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Field Notes

Reflecting on “Honorable Harvest” of Data in Cranberry Lake’s Bear Country

Matthew Breay Bolton | August 8, 2023

trees in a forest

The sign at the trailhead announced that we were “Entering Grizzly Country.” As my spouse and I hiked through the forest in Montana’s Glacier National Park, I ruminated on a thought experiment: What would it mean to have literally crossed over into a sovereign entity called “Grizzly Country”?

The sign suggested I was crossing a threshold into wild space of threat, akin to settler-colonial notions of “Indian Country,” where the protections and constraints of “civilization” no longer apply. “You are entering a wilderness area and must accept certain inherent dangers,” the sign warned. “There is no guarantee of your safety. Bears have injured and killed visitors and may attack without warning and for no apparent reason.”

But what if we took seriously the sovereignty of the bear, recognized its authority, walked humbly through the woods, aware that one is in someone else’s place? Since that hike, I have not been able to get the question out of my mind: could scholars of International Relations like myself acknowledge political agency and sovereignty of wild animals?

To find out, I decided to go to black bear country, immersing myself into the Ursus americanus habitat surrounding ESF’s Cranberry Lake Biological Station (CLBS) and Newcomb campus, ancestral lands of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, New York’s Adirondack region.

As I hiked through woods and wetlands, I struggled with research methods: How could I ethically and effectively study the politics of our relationship with the more-than-human world? My discipline of Political Science (and the social sciences more generally) often ignores the natural world as an inert terrain on which politics happens. Our research methods focus on people, rather than the environments in which we are embedded.

Conversely, many ecological studies of bears reproduce a one-way relationship of humans over bears. We sedate them. Collar them. Dissect them. Preserve their skills and skins. While these methods have generated invaluable science, they also replicate settler-colonial power relations – in which my own family history is complicit – that treat nature as a resource to be dominated. Data is extracted from bears for our understanding.

Seeking alternatives, I was inspired by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Director of ESF’s Center for Native Peoples and the Environment (CNPE), who drew my attention to Indigenous conceptions of the world as a space of reciprocal obligations. What if bears are my relatives? I wouldn’t collar a family member! I was delighted to find Professor Kimmerer at CLBS during my stay. She urged me to think about what in Braiding Sweetgrass she calls “honorable harvest” of scientific data (pp. 174-201). As we seek to understand the more-than-human world, how do we act with respect and care?

I thought too about Jane Goodall’s imaginative reapplication of ethnographic techniques developed for studying human societies to understand the world of non-human primates. While ethnography has a colonial history of its own, its best examples involve getting off the verandah, out of the lab and into the world of the “Other.” Good ethnography places the researcher into spaces they can’t control, where research “subjects” have agency to conceal, refuse, even dupe. Or reveal their world if they choose.

But what would an ethical ethnography of Bear Country look like? Wild black bears don’t like human company and they certainly wouldn’t sit for a key informant interview!

Instead, I walked the trails of CLBS and Newcomb campus, looking for bear sign – tracks, scat, scratches on trees, torn up logs – trying to discern patterns of meaning on the landscape. A book I found in the CLBS library – Paul Rezendes’ Tracking and the Art of Seeing – suggested these traces formed a kind of unintentional text: “Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning to read. In fact, it is learning to read. Following an animal’s trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but more important, it brings you closer to it in perception” (p. 15).

Of course, walking in Bear Country also meant that occasionally I would encounter bears themselves. On a trail through State lands just outside ESF’s Newcomb campus, I heard a rustling in the ferns and then a bear popped out just 100 feet behind me. I followed the standard advice in books like Bear Aware: The Quick Reference Bear Country Survival Guide –  held my ground, clapped loudly, made myself look big and shouted “GO AWAY!” It turned to look at me, sniffed the air and then startled, running off into the woods.
Reflecting on this experience later, I felt troubled. I wanted to keep myself safe, but I would not tell humans I am learn from to get lost as soon as I saw them! How might I translate normal protocols of human subject research to wildlife?

I decided I would observe bears’ “public behavior.” But I would maintain a distance of at least 300 yards – the required viewing distance in Denali National Park – when watching a bear. If the animal walked away, I would not follow, interpreting it as equivalent to a human interviewee’s withdrawal of consent. I would only backtrack fresh bear sign, rather than following it.

I also rethought my script, words to recite when in bears’ proximity. I wanted to alert them to my presence, keep them from coming closer, but also express gratitude. “Before all else,” ESF’s Neil Patterson says in an exhibit at the Adirondacks’ Wild Center, “give thanks.” In his Haudenosaunee tradition of the Thanksgiving Address, one must greet and express appreciation for all the beings that surround us as kin.

And so, arriving at the beaver dam on CLBS’s Whoosh Pond, I saw an adult black bear feeding at the far edge of the wetland, a safe distance of water between us. I clapped loudly, but this time I thought of it as appreciative applause. I shouted, but I thanked the bear for her help with my research. She looked in my direction. Then returned to browse.

Emerging from the shore, she stretched, marking a conifer with her claws. A few minutes later, a cub joined her. I shouted again, acknowledging that I was in their domain. I meant no harm. I apologized for the injury caused to bears by my people. I hoped what I learned from them would be useful to them.

I watched for twenty minutes. It was raining, but I was elated. They then disappeared, off into the forest. I returned to my cabin. 
I belong to a separate domain than the bear; I must not grasp nor over-relate. But through careful choreography and respectful observation, perhaps I can ask the bear to teach me – at a distance – about her world, that of swamp plants and berries, beechnuts and wild sarsaparilla.

In return, I can communicate with my own human communities about the duties we have to her and the more-than-human world she inhabits. And I must resist the systems of colonialism and environmental destruction that privilege my white settler body over that of other beings. My work must contribute to recognition of the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples who have had entwined relations of obligation with bears in these lands since time immemorial.

Dr. Matthew Breay Bolton is enrolled in SUNY ESF’s MS in Environment Studies. He is Professor of Political Science at Pace University in New York City; author of Political Minefields: The Struggle against Automated Killing and Imagining Disarmament, Enchanting International Relations. Bolton was part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) team awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Fish Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on Cranberry Lake

Kate Henderson | August 31, 2023

Kate Henderson and a guy standing infront of sign of College of Environmental Science and Forestry Cranberry Lake Biological Station Charles Lathrop Pack Demonstration Forest

My name is Kate Henderson, and I am a PhD student in Josh Drew’s lab at ESF.  My research focuses on fish biodiversity and ecosystem services across New York, and I spent an incredible summer at Cranberry Lake surveying the fish communities there.  While we may think of Adirondack Lakes as being pristine, they have experienced major anthropogenic changes, from acid rain to introduced species.  Cranberry Lake has seen the introduction of predators such as bass and northern pike, and my surveys yielded far fewer native species such as minnows and white suckers than early DEC surveys prior to the arrival of the introduced predators.  However, interviews with anglers revealed that the bass are highly valued species that people have fished for on the lake for decades.  People who fish on the lake were knowledgeable about the species in it and their population trends, and valued having a healthy lake to spend time on with their families and to be there for generations to come.  The combination of biological surveys and interviews reveals the importance of maintaining landscapes that preserve biodiversity while also meeting human needs.  Undergraduate Students Jordyn Worshek and Jamie Schultz did fish research alongside me investigating the high rate of cataracts in Cranberry Lake fish and the potential causes of this phenomenon- stay tuned for their results!  Cranberry Lake is a beautiful site, and I felt very lucky to spend the summer at the biological station there!

Kate Henderson is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Biology at SUNY-ESF and received a scholarship from CLBS to support her research during summer 2023.