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Washington State University
CAS Connect Summer 2015

In Motion: Charlie Robbins’s bear research

Charlie Robbins, School of the Environment
Charlie Robbins

What is the ideal diet for a bear? How do bears know when to hibernate? How can bears help advance medical science? These are the types of questions Charles “Charlie” T. Robbins, a professor in the School of the Environment and in the School of Biological Sciences, has spent the last 25 years investigating.

Robbins is founder and director of the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center, the only facility in the world to house adult grizzlies for research. He has taught natural resource sciences and zoology at WSU since 1974. His grizzly bear research has been featured in prominent media outlets including National Geographic and NBC.

What sparked your interest in bear research?

I started off at WSU studying deer, elk, mountain goats, moose, and all sorts of big animals other than bears. After 15 years of doing that, I was looking for another challenge and it turned out the federal government was looking for someone to start a captive bear research program that would complement their field studies.

I took on the task of establishing a program with the idea that we would help provide federal and state biologists a better idea of what bears in the wild need to survive.

A bear sow and cubs at the WSU Bear Center
A sow and her cubs enjoyed some time out in the big yard at the WSU Bear Center. The grizzlies are allowed to breed when additional bears are needed for research. Otherwise, annual progesterone implants prevent the females from cycling.
What’s your current research focus?

I’m working with a large contingent of veterinary physiologists who are interested in how bears hibernate. How can any animal just lie down for five months, slow their heart rate down to 10-12 beats per minute, and not lose either bone or muscle mass all the while maintaining a healthy heart?

There are a lot of things that bears do while remaining totally healthy that are somewhat deadly for us. For example, bears can have 40 or 50 percent of their body weight as fat. Every fall, they shut down and use the energy in that fat for hibernation. Bears do that seasonally every year. Unlike you and me, they turn off their ability to respond to insulin and turn it back on once they start feeding in the spring.

Considering how big a problem obesity is in the United States right now, there are huge implications in bear research for medicine.

Where did the first bear(s) at WSU come from?

We actually got two. They were brothers. A wildlife official in British Columbia called to ask if we could provide a home for two young bears that had developed a bit too much interest in humans. They flew these two bears down to the Spokane airport and I picked them up right there and brought them back to Pullman.

It was 1986, and at the time, we didn’t have the facilities we currently have. Before picking the brothers up, I drove around campus and found an enclosure that I think had most recently been used for domesticated goats. So we put these two 60 pound grizzly bears in our makeshift facility.

The next morning, I found that one of the bears had gotten out and was running through the University cattle herd! I had to catch the little guy and bring him back to his enclosure. Ever since then, WSU has been developing increasingly better facilities for the bears that are also conducive for research.

Robbins, right, and Lynne Nelson, assistant director of the bear center, work with one of two grown, bottle-raised grizzlies, born in 2003.
Robbins, right, and Lynne Nelson, assistant director of the bear center, work with one of two grown, bottle-raised grizzlies. Born in 2003, they were the first bottle-raised bears trained for blood sampling and other physiological procedures without anesthesia. They are happy to work for honey.
What does the current WSU bear habitat look like?

Our current facility is a state-of-the-art habitat with internal dens where the bears can hibernate, and we have a big, two-acre yard where the bears can go out and simply be bears.

We have plans to open a new facility to increase the space available for bears, the number of bears that could be housed, and the amount and caliber of research that could be conducted. It would also give the WSU community an even more valuable local attraction.

What do you enjoy about working with students?

So many of my interactions with students, both undergraduate and graduate, are wrapped around the bears. About 30 undergraduates are involved in caring for the bears every year. They are as fascinated and in love with the bears as I am. It is great to be able to share the bears with them. And then the graduate students are a group of folks who are just very dedicated to research and discovering something new about bears.

What do you consider the best part of your job?

I have been here for 41 years and there is a lot that has been rewarding, obviously including being paid to work with animals I love.

Snapshot: School of the Environment

The School of the Environment (SoE) is an interdisciplinary academic unit focused on developing both scientific and social understanding of the Earth and its natural systems, and how those systems are managed and influenced by human activity.

Kate B. Webster Hall, WSU
Kate B. Webster Hall houses several units in the School of the Environment.

Created in 2012, the school has a unique dual affiliation with the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). The unit was formed by bringing together the former CAS School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and its complementary counterpart in CAHNRS, the former Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

SoE faculty are engaged in a broad range of issues, including conservation biology and the challenges of protecting endangered species of the Pacific Northwest, movements of pollutants in freshwater ecosystems, ocean and atmospheric chemistry, the possibility of microbial life on other planets, reducing the spread of invasive mussels, and the biology and ecology of grizzly bears.

Research capabilities are enhanced by an array of world-renowned facilities like the Wild Ungulate Facility (black-tail and mule deer), the 58-acre Steffen Center, and the high-tech Geoanalytical Lab in Webster Hall.

The school’s educational focus provides training for the next generation of scientists, resource managers, and policy makers, and empowers well-informed global citizens. Specialties include rangeland and water resource management, wildlife and aquatic ecology, planetary systems, geology, forestry, and conservation science.

Degrees offered
  • Bachelor of Science
    • Earth Sciences
    • Environmental and Ecosystem Sciences
    • Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Sciences
  • Master of Science
    • Geology
    • Environmental Science
    • Natural Resource Science
  • PhD
    • Geology
    • Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences
By the numbers

(CAS and CAHNRS combined)

  • Undergraduate student credit hours: 11,656
  • Enrolled graduate students: 134
  • Full-time faculty:  56