ELY, Minn. – Shannon Barber-Meyer’s enthusiasm for her job as a research wildlife biologist often percolates over with audible “whoops” as she sets foot in the field and “yips” upon her return.
“When you take off your backpack after being in the woods, it feels like taking off a superhero cape,” she said.
Barber-Meyer works for the U.S. Geological Survey conducting field research for the Wolf and Deer Project in Superior National Forest near Ely. The long-running study is headed by David Mech in St. Paul, one of the foremost experts on wolves in the world and founder of the International Wolf Center here.
As a postdoctoral scholar, Barber-Meyer worked on emperor penguin population studies in Antarctica. She was supervised by researcher Gerald Kooyman, who received special recognition from the National Science Foundation for the study. He’s also known for inventing the time-depth recorder, a device for tracking marine mammals.
Barber-Meyer’s extensive work history also includes studies on tiger conservation in Asia, elk calf mortality in Yellowstone National Park and the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolves into the southwestern United States.
However, finding her way to this line of work took some introspection. She considered seminary and medical or veterinary school. Though confident in her science skills, Barber-Myer, 44, said she wasn’t sure about her bedside manner or helping poodles who had better haircuts than she did. Plus, she didn’t want to be inside all day. Then she thought of wildlife conservation.
“It was science and preserving wild places so people could have access to them for potential transcendental experiences. It’s kind of like John Muir’s church,” she said. “I love science, but I also love questions about the universe as a whole, humanity’s place in it and who we are as individuals and collectively.”
Barber-Meyer offered further thoughts on her exuberance for her profession. Here are edited excerpts:
On reverence and risks
I was working on tiger conservation in India. There’s nothing like seeing a tiger in the wild to really put you in your place in the universe. It’s this great, almost philosophical gift to see something move in front of you and feel the wake of it like a giant boat passing.
I also realized how crazy dangerous elephants can be. In Cambodia, a crew I was training was riding on the backs of domestic elephants. Suddenly, the group started speaking rapidly in Khmer. I asked the researcher who could [translate] what was going on. He said there was a herd of wild elephants approaching and we needed to jump. I was way up high, and there were thorny bushes all around. Then they spoke rapidly again and he asked, “The elephant driver wants to know if you need a photograph.” I asked if it was safe. He said “No.” I said “No.” And we jumped. Our backpacks ripped open, and we tore off through the thorny bushes waiting for the herd to pass. They stampede, wanting the elephant you’re riding.
On the value of long-term research
It’s critical for long-term studies to persist, especially given that we’re in an era of significant climate change. We need to know the normal variation we saw before. We need to know the tolerable limits of wolf mortality before, so future populations can persist. Had Jane Goodall stopped her long-term chimpanzee study earlier, she would have thought they were totally peaceful. But in the study’s later years, she realized they were warring at times. That information only surfaces after time. I’ve been fortunate to have worked under these giant names in research [Mech and Kooyman]. When they’re gone, our understanding of boots-on-the-ground science won’t be the same. Today, there’s a heavy reliance on technology and statistical modeling. But these guys lived all of this science day-in and day-out, often times at great personal risk.
On rewards of the work
In winter, I get to see wolves from an airplane, and I’m always cheering, the fists are pumping. But I really love watching the volunteers grow to where they can process an animal that has been captured through radio collaring, take care of their safety and the animal’s safety and get data. I’m usually with them every day for about two months. There’s a lot of time for growing together.
On advice for biologists-in-progress
Volunteer and get as much experience as you can before you need that job. It also speaks to having enough familiarity with a career that you’re not going to change your mind. Volunteering or shadowing shows a prospective employer you’re serious about this. Take as many math and science classes as you can. It’s becoming increasingly important that results are explained in terms of rigorous analysis, so that requires math.
On the importance of the outdoors
When I step outside, I feel like I’m being cleansed. I gravitate to what people maybe call the silent sports. I need the opportunity to be somewhere where there aren’t other voices asking me for something. At those moments, other truisms can come through. It’s almost a spiritual experience because I am taking whatever nature is giving me, appreciating what I’ve got and making the most of it for that moment.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.