KALISPELL, Montana — One could say that Kate Kendall is retiring at the end of this month as something of a scientific trailblazer for her work in modern grizzly bear population studies in Northwest Montana.
Such a pioneer, in fact, that she was selected as the keynote speaker at a recent annual event in Helena aimed at encouraging middle school and high school girls to engage in science, technology, engineering and math.
Kendall, however, modestly diverts the discussion when asked if she’s proud of her accomplishments in a career with the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey that spans more than 35 years.
“I don’t know if proud is the word, but it’s been really cool to have this brainy technology available to us,” she said, referring to the DNA analysis of bear hair that she has used to estimate bear populations. “It’s been a huge learning curve because genetics are light years from where they were when I was in school. And then to apply it, it’s been great.”
A daughter of the curator of agricultural equipment at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Kendall took an early interest in science and the prospect of working for the National Park Service.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Kendall got a job with the National Park Service’s chief of science office at a time when issues regarding the management of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park were brewing.
The agency’s chief scientist established the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and Kendall ended up being the committee’s executive secretary. After 3 1/2 years in Washington, Kendall requested and was granted a field research position in Yellowstone Park.
“In a way I think it was pretty bold of me. I didn’t have a lot of outdoors experience. I didn’t have any wildlife experience, but I loved it,” she said.
Kendall took on a project examining the relationship between bears, red squirrels and seeds from whitebark pine trees, which were nearly wiped out in the park by a fungus called blister rust. She helped establish just how important the seeds had been as a food source for bears.
She said the work involved a lot of hiking and camping in the park’s backcountry, and her first field partner has become another well-known name when it comes to grizzly bears: Carrie Hunt, who now runs the Wind River Bear Institute, an organization that has assisted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with bear management in Northwest Montana.
Kendall attended graduate school at Montana State University while working in Yellowstone, where she met George Scherman, who would become her husband.
She took a position with Glacier National Park in 1982.
“Bear research in Yellowstone was very much based on radio-collaring bears … When I got to Glacier there was definitely a different philosophy. Every park is different. People here were less comfortable with handling bears,” she said.
“Early on, I was really interested in trying to use non-invasive means” of studying bears, she added.
So Kendall embarked on early “sign surveys,” looking for bear scat on trails and bear hair on trees that bears habitually rub on.
It was those surveys, she said, “that made me realize that bears were out there rubbing on everything like crazy, just hair everywhere.”
By the mid-1990s, Canadian researchers did the first study involving the collection of bear hair using scent-baited “corrals” surrounded by barbed wire.
“As soon as I found out about that, it was ’96 probably, I immediately started writing proposals to get a project funded in Glacier National Park,” said Kendall, who had become a Glacier-based research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey by that point in her career.
That study ended up focusing on the 2 million-acre Greater Glacier area, and 5,500 hair samples were collected over a two-year period from 618 hair traps.
A genetic analysis of the hair samples, followed by statistical modeling, produced a “snapshot” population estimate of 300 bears for the first year, and 330 bears for the second year. Those numbers were adjusted to 240 for both years after radio telemetry work on the movement of bears was brought into the equation, accounting for the “part-time residency” of some bears in the study area.
In 2004, Kendall bit into the biggest study of its kind in North America, using the same methodology on an 8-million-acre study area called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that encompasses Glacier and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
“That was the biggie,” she said.
Coordinating a small army of paid employees and volunteers was just part of the logistical challenges involved with the project.
But more than 34,000 hair samples were collected from corrals and rub trees. After a protracted period of genetic analysis and statistical modeling, the study produced the magic number: a snapshot population of 756 bears.
It was the first time there was a reliable estimate for the ecosystem, a major piece of information necessary for the long process of delisting a grizzly bear population that has been protected as threatened. Kendall became known around the world for her work.
“I do feel good about bringing the value of collecting rub tree samples more to the forefront,” Kendall said. “A number of projects use that throughout the world now, actually.”
In 2011, Kendall started another study in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. Field work got under way last summer, with 80 people working out of eight base camps. They collected about 10,500 hair samples from corrals and rubs.
She said the Cabinet-Yaak genetic analysis may be available as soon as June, but the time-consuming population modeling work will continue long after.
For that reason, along with some other unfinished work, Kendall isn’t entirely retiring at the end of this month.
She said she intends “to kind of still stay involved and see these projects finished up.”
Kendall said she and her husband, who have two grown sons, plan to travel.
“I spent a month in India last fall traveling with my husband,” she said. “We have friends moving to Tanzania, so we’ll have to go and visit them.”