Martha

The long-expected news that wolverines will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act finally appeared in the official record last week. I said I wasn’t going to analyze this situation any further than I already did in a previous post a couple of weeks ago. Digging further into the science isn’t going to do any good, since this situation involves political currents that are far outside my realm and that have nothing to do with research. But here is a general press roundup, with attention to a few statements made by key players.

The original AP article, picked up by outlets nationwide, and expanded upon in various publications (including Science) outlines the decision to withdraw the proposal for listing, and quotes a number of people involved in the decision. First, issues of factual accuracy: of note here are statements made by Dan Ashe, the director of USFWS, particularly the assertion that recent confirmed records of wolverines in places like Utah, Colorado, and California suggest that wolverines might be “adapting” to climate change. Let me put this in the most temperate fashion I can muster right now: this idea is absurd. We believe that wolverines were extirpated from their former range – including Utah, Colorado, and California – due primarily to poison bait campaigns against wolves and other predators in the early 20th century. They are currently reoccupying former range, not expanding into new and different habitat. This reoccupation of former range offers zero indication of adaptation, although it is certainly testimony to the enduring toughness and resilience of the creature in question. Wolverines suddenly denning in the lowlands of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho might suggest evidence of adaptation to higher temperatures and less snow. So far, however, we have no such examples. The fact that the director of the USFWS conflates re-inhabiting former range with adaptation to climate change is distressing because it suggests a casual – dare I say negligent? – attitude towards the realities of evolutionary biology, within the very agency that is supposed to be addressing these realities in the interest of protecting the nation’s wildlife. I know that I just wrote a long post about how science is malleable in the face of people’s underlying values, but I am still taken aback by this casual glossing of ‘adaptation.’

Very quickly after the official announcement of the decision not to list, the environmental advocacy community declared their intention to sue the USFWS. Statements appeared from, among others, Rocky Mountain Wild, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Science Watch, and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. In the past, I’ve been skeptical about the value of litigation. It’s not a tactic of which I approve, since it usually escalates identity politics and creates a committed cadre of conservation opponents. I’ve done my best, within the limited scope of my powers, to encourage people to pursue alternative options to deal with wolverine conservation needs. In this instance, however, I am going to stay out of it. I’m not saying that I’m now in favor of litigation as a general tactic. I’m just saying that in some cases, one finds oneself more interested in sitting back with a good book and glass of wine and remaining judiciously quiet.

Nevertheless, I hope that the environmental activist community continues to maintain a high standard of accuracy in their statements about this situation, and doesn’t stoop to pushing the same old identity-based narratives that certain other parties in this debate have already resorted to. I’m not going to point to specific individuals here, but I did hear a radio interview in which some generally inaccurate statements were made by an environmental advocate – wolverines are threatened by logging, wolverines are threatened by snowmobiles, the wolverine population was originally knocked back to Canada by trapping, etc. None of this is true, and while I think the idea of building a broad base of support for wolverine conservation may be moot by now, it still doesn’t serve the wolverine’s interests to cultivate more enemies by picking at snowmobilers, trappers, and the logging industry. Climate change threatens snowmobilers and wolverines alike. Most likely, it will also change forest ecology and take a toll on the timber industry. And as for trappers, they can’t trap wolverines if there aren’t any around, so if they’re serious about preserving trapping culture, they have every reason to be interested in real conservation. This is bigger than wolverines – it always has been, because it’s always been about the survival of human communities that depend on mountains, as well as natural communities. So I hope that the environmental advocacy community will remain attentive to the story they chose to tell about why this animal is important, and I hope that that story will still leave room for everyone who wants to be part of it.

The round of lawsuits was entirely predictable, and it’s probably going to cost more in time and resources to settle this issue in court than it would have to provide resources for wolverine conservation through listing in the first place. This is the biggest tragedy, and the thing that I’m still having trouble getting my head around, especially since part of the argument against listing had to do with limited resources. Of course, listing would have set a precedent and provoked a conversation that USFWS is perhaps eager to avoid – more on that in a later post. For now, however, the situation remains strikingly illogical.

The proposed Colorado reintroduction may or may not be another casualty of the decision not to list. Right now it’s unclear what is happening. It still could go forward, especially since a state-led effort might be more palatable to people who are suspicious of federal government.

I’ve started this post a number of times, and have remained unable to find anything eloquent to say about a situation that evokes no elegant language, only simple disgust. I’m posting this today, in its raw and unbeautiful form, because September 1st, 2014, marks a sad centennial that has a certain resonance for the topic at hand. A century ago today, the passenger pigeon went extinct. In a New Yorker post, Elizabeth Kolbert gives us these facts:

The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. 

Jonathan Rosen, in a longer New Yorker article, worth the read, further elucidates:

In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass. Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals….

