Mark Haroldson remembers a time when it took a while to find a grizzly bear, back when he started trapping them for research in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 1984.

“When I started down here,” Haroldson said, “it took a lot of trap nights to catch a bear, even in the park in some places. Now you don’t have to wait that long.”

Truncated wait times show what has happened during Haroldson’s long career working on grizzly bears — growth. When the bears were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, there were fewer than 150 in the Yellowstone population. Now, biologists estimate the population at roughly 700.

As the rebound happened, Haroldson, of Bozeman, was a constant figure in the bear world, first as a trapper and now as a supervisory biologist with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Over the years, he helped develop safe handling techniques and a genetic fingerprint for the Yellowstone bears, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and he’s been recognized for his work.

Haroldson was inducted into the Wyoming Outdoor Hall of Fame this year, joining famous biologists like the Craighead brothers and a few big western figures like Jim Bridger and Buffalo Bill. The honor blows him away, he said. It’s certainly not something he expected, and it’s something he thinks many other people are just as deserving of.

“I don’t think of myself as that special,” Haroldson said. “I’m more of a trench guy.”

Originally from southern Minnesota, Haroldson moved west for college, landing in Missoula at the University of Montana. His work with bears began simply in 1976 — there was a work study job open on a team studying the grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the area in and around Glacier National Park.

“For me, it was a summer job in the mountains, working with wildlife,” he said. “I was an aspiring wildlife biologist.”

He worked under Chuck Jonkel, a renowned bear biologist who died in 2016. Haroldson was one of several people who went from that project to long careers working with bears.

After finishing college, Haroldson spent some time working with black bears elsewhere but eventually found his way back to Montana and grizzlies. In 1984, he began working as a seasonal trapper for the study team, an arm of the U.S. Geological Survey that monitors and researches the Yellowstone grizzly population. He’s been with the study team ever since.

The first part of his career was spent in the woods, trying to trap bears. He got to know some bears well, and he’s had a lot of favorites.

It’s also where he had a lot of close calls. They were fairly infrequent, he said, and just part of the job.

And it’s where he observed the growth and expansion of the population, a boost that led the federal government to propose removing Endangered Species Act protections from the populations twice. Both attempts were stopped by lawsuits from environmental groups who argue the bears still face significant threats.

Legal status doesn’t really change the role of the study team — it still has to monitor what’s going on with the Yellowstone population.

Haroldson has been there for the population’s full arc. His tenure spans three different leaders of the study team, a job he said he has never wanted. He still thinks of himself as a field guy, even though he transitioned into an office job in the early 2000s.

Kevin Frey, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Haroldson’s longevity and field experience brings an important perspective to grizzly research and analysis.

“Just that connection over time is almost impossible to duplicate,” Frey said.

Frey also said Haroldson is meticulous about the details of bear research, even as he oversees myriad aspects of it.

“Mark’s juggling 100 different balls, between the monitoring flights and estimating females and cubs and keeping track of mortalities,” Frey said.

Haroldson speaks highly of the people he’s worked with over the years, like Frey. He also speaks highly of the places bears live, the places he’s had to go for work.

“Bears take you to amazing places,” Haroldson said.

Many of his contemporaries are nearing retirement age, but Haroldson said he plans to hang on for a few more years. There’s some research he wants to see come to fruition, studies of bear physiology and energetics.

Even after all this time, he still loves thinking about bears and trying to learn more about how they do what they do.

“They’re just fascinating. You talk about how they make a living on the landscape,” Haroldson said. “They’re packing a year’s worth of living in half a year.”

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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