“So wait… you’re not a biologist?”
Four. That’s how many times that someone had asked me that question that day. Instead of launching into the scripted response, I took a moment to sit quietly and watch a small cub struggle to chase a salmon in front of us as his mother eyed the water patiently further across Frazer River. Splash! The cub dove and missed again, camera shutters clicking in the background.
“Not quite, I study the human side of bear management,” I say with a smile that took a bit of effort. We were soon distracted by another splash, and looked up just in time to see the proud cub emerging with his struggling catch. My simulated smile morphed into a genuine one as the two-year old skipped around with his protein-packed lunch.
There was a time when this question offended me, mostly out of irrational insecurity rooted in the fact that social scientists often find ourselves having to justify the validity of our perceived “soft science” against the physical sciences. But I’ve come to realize that, under the circumstances, this is a perfectly logical question. In the visitors’ defense, they have just been on the floatplane ride of their lives. After 45 minutes of flying over jagged peaks, glacial estuaries, and seemingly untouched terrain to land on a remote lake in the dense brown bear habitat of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, it must be a little surprising when a solo female refuge employee appears out of the bushes wearing a can of bear spray under the premise of being a sociologist.
The Kodiak Refuge is collecting social science data to assist management in making well-informed decisions on the type of bear viewing opportunities that should be offered on the refuge. Last summer while the new Xtratufs-clad seasonal employees ran every which way collecting fuel canisters, stream temperature monitoring gear, GPS collars, and a slew of other tools necessary for a summer of rigorous biological research, we conducted interviews with key bear viewing stakeholders resulting in 844 minutes of recorded interviews and 187 pages on transcripts that were objectively coded and re-coded using rigorous scientific methods to examine key themes. As biological data on bears, fish, and berries is under analysis to understand feeding patterns from last summer, our qualitative data informed the creation of a complex survey measurement tool that will be administered to bear viewers this coming summer. This survey will be used to quantify how variables like trip length, bear proximity, and on-site interpretation are associated with self-reported changes in attitudes, behavior, and knowledge about bears and their habitat.
It is exciting as a refuge to be able to make decisions based on data from both the natural and social sciences, especially because the two are so interconnected. While biological data helps us gauge impacts and understand wildlife behavior, the social sciences provide a new window into the home of Kodiak bears: how they are perceived, how we interact with them, and the factors that contribute to behavior that benefits bears. For bears and humans alike, social science is not a luxury, but a necessity in protecting these very special resources.