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He finds humans 'too unpredictable' — so he studies cougars for a living

Clint Robins grew up outdoors in Wisconsin and Rwanda. But while monitoring wildlife in the Washington wilderness, he found his athleticism was as important as his GRE score.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

My dad’s an anthropologist from Queens. He was doing some work with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and USAID in Rwanda when he met my mom, who was a secretary for the U.S. embassy at the time. I was born in Wisconsin, but we moved back to Rwanda for a year and then to West Africa for some time. I think that's where a lot of my curiosity about the outdoors started. I remember going on some game drives with my family, going to national parks, and playing with lizards in the yard.

We moved back to River Falls, Wisconsin, when I was 6. I ended up filling that void by hiking in the woods and being outside a lot. I found whatever way I could to join wilderness trips and expeditions and things like that. Growing up, I saw open pasture and forested areas around my house get developed. That always kind of bothered me.

I wanted to do something that captured what I was seeing and put it out there for the world to do something with it. I attended this outdoor camp called Laketrails in northern Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods one summer, where they do weeklong canoe trips with campers. My second summer I was employed as a maintenance person on a little island they use during excursions, and my third and fourth summers, I went out as guide going to campsites. In my freshman year of college, the last year I was a guide, I did a water-quality sampling project looking at areas within Lake of the Woods that were heavily used by summer visitors and tourists, and areas where there was hardly any human access, and did a comparison of nutrient levels and nutrient overload. I think I ended up sending that data to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

I wasn't always encouraged about going [the scientific] route. I struggled at first with studying biology at Williams College. I played football and ran track in college, and rock climbed, too. Very few football teammates majored in biology and only a few of us went the environmental route, but they were very supportive. There was a lot of support once I ended up in the biology major.

My adviser, Heather Williams, was instrumental in helping me learn to be creative and think on my feet as a scientist. I was able to do field work with her for three years. It was just great. She knew that I was somewhat self-conscious of my academic capabilities and she said, “Here in the field, toughness and other things like that are what get you in; you’re a football player, and this is where you should shine.” So I really devoted myself to field work.

I learned that your GPA or GRE score won’t define your capabilities as a grad student or as a researcher. Learning that lesson was important because [in addition], there [already] aren't that many people who look like me in the field. And so to know that intelligence can also be defined in a number of ways was heartening.

Clint Robins, right, as a child with his sister in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (Photo provided by Clint Robins)
Clint Robins, right, as a child with his sister, Elsa Robins, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (Photo provided by Clint Robins)

I've always been a little bit more interested in the big, cuddly, fuzzy things — but I did bird research [at Williams that] taught me a lot about difficult field work. You're in remote locations, working long hours and having to pay attention while you're collecting data. I also learned to work in a 50-meter-by-50-meter square for 12 straight hours, looking at birds, and not go crazy.

When I graduated, I applied to a bunch of grad programs and didn't get into any; and then applied to a few jobs, and nothing landed there. I moved home and contacted the local dive shop that certified me at 12. They said, “We could use someone to teach dive classes, and we have trips that go down to the Caribbean. Do you think you'd be willing to get your dive masters this weekend. We can help you do that at cost?” I was sold. I worked for them for a while. And then I volunteered at the University of Minnesota Lion Lab, going through camera trap videos and identifying species. Someone at that lab had done work on a grizzly bear project in Montana and put in a good word for me. I did that, and then a Fulbright in Malawi.

I grew up listening to stories that my mom told me about the gorillas in Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide — a lot of people killing people, a lot of people killing wildlife. I thought about that when looking into grad schools. I thought, there's got to be a way to create more balance as far as people being able to live with people, and with wildlife. I think that was a sort of childish sentiment at the time, but I looked at labs that explored predator-prey relationships with large carnivores and Aaron Wirsing’s predator ecology lab came up pretty quickly. [Washington] is a state that is by and large proud of its wildlife and eager to find ways to protect it and manage it effectively. I felt like Washington was the place to be.

There really aren't that many African Americans doing fieldwork here in Western Washington, especially the kind of fieldwork I do. Most of my fieldwork occurs in managed forests — there's mostly foresters and some Fish and Wildlife personnel. I love seeing them, and them me. They're the ones who’ve helped me with my research. My guiding experienced helped me a bit with fieldwork, but by far, I’ve learned more from my adviser, Brian Kertsonwho’s a carnivore scientist with WDFW [Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife]. For my whole first year in the field, we’d go out together every day and I got to watch what he did up close.

For my master's degree, I looked at how urbanization impacts cougar foraging ecology. What is the probability that a cougar takes a domestic animal as urbanization increases? The truth is, cougars do eat urban prey like raccoons and coyotes, but they just don't kill a lot of domestic animals. We found the more development you have, the greater chances that cougars are going to kill something that you don't want them to kill — but almost 80 percent of their diet is deer. We were also able to demonstrate that those areas where cougars kill are exurban landscapes, and involve just a few cats. The behavior that we're really worried about cougars exhibiting is unlikely in most areas.

University of Washington Ph.D. student Clint Robins on March 15, 2019.
University of Washington Ph.D. student Clint Robins on March 15, 2019. Robins is a part of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and focusing his research on cougar hunting behavior. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Right now, I’m looking into the bear-cougar relationship in light of urbanization, because bears sometimes scavenge cougar kills. I'm curious as to whether urbanization decouples that relationship and instead bears are foraging on human resources more.

Cougar attacks on humans are rare. When they happen, it’s often because they misidentify the human as prey or there's maybe something wrong with the cat — they’re malnourished or something like that. Unfortunately, you need collared animals to get data like this, which means that it takes years of work and a lot of community support and patience.

I'm sure that there's been many times where I'm hiking in the woods where cougars have been either aware of my presence or have left because of it. I guess there's another level of respect there, knowing that they are predators.

I think it's important that people are aware and accepting of [predators] in Washington. Are people’s perspectives on wildlife grounded in a negative experience, misinformation, no information? I want to be able to provide accurate information to people so that at that point, people can base their thoughts on fact and consider, how do cougars interact with them locally?

It’s peacekeeping based in fact. Sometimes maybe that isn't possible. Maybe you have a problem animal that continues to depredate, then you have to deal with that separately. But developing the landscape indiscriminately, hunting indiscriminately, all those things are unwise, and can be informed by it misinformation. These dynamics are cyclical — habitats get degraded, wildlife suffers and creates conflict with humans, and it kind of goes back and forth. The policy side is always in play.

As humans modify ecosystems, they become more and more homogenous. But the presence of large predators helps mediate lower trophic levels. There's this ripple effect through the ecosystem: Greater biodiversity means more resilient and healthy ecosystems. Since humans have lots of feelings about large carnivores and large animals in general, I think it's a good avenue for not only research, but also to create discourse about the importance of environmental heterogeneity and how even animals that we don't always appreciate can be really instrumental cogs in ecosystem health and function.

There are days where you're doing like 5 or 6 kilometers up and over a mountain ridge. It's rugged and it's hard and there’s no trail, so you're bushwhacking the whole way and have to be very confident in your sense of direction. My favorite part of interviewing volunteers when they want to do fieldwork with me is, “What's your experience outside, like hiking? What about bushwhacking? Does that deter you? How are you with a compass? How would you deal with a twisted ankle or something like that?”

I've had experience with disenfranchised communities that often have limited access to outdoor recreation or education. When I was in Malawi doing research [in 2012] for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife through a Fulbright grant, I helped start a conservation club at a local school. I realized that many of the students hadn't seen a lot of the wildlife that was in the park, which is just across the river. That was probably the first time in my life where I'd mentioned a species and people in the class were like, “I don't know what it looks like.” The next class was literally putting up pictures of animals on a board and having kids play a game to identify them. We ended up setting up ways to get students out on game drives and things like that.

I know that some communities don't often see researchers who look like me. So I enjoy trying to demonstrate that this is a career path that is viable. I've always been aware that ethnic diversity is pretty limited in wildlife ecology and that I can represent a transition to broader ranges and types of people being wildlife ecologists. But I’m also concerned about [intellectual diversity]. Right now in science, there’s an emphasis on broader collaboration and interdisciplinary work. If you're going to do a study on wildlife that considers a local human population, you should probably have somebody on your team who specializes in urban design or sociology or anthropology. That kind of thinking fosters greater diversity in the field.

I find humans to be way too unpredictable. I try to think logically all the time as a scientist, and I don't think that human emotion or decision-making is necessarily defined by those things. It’s easier for me to accept unpredictability in wildlife and in nature.

I broke my hand one day during my second year of fieldwork. It was raining and I was hiking up a slope; I slipped and fell into this giant patch of Himalayan blackberries. I'm hanging upside down, and I couldn't grab anything with my right hand. So I just sat there for a minute. I was like, this kind of hurts and it really sucks. But I felt the rain on my face and thought to myself, “Would you still want to be somewhere else?” And I thought, I'm pretty happy right here.

 

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He finds humans 'too unpredictable' — so he studies cougars for a living

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