Tom Smith

Professor of Wildlife Science
Brigham Young University

General Career Information…

What is your educational background?
I studied ecology at Purdue University as an undergraduate then completed those studies at Brigham Young University where I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology. I then moved to the University of Alaska where I studied the winter foraging behavior of caribou for my Master of Science degree. Returning to Brigham Young University, I completed a doctorate degree in wildlife ecology studying a reintroduced population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

How did you end up in the field you are in today? 
I selected it after studying my options in college. Most students learn while in college what it is they want to do when they graduate. Many students change programs as they learn more about what they find interesting. Such was my case. I began studying forestry but didn’t particularly want to pursue a career in it. But while studying forestry I was exposed to ecology and found that intriguing. I’ve been a wildlife ecologist for several decades now and am glad I chose this never-boring, always-engaging profession.

What are some of the different career opportunities associated with the work you do?
It depends on the level of higher education you pursue. For example, with a B.S. degree you could work for a state fish and game agency as a biologist or perhaps you would like to be a teacher in grades K-12. People who receive a Master's degree have more options, and better pay, as they can teach not only in K-12 but also in junior colleges. They can get jobs with state agencies (such as fish and game) but are more likely to pursue federal government jobs with agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, or National Park Service. Those with Ph.D. degrees can teach at universities or work with state and federal agencies, but generally they work as researchers. I hear some students say that jobs in wildlife biology are scarce. To this I reply, “There is always room at the top,” so be the best you can and you will be able to work in the field of your choice. Those with lower grades have fewer options.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
It’s been said that those who enjoy what they do for a living never work a day in their lives. By that definition, I have never worked a day in my life while studying wildlife. I really enjoy my job and wouldn’t do anything differently. What sets students apart who get to go to the colleges of their choice and are able to study the animals of their choice is that they seek out opportunities to interact with professionals in their field. Go to animal rehabilitation centers and donate time helping out. As you get older, get summer jobs in biology-related fields. If you have a favorite species of wildlife, find out who is doing work with that animal, contact them, and ask questions such as, “What advice do you have for me so I can someday work with (name animal), too?” Most professionals remember that they too were once your age and that they too appreciated those who took the time to mentor them and guide them along the way. Last, but not least, have fun! Life is a journey, and if a step along the way is worth taking, it is worth remembering. If you find you cannot wait to get out of bed so you can get to your work because it is meaningful, intellectually challenging, and fun…you and I will have walked the same path.

On Polar Bears…

How and where do you conduct your work on polar bears? 
I have been working with denned polar bears along the North Slope of Alaska for the past 10 years. Although polar bear females—males do not den because only females have babies and they need the den to protect them from the harsh winter environment—build and enter dens in November, I usually don’t arrive in the Arctic to study polar bears until February. I stay until the last denned bear leaves, which is usually in early April. At this time of the year, it is light about 10 hours a day (as opposed to no sunshine in December) and it is not uncommon for temperatures to dip as low as -50 degrees F (-46 degrees C). Wearing very heavy Arctic clothing, I visit dens on snowmobiles, some as far as a very bumpy 10-m (16-km) ride away. It is so cold that the snowmobiles have specially heated hand grips, a heated throttle lever (to keep my thumb warm), a heated enclosure for my GPS units (they will not work at those temperatures if exposed to the cold), a helmet that fully encompasses my head, and a heated visor on the helmet to keep frost from forming. Strap on an oxygen tank and I could do repairs on the space shuttle…well, almost! Astronauts have pressurized suits but insulation-wise we are close to the same.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on polar bears?
Finding a denned polar bear is a particularly challenging task given that the bear is white, doesn’t want to be found, and is in a white snowy den not visible to the unaided eye. It is also very, very cold. To find dens, we use cameras that “see” heat. Human eyes cannot “see” heat unless objects are so hot that they glow red or white hot. Special infrared cameras have sensors that are sensitive to heat so using one of these in the Arctic allows me to “see” bears underneath snow banks. These cameras are called forward-looking infrared cameras, or FLIR cameras for short. They work best when it is very, very cold, the air is still (no wind), and when the den’s walls are less than 3 ft (about 1 m) thick. Alter any of these conditions and the sleeping bear vanishes, so the “window” for detecting denned bears is relatively small.

I also use signals emitted by radio collars to find bears. I do not collar bears, but scientists such as Dr. Steve Amstrup and Dr. George Durner of the USGS do. These scientists allow me to use the signals from their collared bears to find the ones that have denned near the North Slope of Alaska. Hand-held tracking devices enable me and other researchers to zero in on the very specific locations where denned bears are located.

Okay, so let’s say that we, against all odds, have located a bear in a den. The snow drift looks unremarkable, but the FLIR camera or radio tracking receiver clearly indicates a sleeping bear within. I want to learn what the female bear does at its den, how many cubs she has, and when (and perhaps why) she and her cubs leave. But I can’t just sit down and wait for the bear to break out of the den. So I have put together camera units that I place about 330 ft (100 m) from den sites and that take continuous video. These cameras are in heated enclosures that protect them from the icy cold that grips the land. A wind-powered generator keeps batteries charged, and on-board computers store digital images of the den. Researchers then only have to come back to the camera every two weeks to service it. Servicing the camera involves changing the batteries, which, by the way, weigh hundreds of pounds! Since bears are generally at the den site only about two weeks after they break out of their sealed cavity, we generally have to revisit cameras only three times in all and stay for 10 minutes or less each time.