But the profusion was misleading. [In 1900], a boy in Ohio shot a passenger pigeon out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing what was quickly identified as the last wild member of the species…A small captive population remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named George and Martha, but there would be no new feathered nation. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor, an extraordinary fate for a bird whose ancestors had, in Audubon’s words, sounded—from a distance!—like “a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”

Martha spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction. Visitors tossed sand to get her to move. Officials offered a thousand-dollar reward for a mate, but on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died.

When Europeans arrived here, passenger pigeons existed in flocks that numbered in the billions, flocks that took three days to fly by and that denuded entire stretches of forest when they roosted and ate. The passenger pigeon was a victim of human greed in combination with technological innovation – specifically, transportation technology. The advent of refrigerated train cars made it possible to ship dead pigeons from rural areas to urban markets, and they were quickly hunted down to low densities by people eager to exploit this market. As both authors point out, however, the pigeon was also brought down by some mystery of biology, some aspect of its life history that we still don’t understand. Kolbert again:

By the eighteen-nineties, the only passenger pigeon sightings were of small, ragged flocks. And this is what makes the bird’s extinction difficult to entirely explain. Once the passenger pigeon was no longer abundant, it also was no longer worth hunting, or at least no more worth hunting than any other medium-sized bird. So why didn’t it persist at low densities?

There are several other factors that could have contributed to the pigeon’s ultimate inability to recover. Whatever the final fatal factor was, though, we can be sure that no one in early 19th century America would have imagined that the passenger pigeon was at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future.” We can be sure that every single person who witnessed those massive, sky-obliterating flocks imagined that the species would persist forever. How could it not? What was there to worry about? Nothing at all. And even if they had had an inkling that there was some ecological or biological need or condition with which humans were interfering, the parameters of those needs and conditions were uncertain, unclear, imprecise….and so caution was not warranted.

My ancestors were around during the demise of the passenger pigeon. They probably killed and ate some of the birds. They didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing, but I’m still mad at them for depriving me of the chance to see a flock of birds so vast that it could wipe out the sun. I’m mad at them for depriving all of us of our natural heritage. A hundred years is the foreseeable future – your grandchildren, if you’re of my generation, will probably still be alive. Two hundred years is also foreseeable, to anyone with even minimal vision. And when we can look two hundred years back in time and see what happened in the past, the future comes into even clearer – even if not absolutely precise – focus. USFWS is taking an official stance that wolverines are not threatened in a clearly definable way in the “forseeable future.” Tell that to Martha, and see if she agrees that lack of foresight and lack of ecological understanding are an excuse for inaction.

I give the final word to Jeff Copeland, who went on the record to sum up the entire situation in the AP article: “What’s happened today is nothing less than a travesty of science…This was not a scientific process. It was a political process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Animals

Go away for two months, cut yourself off from communication with the outside world, and one of the first things you notice on returning is how little you missed blow-by-blow news updates. While I was buying my ticket back to UB from the provincial capital of Murun, I ran into an Israeli guy who mentioned that some of his friends were headed home from their travels, which, in his opinion, was deeply stupid. I nodded politely and then said, “Wait. Why is it stupid?”

He looked at me as if he might have just found a new definition for the quality we were discussing, and said, “There’s kind of a war going on in Gaza right now.”

And I thought, yes, of course there’s a war in Gaza, and I am back in the real world, which is actually a sort of manufactured world compared to the even more real world of mountains and weather and horses and wildlife in which I’ve been living for the past eight weeks, but this is the world with which I am supposed to be current, and right now I do not care, because there is always conflict in the Middle East and there is nothing I can do about it. In my pocket, during this conversation, I had a USB drive containing all of the photos we’d downloaded from our camera traps, which I hadn’t yet been able to look at, and the sum total of pressingly urgent business in the entire universe revolved around whether or not there was a snow leopard among those pictures. I wanted to ignore everything else.

When I got back to the city, however, and opened up my email, it was full of alerts and messages about other news that I would have preferred to ignore in the excitement of sorting through what turned out to be more than 15,000 photos from the camera traps. I am working on a luxuriantly long set of posts detailing the adventures that led to those photos, because it was an amazing summer and deserves a good story, well and carefully written. But time flows relentlessly here in the clock-and-calendar-governed world, and it turns out that on Monday – while I am on a plane for the 24-hour trip back to the United States – the decision on wolverine listing under the Endangered Species Act will at long last be issued. So before I enter the time warp of jetlag, here are a few thoughts on some recent developments in the wolverine world of the US.

First, a wolverine was finally captured on camera in the Uintas in Utah. The presence of the species there has long been suspected, and after a wolverine was photographed this spring in Evanston, Wyoming, close to the state border, the idea of wolverines in the Uintas picked up even more currency, so it’s nice to have some confirmation. The big question now is whether they’re breeding there, or whether the animals in Utah are dispersers – a great research project for a particularly determined gulo-phile.  As recent efforts in Montana make clear, capturing wolverines on camera – let alone figuring out what the animals are up to – is not easy. But people will persist, because this is a compelling species.

