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Resiliency – what is it? What does it mean?

Resiliency – What is it to me?

As I struggle through the hardest few months of the PhD so far, I’m cranky and tired. The field season is the most fun and the craziest time. I’m balancing writing chapters and doing data analysis, while also supervising an intern and managing 50 volunteers. At the same time, I’m organizing a massive data base of camera images and getting images to volunteers so data entry can be happening. All of this while dealing with a back injury and wishing I wasn’t in pain most of the time. While the specifics of my stress may be unique to me, the idea of a million stressors happening at once is not. All grad students go through this – feeling like there is just too much to do and not enough hours in the day or week.

At this point in the PhD, I am tired often, I am irritable and I don’t feel like myself. But I am also thankful for an incredibly patient and supportive partner and parents and friends who can make me laugh or give me hugs or pour me a glass of wine (or a bottle) or take me to a campfire to roast marshmellows.

Getting love and support keeps me resilient.

Getting love and support keeps me resilient.

The dictionary defines resiliency as: “1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., afterbeing bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity. 2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like.” It’s the support from my family and friends that helps me be resilient; they help make me see that I will have the ability to return to my original form after being compressed and stretched and I will recover from the depth of PhD land.

Resiliency – What is it to a bear?

I doubt a bear is walking around the Alberta mountains thinking about how to be more resilient; bears are just walking around this landscape trying to eat, eat, and eat. As we come towards the end of summer and into fall, that’s all bears are thinking about – how to get as fat as possible before hibernation.

Alberta is not great grizzly bear habitat, regardless of the abundant human activity. There are no salmon runs here and no other consistent sources of meat protein; our bears eat more plant material than other populations. As a result of this relatively low quality habitat, the Alberta Rockies have the lowest density and slowest reproducing grizzly bear population in North America. Our bears eat less and are smaller and have less babies as a result of it. This means that our bears are already stressed.

On the food search - what keeps this guy resilient?

On the food search – what keeps this guy resilient?

Bears walk great distances across this varied landscape to find enough food, all while avoiding other, larger bears who may be guarding one of the few high quality berry patches around. On top of that, they usually are trying to avoid people – and there are people everywhere. My remote cameras show people using hiking trails in the parks from as early as 4am to as late as midnight; people have been captured on every camera that has been placed. And while there are less people on the low use trails, there are still people.

The difference between predicted and unpredicted stress

As I struggle through my PhD, there are things I am prepared for. I am prepared for the analysis to be hard. I am prepared for the logistical nightmare that is my field season. I am prepared for inclement weather when I’m in the field. I am not prepared for my intern to quit part way through the field season. I am not prepared for cameras to be stolen. These stresses that I’m not prepared for are the worst; they require me to be resilient. I need to bounce back from having an intern quit or having cameras stolen because the project goes on.

In a bear’s world, they are prepared for the low habitat quality that exists here. They are prepared for being displaced by other bears. They may even be prepared for high levels of human use, especially if that use is predictable in space and time (like around towns or on busy trails). They aren’t prepared for unpredictable human use (like long weekend traffic) or drastic weather events (like the flood of 2013) that essentially changes how their habitat functions and where the good places are to eat. The level of resiliency that they display is what helps them deal with these unpredictable changes.

I struggle to be resilient and I have a lot of people supporting me to do that. The main difference is that my stress is just a phase in my life, it’s not my whole life. An Alberta grizzly bear has a pretty stressful life most of the time, but who is supporting bears to be more resilient and to bounce back?

It’s up to all of us to make the lives of our bears a little easier by obeying trail and road restrictions, putting dogs on leash,  staying up to date on where the bears are, and planning our recreational activities to give bears the space they need and to reduce their stress level. All of that will lead to more resilient bears, which will lead to a more resilient population, which will lead to grizzly bear recover in Alberta. Resiliency doesn’t just apply to the individual bear to the whole Alberta population. We want the Alberta grizzly bear population to be resilient – we want it bounce back. Recovery is about more bears on the landscape, and a big part of recovery is resiliency.

Next time you’re out on the trail, think about resiliency and what it means to you and what is means to the animal’s you’re sharing space with. The change in perspective may change how you see the trail at your feet.

Sometimes taking just a second to ask yourself how you can make this guy's life a little easier is all it takes.

Sometimes taking just a second to ask yourself how you can make this guy’s life a little easier is all it takes.

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