday become a veterinarian, but as she spent more time outdoors, she realized she didn’t want to become a zookeeper or spend her days working in a vet’s office.

“I wanted to be outside with the animals,” she said. “When I was researching degrees for college, I stumbled upon wildlife ecology, and I read the description and it was like light bulbs went off – this is it, I get to be outside with animals, this is what I want to do.”

In 2004 she started the wildlife ecology program at Washington State University, which is home to one of the few facilities in the world that houses adult brown bears for research. 

“I guess that’s where it all started because I got to interact with bears at pretty close range like most people don’t get to do,” Erlenbach said, adding that her early volunteer work at the research facility mostly consisted of “just shoveling poop and helping feed the bears a couple times a week.”

But she also began getting a sense that each bear had a unique character, at a time when there was not a lot of discussion among wildlife ecologists about animal personality.

Her interest in bears was reinforced when she was asked to join a research project in Yellowstone National Park, during which she spent a summer tracking bears and measuring what they were eating. She got to see firsthand how resilient and adaptable wild animals could be, as they survived in an area characterized by frequent interactions with park visitors.

“The bears could switch from day-active to nocturnal, and mediate those risks between encountering humans in the park,” she said. “They could exist by doing all these different strategies. Some bears ate elk calves, some bears didn’t. Some bears hung out at streams, some bears hung out at high elevations. The variety really got me.”

Erlenbach went on to earn her master’s degree, with a focus on the nutritional ecology of bears — what they eat and why — as well as some study into behavior. Not considering herself to be a “standard academic type,” she thought her university career had reached its conclusion. When the opportunity to apply for a Ph.D. program in Alaska arose in 2014, her initial response was to say no.    

At the same time, she recalled photographs of Alaska that a graduate student had shared with her when she was an undergrad, and she also knew she wanted to keep working with bears.

“Just seeing the pictures, I fell in love with the scenery and had in the back of my mind this idea that I wanted to go to Alaska,” Erlenbach said. “The Ph.D. project was really amazing, and I talked to a lot of people and they sort of convinced me that I just had to do this.”

 The project involved spending four years in Katmai National Park studying the link between coastal bears and the marine environment — more specifically, what consequences oil spills, climate change, ocean acidification, warming water and other factors might have on the animals.

The project also brought Erlenbach one step closer to Kodiak. During her research, she would spend a month camping along the coast while conducting bear observations, and then head back to civilization to shower and restock food before returning to the coast for another month.

“I had spent four years over in Katmai staring at Kodiak,” she said. “Kodiak was one of our ways that we reported weather. If we could see Kodiak, that meant it’s a good day because there weren’t that many rain clouds between us and Kodiak. So I stared at Kodiak for years and always went, ‘Gosh, I wonder what’s over there.’”

After the Katmai project was completed, Erlenbach returned to Washington. She was preparing to defend her Ph.D. when some friends told her they had seen a job posting for a bear biologist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge that seemed perfect for her.

She looked at the posting, agreed that it was an ideal fit for her experience and interests, and promptly applied. She was in the middle of a trip to Thailand — a pre-graduation present to herself — when she was notified that she was going to have an interview for the job, which she ultimately landed.  

“It was all pretty crazy,” she said. “I knew there was a history of a lot of really great bear research here (in Kodiak), and so to be able to come into a position where I knew there was a history of good research and an opportunity for good future research was pretty appealing.”

Erlenbach arrived in Kodiak on March 1 to take up her position as the refuge’s new bear biologist, and promptly sprained her ankle on her third day here. The injury prevented her from immediately making it out into the field, but gave her plenty of time to start digging into the data that has been collected over the years about the island’s bears.

“The first thing I’m doing is taking stock of what all the past surveys are saying, and … making sure we really understand where we’re at with populations, and whether there’s any reason for concern going forward or if we think everything is fine,” she said. “Kodiak bears are so iconic and it’s so well known for its hunting. I think the main issue is just making sure that we continue to keep the bear population thriving.”

Erlenbach said there’s a fair amount of evidence showing that changes in salmon populations are occurring around the world, so it was important to look at salmon abundance in the areas where refuge bears are consuming them, how changes in salmon abundance might be affecting the bears, and what can be done about it.

“Everything is connected, right? So it’s hard for me to point a finger at any one thing, especially at this point with being pretty new to the area,” she said. “But I think food supply is really high up there on my list of concerns. If animals are being affected by a dwindling food supply, then things like hunting can become more of a pressure than they were in the past. We just need to make sure that we don’t trend that way.”

As for Kodiak itself, Erlenbach said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the town and the island.

“Never having been here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it’s beautiful,” she said. “The people I’ve met have been really warm and welcoming.”

With her ankle sprain healing, she has also been able to get out and enjoy some of the local hikes, including Termination Point, Pyramid Mountain, Sharatin Mountain and Cope Mountain. But what she’s most anticipating is exploring more remote areas of the island away from the road system.

 “I’ve been able to get out, and the hiking is awesome,” she said. “But I can’t wait to see the refuge because I hear it’s also pretty fantastic.”