Biologist Cain reflects on Grand Teton National Park Wildlife Adventures

Steve Cain, the senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park, has been honored with the Intermountain Region Director's 2009 award for professional excellence in natural resources. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park, is being honored with the Intermountain Region Director's 2009 award for professional excellence in natural resources. Contributing writer Todd Wilkinson caught up with Mr. Cain the other day to discuss his work in the park.

When he is in the brambles, Steve Cain can be elusive. His druthers have always been for more field time and fewer hours spent in claustrophobic cubicles.

Now the work of Grand Teton National Park’s senior wildlife biologist has received much-deserved recognition with a regional National Park Service award for excellence. The honor also is a victory for applied, hand’s-on ecology.

Cain has been involved in every significant wildlife matter in this part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. After the award was announced, we had a chat.

Todd Wilkinson : So much of science involves the narrowing of one’s expertise, yet you’ve assembled a broad range of work. It must be satisfying.

STEVE CAIN: In many ways I have envied my colleagues who have been able to focus their work on one subject or species, and thereby make important contributions to science and conservation. I was able to do this for a few years early in my career, but as a park biologist responsible for an entire ecosystem’s worth of species, and with a very small staff, I had to adopt more far-reaching approaches. Good collaborators are not always easy to find, but I have been lucky in that regard, probably in no small part due to the attraction of my study area - Grand Teton National Park.

TW: Who are your heroes?

SC: Like many, I was inspired by the work of John and Frank Craighead, who through the use of basic and cutting edge wildlife research developed conservation axioms that still hold true today. And it has been fulfilling, if not a tad ironic, to have collaborated with John’s son, Derek, 30 years later on a variety of important wildlife conservation issues, ranging from animal migration and sage grouse ecology to promoting the use of non-toxic big game hunting ammunition.

When I think of the people I admire most today, they all have a common set of characteristics: the ability to see outside themselves and to finely hone their individual skills and positions to make meaningful contributions.

They range from the more obvious like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mardy, Olaus, and Adolph Murie to the more obscure civil servants, ranchers, business owners, philanthropists, scientists and others who quietly make their marks daily behind the scenes. And, to help us from taking ourselves too seriously, The Far Side’s Gary Larson cannot go unmentioned.

TW: Why are all the wildlife issues so contentious?

SC: It’s pretty simple really: competition for space. Even in the greater Yellowstone, with its vast tracts of public land, nearly all wildlife issues—grizzly bear mortality, feeding elk and bison, brucellosis, pronghorn migration, bighorn sheep conservation, wolf recolonization—come down to a conflict between human and wildlife use of the same patch of earth. Clearly, our wildlife resource and its accessibility is what make this ecosystem, Teton Park, and Jackson Hole stand out from all other similar places on the planet. If we want to preserve this, we need to find ways to start giving back instead of always taking from wildlife, and we need to start now.

TW: What is your hunch about bighorn sheep, pikas and climate change in the Tetons; is their end at nigh?

SC: I worry about the Teton bighorns. I have spent hundreds of hours watching them from a distance and years studying their ecology and there just aren’t any easy answers for ensuring their persistence. Ironically, however, climate change may actually benefit them, since rugged conditions on their high elevation winter ranges pose one of their primary threats currently. Pikas, on the other hand, are likely to suffer, particularly at low elevation and on southern exposures as temperatures rise. But because of the great range of elevations in the park, in the long run I think they will persist, albeit at reduced numbers and distribution.

TW: Have you ever been attacked by a wild animal?

SC: Yes, a few times, and twice when I thought I could actually be killed or seriously injured. One involved stumbling into a mother and brand new baby moose in thick willows with Joel Berger. Realizing our predicament, we instantly bolted, but in different directions. The cow followed me, probably because Joel was screaming and she sensed an easier target in me.

As I tripped and fell, I shielded my head with a large moose antler I had been carrying and the cow bore down literally right on top of me. But she wheeled around without impact to go check on her calf and I got away. I can still clearly see her face above and just a couple of feet from mine.

Another involved an unprovoked charge from nearly 100 yards by an adult female bison. After it became obvious that holding our ground, waving, and yelling was not going to stop the charge, my coworker and I ran. When the cow was about 15 feet from us we split up, which was unplanned but seemed to momentarily confuse her and gave us just enough time to reach our truck. She immediately charged again right up to the side of the truck as we scrambled in and shut the doors. I have been bluff-charged by bears many times but never attacked.

TW: What is it that most people don’t understand about working for the National Park Service?

SC: Oh, gosh, I think there are many, but one that I will point out is that park wildlife needs to be managed. I think there is a misconception that our parks are perfect preserves, where the flora and fauna are in perfect balance and everything is blissful. But, nearly without exception, park boundaries were created with insufficient consideration of wildlife movements and ecosystem functioning. As a result, people like me spend a huge percentage of their time dealing with wildlife issues externally to help ensure conservation of wildlife internally.