Noted wildlife biologist Rae Wynn-Grant, PhD, likes to call herself an “unapologetic fan of charismatic megafauna.” Using sophisticated statistical modeling, she has studied large predators ranging from grizzly bears in the Northern Great Plains to African lions in rural Kenya and Tanzania. Her work is shedding new light on how even minor human activity — such as a sole backpacker in a forest — can make predators shy away from their natural hunting grounds. Now she’s setting her sights on a unique habitat just an hour from UCSB, as the newest assistant researcher at the Bren School, leading carnivore research on The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.
In addition to being a successful scientist, Wynn-Grant is known for her ability to translate her studies into compelling stories. She’s an in-demand public speaker and works with organizations committed to connecting young people to the magic of nature.
“Rae is a rock star. She’s an expert on predator habitats, a thoughtful teacher, and an amazing science communicator,” said UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management Dean Steve Gaines.
Keeping it wild
One of the last remaining wild places on the Southern California coast, the Dangermond Preserve is a 25,000-acre protected area at Point Conception. The preserve stretches from the coast to the Santa Ynez Mountains and includes chaparral, grassland, oak woodlands, coastal scrub, and closed-cone pine along eight miles of wild coastline. It’s a biodiversity hotspot, home to 50 endangered and rare animal species.
The preserve also represents a special research and management partnership between UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), founded by Jack and Laura Dangermond, whose philanthropic gift made TNC’s acquisition of the land possible. The National Geographic Society also plays a key role, as a co-funder of Wynn-Grant’s position.
Rae Wynn-Grant will take on multiple roles. As an educator, she will lead Bren School students as they collect data and learn how to apply data analytics to the conservation management planning process at Dangermond. She will also collaborate with colleagues from TNC, including Dangermond lead scientist Mark Reynolds, stewardship manager Moses Katkowski, and lead conservation technology manager Kelli Easterday. Together, they will study existing wildlife, create a model that shows how different habitats are connected, and provide recommendations for how to support wildlife within Dangermond. The team has already set up cameras, where they’ve captured images of mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes. On the coast, they’ve observed marine mammals including seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and great white sharks.
“Just because we can see them now doesn’t mean they will be able to survive into the future,” said Wynn-Grant. “My research will help us understand what needs to happen to protect the large carnivores in the area.”
“We are excited to bring in Rae’s expertise in carnivores as we look into wildlife connectivity, corridor management, and the role of apex predators in the coastal ecosystems,” said Michael Bell, Point Conception project director at TNC.
Acknowledging what came before
The Dangermond Preserve has long been an important cultural heritage site for California’s Chumash people, who lived in the area for centuries before Spanish colonizers arrived in the 1700s, bringing disease and claiming the land as their own. TNC and Bren are working closely with various members of the Chumash community, including the local Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, asking for advice and sharing decision-making on how the site will be restored and used.
“We’re looking at the whole history of the landscape. The Chumash peoples’ historic and current knowledge and environmental stewardship will be crucial to helping us understand what makes this landscape thrive,” said Wynn-Grant.
Bringing more voices to the table
Like many institutions, particularly after the racial reckoning of 2020, the Bren School is stepping up efforts to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus and within the ranks of leadership.
“Despite the fact that environmental issues disproportionately impact people of color, there are very few people of color in leadership positions in our field, thanks to longstanding systemic structures and barriers. We want to do everything we can to inspire more students of color to look at environmental science and management as a viable and exciting career path,” said Gaines.
Rae Wynn-Grant sees her new role at the Dangermond Preserve as an opportunity to advance scientific understanding and a chance to bring more diverse voices into the conversation. “The fact is, our conservation efforts aren’t working very well right now,” she said. “Across the globe, we are facing an extinction crisis. If we want to reverse that trend, it’s extra important that all kinds of brains and perspectives get involved. It’s also the right thing to do. To promote black and brown folks in this field is a step toward equity and justice.”
She considers being a role model as core to her work.“ At a bare minimum, I can be a visual representation. Even more, I can mentor young people and foster a pipeline of students of color,” she said. “Bren is poised to lead in this realm. We can create a space where everyone is invited to come together to solve environmental problems,” said Wynn-Grant.
The UCSB Bren School would like to thank and credit photographers Peter Houlihan, Tsalani Lassiter, and Bill Marr for their contribution to this article.
Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant received her B.S. in Environmental Studies from Emory University, her M.S. in Environmental Studies from Yale University, and her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Columbia University. She completed a Conservation Science Research and Teaching Postdoctoral fellowship with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to her new role at Bren, she maintains a Research Fellow position with National Geographic Society focusing on carnivore conservation in partnership with the American Prairie Reserve and a Visiting Scientist position at the American Museum of Natural History.