We also use GPS units to find these remote locations and to provide us a safe way of navigating. One cannot afford to get lost in the Arctic, so these units are critical tools for research and safety.

What research projects related to polar bears have you worked on in the past?
I have assisted Dr. Amstrup and Dr. Durner in capturing and collaring bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea. I have also been working on den emergence research for the past decade.

What research projects related to polar bears are you currently involved in?
I am involved in den emergence studies—specifically, activities, behaviors, and responses of polar bears to human disturbances.

What have you learned so far from your research?
We need to take a moment to understand the setting. First, with global warming, sea ice is diminishing rapidly. As you know, for an animal whose entire life is spent on sea ice, this is a problem. Because stable, old-age ice is becoming rare, pregnant polar bear mothers are increasingly moving on to the land to have their cubs. In northern Alaska, this move on to land by pregnant females coincides with an increased effort by oil companies to find and process crude oil. With both humans and bears squeezing into the same narrow strip of coastal Alaska we need to learn all we can to minimize human disturbance. My research is about doing that. What I’ve learned so far is:
• Most den breakouts occur after March 1. There is evidence that two dens may have opened previous to this time but we could not confirm this. 
• Bears rarely emerged from dens (0.6 percent of total time), and when they did it was for only a few minutes at a time—less than 5 minutes on average).
• Bears remained at den sites for an average of 9 days following initial den break out. 
• Bears were never observed (on camera) outside their dens at night (that is, from evening civil twilight to onset of civil twilight in the morning).
• Bears always stayed less than or equal to 330 ft (100 m) from den entrances.
• Departing bears always headed due north—away from land—upon abandoning a den site.
• Once a den site was abandoned, no bears returned. All bears moved a few miles to the north and then continued on until resuming hunting.

Why is it important to study polar bears? 
Polar bears could well be among the first high-profile casualties of global climate change. We (humans) relate to bears and have a respect, love, and affinity for them. This may in part be due to our ages-long love of all things canid (dog-related). Bears and dogs are very much alike, and they share a common evolutionary ancestry, which is apparent when you look closely at a dog’s face and compare it with a bear’s face. Polar bears are what we might call an “umbrella species,” which means that protecting this one animal could in turn protect many, many others as well. So saving the polar bear is crucial to saving many species found in Arctic ecosystems from similar fates.

What threats are currently facing polar bears? 
The single largest threat is loss of their ice habitat. As renowned polar bear researcher Dr. Ian Stirling of Canada once said, “As goes the ice, so goes the bear.” So ice loss is number one. Number two would be bear-human conflicts in the form of unsustainable harvest or the destruction of nuisance bears.

How do native communities interact with and depend on polar bears?
Native communities have respect for Nanuq or Nanook, the Inuit word for polar bear. Traditionally, Native people relied on polar bears for food and clothing. Polar bears played an important role in Native myth, legend, and culture. These bears were very much a vital part of Native life. Nowadays, however, the reliance on Nanook has taken on an important monetary aspect. A hunt in Canada might bring in upwards of $30,000 to communities that are hard-pressed for such money. Cumulatively, polar bear hunts netted $8 million annually for Native communities in northern Canada. With the recent listing of polar bears as threatened species in the United States, this economic aspect has been imperiled because most hunters were Americans and it is now illegal to bring a polar bear trophy into the States. Native communities formerly dependent on these animals for a livelihood are experiencing a struggle. One has to ask, however, what is best for the bear? These are questions with far-reaching consequences for the bear and Native cultures. Time will tell how their ages-long relationship changes with the times.

Have you participated in any research collaborations with native communities? If so, please explain.
For many years in Alaska I was a founder/co-teacher of a Native outreach that brought a field-based science curriculum to people on the Alaska Peninsula. These people are a joy to work with. Also, I was recently on the graduate committee of a woman whose thesis explored Native-brown bear relationships.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
• Whenever you study something that has been relatively unstudied, you learn a lot about the species that no one else knows. For example, few people have watched polar bears walk backward to their dens—sometimes for up to 150 ft (46 m)—and re-enter tail first. They do this (presumably) to be able to scan the horizon prior to den entry so they can make sure no potential predators observed them going in. 
• I also excavated a den in which two newborn cubs had frozen to death because their mother had been killed by a large male polar bear—a bear with 9-in. (23-cm) front paw pads, that is, a very large bear. This had not been done before and we were able to piece together an interesting story about bear-bear predation.
• We recovered a dead cub this year—one that had been left dead outside a den. Was this merely a fluke or a sign of bad times to come as mothers and others are increasingly stressed as a result of an Arctic ecosystem in peril?