Second, in July a leaked memo from a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service reached the press. The memo, written in late May, ordered the withdrawal of the proposed rule for listing. The author, Noreen Walsh, director of Region 6 of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Rocky Mountain states, stated that climate change should not be considered a threat to wolverines, since there is “uncertainty” around the scale at which wolverine habitat will be affected by snowpack loss, and also uncertainty about the status of the current population in the Rockies. Walsh made this determination despite the fact that the majority of scientists – including the majority of the original reviewers and the majority of a panel convened to consider the debate over the climate modeling – concurred that wolverines rely on snowpack and are threatened by the future loss of snowpack. The memo includes more detail, and there are some excellent quotes that could be pulled out to highlight and explore her reasoning, but in summary, that is the essence.

Immediately, the environmental community decried the fact that politics were influencing what was supposed to be a neutral decision process governed by scientific reason. The memo makes it clear that an individual is exercising a position of influence to go against the grain of scientific consensus and making an arbitrary decision based on the fact that she does “not believe that the available information indicates that listing as threatened is warranted” (memo, pg 17.) She makes some reasoned points about the scope of the ESA and the limitations of language that require it to assess the threats to a species within “the foreseeable future,” which, when you are dealing with geophysical processes like climate and biological processes like evolution and maintenance of genetic diversity, is, legitimately, difficult to define. But her assessment of the science is simply an exercise in delving into more what-ifs and uncertainties, and this is where the memo becomes a tool for exploring how science really works in environmental policy-making.

Let me make it clear that I don’t know the author of the memo, and I have nothing against her, and I am not trying to use this post as a platform to suggest that she’s scientifically ignorant. In fact, I do not intend to go into the details of the scientific arguments and counterarguments made in the memo. I’ll simply restate my position: Wolverines are cold-climate dependent animals. We don’t understand with precision the mechanisms of their relationship with cold and snow, but we know it’s there, and we have a strong inference that it revolves around snow-obligate denning, and around other benefits accruing to a creature who can monopolize and maximize a snowbound niche for much of the year. We also know that during a colder age, in the Pleistocene, wolverines were much more widespread than they are now, with fossils and human cultural artifacts attesting to their presence as far south as Maryland in the US, and France and Spain in Europe. We have the capacity to observe, though the fossil and archaeological record, the consequences of climatic warming on wolverines during a previous episode of major climate change. They vanished from the southern extent of their range. Whatever human-related factors the species was dealing with at that time, when the entire global population of Homo sapiens was a bare handful of dust tossed into the wind and scattered across the landscape, pale in comparison to what they are coping with now, when there are seven billion of us occupying every spare corner of the planet. I doubt that humans were the decisive factor in the previous range contraction of the wolverine, and I doubt that it’s happenstance that the places in which they persist are Pleistocene-reminiscent swaths of snowbound tundra habitat, with a near-perfect adherence to these conditions, at varying elevations, throughout their global range. I admit that I am unaware of anyone ever having written a paper looking closely at the fossil, archaeological, and climate records as they relate to the previous range contraction of wolverines, so this is off-the-cuff and not backed up by anything in the literature other than the various published reports of wolverine fossils. But when you see a trend in the past, with an animal responding in a particular way under particular conditions, and you see those conditions rolling towards you again, and you have a whole pile of additional evidence, based on what we know about their needs and behavior through observation, about why the animal responded as it did, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is a looming threat.

So much for my opinion. As for politics coming into conflict with science-based decision-making, this is like conflict in the Middle East: inevitable, unless and until there’s consensus among all stakeholders about underlying values and goals. And that’s why I think this memo is particularly illustrative of the role – or non-role – of science in the decision process. Science, to quote my father, is about making natural phenomena incrementally more observable to limited human vision, adding, bit by bit, to our store of knowledge about how the world around (and, in the case of human biology, inside) us might be operating. It is not a process that reveals immutable and absolute truth – not because natural laws somehow change in the face of subjective interpretation, as people on both the right (climate deniers, anti-evolutionists) and the left (certain social science professors, anti-vaccine activists) would have us believe, but because our vision will always be limited, no matter how much technology or philosophy we create to improve it. In the case of ecology and wildlife biology, we are attempting to comprehend incredibly complex systems that operate with different pitches of intensity at different scales. This is not an easy endeavor. The science we produce is, therefore, always going to allow room for uncertainty, which makes it (as opposed to the broad natural laws that it describes) open to differing interpretations. This, in turn, renders our discussions about it, as we seek to create policy, vulnerable to the kind of nit-picking that’s endemic to wildlife policy-making and that has been on display in the case of wolverines over the past year. In short, science is an amazing endeavor, but it is not a good tool for making clear policy decisions, because it very seldom provides a definite description of what is going on. And policy is about the concrete.

