Bear foundation leader followed bruins around state
Ten years ago, Shannon Donahue spent her first winter in Alaska on an Aleutian Islands homestead near False Pass, a skiff ride away from provisions and from people except for her boyfriend Tim Walsh.
When Walsh wanted to return for another season, he bribed Donahue with a puppy. That dog, Seamus, spent its early months running beaches with a wild fox. Donahue, 36, and Seamus have now settled in Haines.
Donahue is executive director of the Great Bear Foundation and business manager for the Alaska Arts Confluence. She started spending summers in Haines in 2010 and moved here year-round in 2013.
Donahue grew up 30 miles north of Boston in a house surrounded by a swamp she liked to explore. Her parents, both teachers, taught her to value education and encouraged her to pursue her curiosity.
She headed west for college, first to Reed College in Portland then to University of Montana in Missoula.
In Missoula, the proximity of campus to a federally-designated wilderness home to grizzly bears and a strong environmental community helped shape her attitude to the outdoors.
“That’s really where I came to develop a wilderness ethic and get really interested in conservation and wild places,” Donahue said.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. A fierce job market pushed her back East to regroup with Walsh and her family in Massachusetts.
From there, she applied for jobs throughout the West, landing a summer job at a gas station and convenience store at the entrance to Denali National Park. Walsh, her boyfriend since age 18, got a job there, too.
“He was a great adventure partner. He was up for seizing whatever opportunities we came across in Alaska,” she said.
“We came up to Healy and we just loved it,” she said. “It was really just so wild and I really liked the people, too. It piqued my sense of adventure and curiosity… all the wildlife, it was the stuff I’d been dreaming of all my life.”
Donahue worked at a monkey sanctuary and on farms in Ireland that winter, then returned to Healy with Walsh for the summer. While searching for jobs and a place to spend the winter, they came across an ad for caretaking a homestead on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
The cover story of the National Geographic magazine that came in the mail the day she answered the ad was about the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, less than 100 miles away from the homestead.
“So I knew it was fate and I knew I was going,” she said.
They learned to live off the grid and how to make the three-mile crossing of Isanotski Strait to False Pass, population 35, for groceries. They cared for chickens and troubleshot a hydroelectric power system. Donahue taught herself to knit, and now creates socks to mittens.
“It really did a lot to shape who I am now,” she said of that season.
After another summer in Denali, Donahue took a job as a naturalist at the Forest Service’s visitor center in Portage Valley. Her work with bears began there, developing programs to improve human-bear interactions.
“It was my interest but there was a lot going on on the Russian and Kenai Rivers with bear conflict,” she said. No one had been mauled, but it was the “sort of situation where it wasn’t going to be long before something bad happened. I just wanted to do what I could to start educating people on bear safety,” Donahue said.
That propelled her to a job at Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory in southern Southeast the following summer.
“It was a dream job. Every day being out there watching bears interact on this salmon stream in an incredibly gorgeous place. It was really just a dream come true, but by end of ’07 I found myself wanting to do more. I wanted to give back to the bear,” Donahue said.
She returned to Missoula for graduate school with the idea of returning to Alaska to start a nonprofit bear conservation and education organization. She started volunteering with the Great Bear Foundation in Montana and was soon asked to help out on a polar bear ecology field course in Churchill, Manitoba.
“Going up there really sealed the deal for me; that is what committed me to the organization,” she said.
“Chuck and I shared an ethic and a philosophy on wildlife,” Donahue said about foundation founder and president Dr. Charles Jonkel. “Put education first, find ways to coexist with bears for the benefit of both the bears and the people.”
The foundation’s mission is to conserve bears and their habitats around the world through outreach, education, research and community-based efforts.
Donahue spent another summer examining human-bear interactions on the Russian and Kenai Rivers, where conflict was escalating. She also returned to Churchill as a support instructor, where she discovered that Jonkel had hundreds of hours of polar bear footage from the early days of research.
For her thesis, Donahue wrote the script for a documentary film about Jonkel’s work with the Canadian arctic bears. She and two foundation affiliates continue to work on completing the film, titled “Walking Bear Comes Home.”
With a wealth of new knowledge and support in the field of bear conservation, Donahue graduated with a master’s degree in environmental studies just as Alaska State Parks advertised a bear monitor job on the Chilkoot River in 2010.
“It was exactly my niche, exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to live in Haines for years. Everything just came together,” Donahue said.
She and Walsh, along with Seamus and a new puppy, moved to Haines a month later.
Jenn Allen worked with Donahue at Chilkoot that summer, and was immediately impressed by her knowledge and quick action to help mitigate conflict between bears and people.
“What I noticed right away is she wasn’t restricted to sharing her knowledge with State Parks. She shared it with the community, with anyone who would receive it. She really is an advocate for wildlife and conservation,” Allen said. “She is a wonderful asset to Haines.”
For the next two years Donahue spent summers with the bears and people on the Chilkoot River corridor and winters with foundation responsibilities in Montana. In April 2012, Walsh died of a sudden heart attack while Donahue was still in Montana.
That summer she didn’t go back to work on the Chilkoot, and wasn’t sure about returning to Haines. She said friends here helped her to heal. “It was a pivotal time in my life,” she said. “Over time I just fell in love with the place all over again.”
“By the end of that summer I realized this is where I wanted to be. Part of it is that I feel like I’m closer to (Walsh) here, and I also just was developing a new relationship with this place. It’s become a really important place to me. I think that’s a lot of why I just want to stay here for the rest of my life now,” Donahue said.
“If that hadn’t happened I might have stayed for a couple of years then see where life took me, but I’ve just been through so much here, I really bonded with the place and with the community.”
Donahue moved the bear foundation to Haines in 2013. She offered day-trip field courses to the Chilkoot River that summer, but was frustrated by visitors’ overwhelming concern with getting as many photos as possible at short range.
“I didn’t want to bring people out to gawk at bears. I wanted to bring people out to learn about natural history of the bears, to see how humans can impact bears and teach people how they can observe and photograph bears from a distance with minimal impact on the bears,” she said.
Last summer Donahue started a long-term monitoring program that builds on biologist Anthony Crupi’s work at Chilkoot. Motion- and infrared-triggered cameras paired with on-site observations track bear habitat use and their fishing success in relation to human use and salmon abundance.
“The idea is to over time look at the long-term trends and try to manage for human safety and for the well-being of the bears,” she said.
This year an intern will assist with observations on the project, which is funded by the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation and the Charlotte Martin Foundation.
Every November Donahue and Dr. Frank Tyro, a partner on the Jonkel film, lead groups of 30 people on a 10-day polar bear trip. She is also working to put together a summer Spirit Bear trip to Hartley Bay, B.C.
Last fall she joined Western Arctic National Park Lands biologist Marcy Johnson on a research and education float trip down the Kobuk River, where they looked for bear hair samples, led school programs and spoke with villagers about interactions with wildlife.
Bear work is fulfilling for Donahue, but doesn’t pay well. In August she took on support work for the Alaska Arts Confluence’s Art Place America grants, including the Fort Seward Interpretive Project and Art on Main Street.
“I really love…doing projects that are creating a lot of opportunities for local artists and bringing art into our daily lives,” she said.
Confluence creative director Carol Tuynman said Donahue brings order and energy to the projects.
“Shannon is of the mettle Haines is best at attracting: multi-talented, hard working and generous with everyone she encounters,” Tuynman said. “We’re fortunate to have young people of her caliber attracted to Haines and doing what it takes to make this their home.”