What follow-up research related to polar bears would you like to do in the future?
I would like to know how polar bears will adapt to disappearing ice. Bears are not going to just lie down and die. They are intelligent and adaptable, but there are limits. It will be quite interesting to see just what they come up with, however, as solutions in the short term. So, in a word, documenting their adaptation to a changing world would be fascinating, don’t you think?

What actions can kids take to help protect polar bears and their environment?
If we’ve gotten into this global climate change problem one person at a time, we can certainly get ourselves out one person at a time. The time is now for each of us to do our part to lessen our carbon footprint; to reduce, reuse, recycle; to walk or bike when we can; to eat less and do more; to be good Earth citizens rather than treating our planet like a business in liquidation. Polar Bear International’s website has a good number of suggestions and I would encourage youth to start there.

On the Arctic…

In what ways do you feel that humans affect the Arctic environment (positively and/or negatively)?
In a recent survey of over 1,000 climatologists, the majority agreed that climate change is in the works. However, the group was split about 50-50 as to why climate change is occurring. That said, I cannot second-guess climatologists, but CO2 emissions represent bad technology and we need to address that now. We have more oil exploration than ever taking place in the Arctic. We need to solve our energy problems not by finding more oil but by transitioning to more Earth-friendly technologies. My research shows that although polar bears and people can co-exist, there are limits. We should not put bears in a situation where they have to show us how adaptable they are.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about living or working in the Arctic?
For one, people should know that oil companies in Alaska run a very clean program. They are not injuring the Arctic through spills and wildlife harassment as some would lead you to believe. Similarly, some politicians decry the Arctic as “ugly, full of mosquitoes, and uninhabitable,” and while that might be their honest opinion, I certainly do not share it. The Arctic is an unbelievably beautiful part of our planet, and it deserves our best efforts to protect and preserve it. “Beauty” is a very subjective term. Where one person might see a “mosquito-plagued swamp,” I see unspoiled wilderness. Let’s try to stay away from such negative terms.

Another half-truth I read about the Alaskan Arctic is that all oil developments (roads, buildings, pipelines, etc.) cover less than 1 percent of the area. That might be true from an aerial view, but areas where a road or pipeline are present are no longer wilderness. When you can see great fireballs of gas flares (which bleed off excessive methane into the atmosphere), the orange glow of mercury lights extending from horizon to horizon, or a cruddy brown haze hanging over the coastal plain from oil processing plants, you cannot say that the impact is to less than 1 percent of the area. This area is an oil patch—an industrial zone—from one end of the other and we need to be clear about that.

The bottom line is that we all bring our various values to the table when we discuss the future and fate of the Arctic. But few speak for the polar bear, caribou, and musk oxen. They, too, need a voice. I hope to be a proxy on their behalf as best I can.

What do you like the best about doing work in the Arctic? 
It is a rarefied environment and is nothing like what you or I are accustomed to. Nothing prepares you for exposure to temperatures that are -50 degrees F (-46 degrees C), for teal blue pack ice upended by forces beyond our comprehension, for polar bear cubs—so tiny and seemingly vulnerable—playing like you and I would at the beach, yet in cold so brutal it would kill us in minutes. The Arctic is a last wilderness of sorts and no one needs to tell you that when you are there. It is beautiful, wild, and very dangerous in the winter for humankind. I like working there but am never far from realizing that I am a guest and ill-fitted to live there for long.

What do you like the least about doing work in the Arctic?
We have to complete a mind-numbing amount of paperwork to do polar bear work. That is frustrating far beyond the hassles associated with working at -50 degrees F (-46 degrees C).

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Arctic over the past few decades?
There is less ice to be sure. There are longer open, ice-free seasons and more polar bears denning on the coast. These all indicate that change is afoot.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic? 
To have compassion that motivates them to action after learning about the dilemma faced by organisms—big and small—that call the Arctic home.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
They need to become proactive and do something to make a difference.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why? 
When I was young I read all of the Hardy Boy books. They captivated one’s sense of mystery and intrigue. I also liked to look through the encyclopedias that were on shelves in our home. The world seemed very large and strange and these books helped me to understand it in terms I could relate to.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school? 
Science has been my favorite subject from seventh grade to now. Just as musicians seek all things musical, I find myself intrigued by all things scientific. The application of scientific discovery freed us from Neanderthal’s caves. It continues to improve, extend, and bless our lives. It’s exciting to play some small part in the grand pursuit of scientific discovery.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A scientist. Got that one right anyway.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
I wish I’d had a mentor back then and I would encourage young people to find one. Even if their mentor is a famous person they may never meet (Like E. O. Wilson of Harvard University), they can read what he or she has written, walk where he or she has walked, and learn to think like he or she thinks. Of course they’ll eventually add their own spin on how they perceive and interact with the world, but first they should walk the path worn by those who went before. They should learn what those people learned and then go farther.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
E. O. Wilson to be sure. Polar bear biologists Steven Amstrup, Ian Stirling, Andy Derocher, and Geoffrey York—these people are making a difference.

What do you like to do for fun?
I like hiking, cave exploring, bicycling, playing guitar, and practicing Native American skills (such as making stone knives—I do that like some people paint pictures).

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic