The Bear Switch Project (and other Wildlife Tales)
Q&A with Allegheny Highlands Program Director Blair Smyth
Blair Smyth, new director of the Allegheny Highlands program, comes to The Nature Conservancy after working as a district wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Blair sat down recently with nature.org for a wide-ranging chat focused on his experiences working with wildlife—including placing orphaned black bear cubs with foster mothers in the wild—as well as the TNC conservation projects he’s excited about leading in western Virginia.
Nature.org: Where did you grow up?
Blair Smyth: I was born in New York City, but moved to Roanoke Rapids when I was three. My stepdad got me started fishing and hunting, and I spent the better part of my middle and high school years roaming around our Christmas tree farm, playing in the Roanoke River, just enjoying the outdoors and working on the farm.
Did your interest in wildlife start there?
Definitely. For me, it started with game animals, from watching deer in peanut fields to jumping coveys of quail to seeing flocks of turkeys. But later I got interested in salamanders and turtles and things like that. I didn’t know yet that there was a job out there where you could study all this stuff and run around in the woods, but that’s really what I wanted to do.
When did you make the connection that you could actually do that for a living?
It was 9th or 10th grade, one of those career days that all the high school students do. But instead of touring a doctor’s office or whatever, I drove to the middle of nowhere to meet up with some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees. We got up early the next morning and shot a rocket net over a bunch of swans. Being able to catch critters, taking biological measurements—the hands-on work made it real for me. By the end of that morning, I was sold.
Fast-forwarding a bit, before coming to TNC, you were a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Tell us about your work.
As a district biologist, you never know what you’re walking into every day. You might be on the phone helping someone figure out how to keep bears away from trash cans and bird feeders. One time I had to go get a fox out of the foyer of an elementary school.
The work I most enjoyed was leading a black bear research project—putting GPS collars on sows, looking at how they used the habitat, how their movements changed during hunting season, placing orphaned cubs with foster moms.
Can you walk us through that last one—why and how do you get a bear to be a foster mom?
Let’s say a sow with two cubs gets hit by a car on I-64. We would scoop up those cubs, check out their health, and as soon as possible, put them in a wild den with another sow. We’d know where to find a den because of the GPS collars.
You tuck the cubs in your coat to keep them warm and quiet, and then you sneak right into the den and try to lay the cubs right next to the sow. As soon as a cub makes any noise, the sow will lift her head. It is the coolest thing in the world to watch a sow look up and see a cub, say “How the heck did that get there?” and then walk over to pick it up, lay it down with her own cubs and start nursing it.
Let’s shift gears to the Allegheny Highlands. How have you been getting up to speed during your first month?
We did a controlled burn on Mare Run last week, and I’ve been looking at past burn units, talking about burn units for next year. When you go up to Dan Ingalls Overlook or past the airport to Bear Loop, you appreciate what a beautiful part of the world this is.
But being able to see some of the habitat work—the areas that have been burned and the results—and then sitting down with Jean [interim director Jean Lorber] and talking about his analysis of forest types, seeing how it fits together with the bird and vegetation monitoring that our team has been doing, I’m learning a lot about TNC’s great body of work.
What are you most excited about moving forward?
Just continuing to learn, especially spending more time on our Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, getting to know our partners, and getting to work. I really enjoy the partnership aspect—working with the Forest Service, DCR and DGIF—I think those collaborations are just fantastic. And I’m really looking forward to working with the stakeholder group that Marek [Marek Smith, former director] put together and spearheaded during his tenure here.
How enthusiastic are you about the fire program?
I don’t know that anybody on the planet is as excited as Sam Lindblom [Director of Land Management and Fire Program Manager], but very much so. I like getting up in the morning and putting on my Nomex. I feel like I should be right there on the fire line because that’s making restoration happen, that’s getting the work done, and I still have a lot to learn from our fire teams.
So you’re not planning to be just some paper pusher?
I hope not!