David Mattson

It seems natural enough that people visiting this web site would want to know about its' author, perhaps out of simple curiosity, perhaps out of interest in the credentials of someone who is presuming to be an authority. As I stress on the home page of this site, I hope that the merits of the information that I present rest more on content rather than my claims to authority.  But, barring having ready access to primary sources undergirding content, we users of the digitisphere invariably end up basing much of our trust in (or skepticism of) an author on his or her biography. (By the way, that's me to the right, propped up by the grizzly bear statue on the town square of Jackson, Wyoming.)

If I were to describe myself in one word, it would be "scientist." Most of my professional life (40 years or so) has been spent doing research. More concretely, I've spent a lot of time running around following animals, systematically collecting data, analyzing it, and then publishing the results. I've also focused a lot of my research during the last 25 years on people and the phenomenon of collective and individual decision-making. This human-focused research has been conducted under the rubric of "policy," although the word tends to make most people shudder. And my primary motivation? In a word, curiosity. Combined with an obsessive pursuit of enlightenment. Both of these drives have led me to focus my inquiries on complex systems, primarily because I consider highly-contingent complexity to be the inescapable reality of human or natural phenomena, to the point where I view any given intersection of time and space as a singularlity. Which I've found to be a useful stance if I want to genuinely understand what's unfolding. I consider it foolish and illusory to assume otherwise. Although, ironically enough, it strikes me that most theory-driven scientists assume otherwise in practice. 

So...to get a bit more concrete and literal: I have a bachelor's degree in forest management, a master's degree in plant ecology, and a doctoral degree in wildlife ecology. I like to think that this ensemble gives me a well-rounded view of the natural world. During the course of my career I held primary responsibility for investigations of habitat and diet for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (1983-1993; I started my grizzly-focused field work in 1979); continued my grizzly bear-related investigations while with the Cooperative Park Studies Unit at the Unversity of Idaho (1994-1999); moved on to being a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Southwest (1999-2013); with a two-year stint as Station Leader for the Colorado Plateau Research Station (convincing myself that I had no taste for administrative work); a sojourn during 2007-2008 as Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; leading to my position as Western Field Director of the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative (2008-2011); and an on-going affiliation with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies as Lecturer and Visiting Senior Scientist (2006-present, including one year in residence). You can find a relatively brief resume that includes more recent publications here, as well as my official Research Scientist Record for the USGS dating from 2011. The latter provides exhaustive details, but will probably bore you to tears. 

But more specific to my experiences with large carnivores: My dissertation was based on research that I did during 1979-1993 focused on the foraging behavior of Yellowstone's grizzly bears. The following link (Mattson 2000) takes you to a pdf of my thesis. And the photo to the right is illustrative of that period when I spent March-October of every year following radio-marked grizzlies (in case you are wondering, I'm looking at the remains of an elk while surveying winter kill in the Firehole area of Yellowstone Park). I also pioneered the use of transects and other non-invasive methods to investigate habitat use by grizzlies--including the oversight and implementation of studies focused on bear use of red squirrel middens (with Dan Reinhart), cutthroat trout spawning streams (with Dan Reinhart again), spring ungulate carrion (with Gerry Green and Jeff Henry), and biscuitroots and other vegetal foods. I'm afraid I don't have photos of me lurking at some strategic distance behind a drugged or otherwise subdued grizzly bear...the classic trophy shot. Unlike most who seem to get involved in grizzly bear research as affirmation of man- (or woman-) hood--i.e., by capturing, immobilizing and otherwise dominating a bear--I never seemed to get the hang of that sort of thing, along with wearing a cowboy hat. My attitude was: If a bear had suffered through the capture and handling process, you should be damned sure to get the maximum amount of information in recompense for the animal's incovenience (and suffering?).


Parenthetically--at least as far as this site is concerned--I also studied mountain lions. This phase of my life lasted 10 years and involved the development of a research program that encompassed seven different study areas in the Southwest spanning conditions that ranged from the alpine (the San Francisco Peaks) to the Mojave desert (the Nevada National Security Site). I walked away from one of the most spatially comprehensive studies of mountain lions ever undertaken primarily because I didn't want to work for the federal government anymore. The structural dishonesty was too much for me.

A Concluding Aside About Government Agencies

Having ended immediately above with such a provocative statement about federal employment, I should probably briefly explain myself; but only after emphasizing that state and federal wildlife management agencies are chock full of sincere, well-intentioned, virtuous people. My comments are primarily about the institutions these people find themselves in, not (for the most part) the people themselves.


Putting it succinctly, government bureaus institutionalize incentives and disincentives that prioritize agency special interests and provide ample scope for those who pursue power and prestige. What you end up with is federal and state agencies that pay limited attention to the public trust and maximal attention to self-promotion and finances. More specifically, the agency that I worked for most of my  career (the USGS) proudly billed itself as serving society whilst prioritizing getting money in the door and its name on the street.


Personally, that meant that promotion and other recognition derived from the the overhead dollars I generated, the number of publications I pumped out, and the extent to which I didn't rock the political boat. More insidiously, the USGS increasingly operated under a business model that depended on obtaining funds from "customers" in return for a scientific product; i.e., pay to play. Without belaboring its problems, this model created an environment ripe for bounded rationality configured by customer demands and, along with it, a tendency to prioritize the customer's interests over the public trust.


Well, I hate to tell you, but government bureaus are not businesses. They are created to serve the public trust, not make a profit selling widgets. Which means that any time a funding model drifts towards obtaining money from those for whom a public service is provided tends to result in "capture" of the agency by those few who are paying the bills. Combine that with the development of a culture shared with those providing funds, and you get (for example) the state institutions that manage and study our wildlife. Again, chock full of sincere well-intentioned people, but nonetheless complicit in a despotic system serving the special interests of the few at the expense of the many.


At this point you can probably tell that I could go on at length about the topic of governance. But I will refrain. Instead, I refer you to a couple of chapters I wrote for books published by the University of Chicago Press: "People, Politics, and Cougar Management," co-authored with Susan Clark in the book Cougar, and  "State-Level Management of a Common Charismatic Predator" in the book Large Carnivore Conservation. Both pieces deal with the problems of state-level wildlife management. You might also find the book Science Under Siege by Todd Wilkinson interesting. In it you will find a chapter that covers some of the dysfunctions of grizzly bear science and management in the lower 48 states. Finally, the chapter that I wrote with John Craighead in the Island Press book Endangered Species Recovery also focuses on some of the problems I've highlighted here specific to the grizzly bear arena.