Case in point: the memo references two uncertainties, which I’ve mentioned above. One is the “uncertainty” about wolverines being cold-climate dependent and vulnerable to climate change. I put this in quotes because I don’t see that there is uncertainty about this fact; there’s uncertainty about precise mechanisms. The second uncertainty – which is a real uncertainty, because of the difficulty of studying the species – is about the demographics and population status of wolverines in the Lower 48. In the memo, Walsh argues that we don’t know that climate change will have impacts at the scale of wolverine denning habitat, so therefore we shouldn’t worry, because this might not happen, they might be fine. She also argues that we are not certain what is going on with the population, and that the population might just as easily be increasing as decreasing, and that, in the absence of any evidence either way, we might as well assume that they are actually doing really well. This reflects a stance that concludes that we shouldn’t worry about something if we can’t describe the problem with 100% precision, even if we can describe it in broadly accurate terms.

These interpretations could easily be shifted in the opposite direction – that we don’t know how climate change will affect wolverine habitat and that we have little idea of demographics within the population, and so we should therefore take a precautionary approach, list the species, and seek to better understand the demographics and ecology until such a time as we are certain that they are going to be okay (and then delist) or are certain that they are not. This reflects a stance that concludes that we should worry about something if we can describe the problem even in a broadly accurate sense, even if we can’t be 100% precise.

The decision that one makes about how to interpret and deal with these uncertainties – precautionary approach versus doing nothing – will almost certainly rest on one’s pre-existing values and how far one’s sense of obligation extends into the outer reaches of various social ingroups and outgroups through time and space. Some people value the wolverine’s inherent right to exist, other people would like their children and grandchildren to have a chance to see one, still others see the close link between ecological and human well-being, and place priority on these outcomes. Other people see interference in the autonomy of state government and the potential for restriction on the growth of profit for companies operating in wolverine habitat, and place priority on mitigating these possibilities. The marginal scientific uncertainty can be exploited to support policy that benefits either position, but the emotional root of either stance has nothing to do with what the climate models say. There is no consensus that the overarching goal should be fulfillment of a moral obligation to protect a species’ right to exist, or, on the other hand, to ensure that every American citizen has an uninfringed right to profit. We do not agree about these things, and the disagreement mutates and pops up in various distressing ways in policy debates, well beyond the wildlife world, that are supposed to be based in science and evidence, but that very seldom are.

Scientists have subsequently submitted letters urging the Secretary of the Interior to overturn the order to withdraw the listing. Additional letters were submitted by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists. I would have signed the letter too, if I’d been in communication when it was circulating, because I am convinced, through the preponderance of evidence in the published literature, the fossil record, and through unfortunately as-yet-unpublished results from my own work in Mongolia, that wolverines are bound to the cold and snow. Uncertainty is part of science, but uncertainty doesn’t absolve us of what I perceive to be our responsibilities to take a precautionary approach when the evidence supports the fact that there is a threat. But my reasons for supporting a precautionary approach are not rooted in science; they’re rooted in my own values, experiences, and upbringing. And unfortunately, not everyone has the same goals I do. So this sort of debate will continue, on and on into the ever-diminishing future of diverse life on planet earth, well after I’m dead.

This summer, while hiking up precarious 10,000 foot ridges, dodging bolts of lightening, and fording raging rivers through roiling water up to my waist, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do, and it’s not because I enjoy engaging with people and their issues, nor because I see myself as a warrior committed to a particular side in a predetermined battle of some sort. Nor am I fan of the intricacies of policy-making, because policy-making is inherently about dealing with people and their issues. I do what I do because I’m curious. I do it because I’m addicted to stories, and there is a story about wolverines and I barely even know what that story looks like, and I want to know. I do it because I like pushing myself, physically and intellectually. I do it because I think that this process of making natural phenomena more observable to humans, and of finding a way to explain what we are observing, is infinitely enthralling. And, since I’m as self-indulgent as everyone else, let me admit: I do it because I like being out in the mountains and I like seeing wildlife. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy, and it makes me kinder and more generous and altogether a better person.

I’ve spent the past year not writing much on this blog because the major trends in the wolverine world were about policy and human identity issues, not about wolverines. I’ve tried to figure out how to tell this story alongside the one that I’m really interested in, without pointing fingers or suggesting that individual people are inherently wrong in either their scientific interpretations or their value positions. This is a very tricky thing to pull off, especially since I genuinely do respect everyone involved in the wolverine world, and because no matter how wearying I find segments of society that are more interested in power and profit than in pure intellectual enlightenment, everyone is entitled to their own values and beliefs. I hope now for two things: one, that this situation will be resolved in the best interests of wolverines and their ecosystem, in a way that gives them the most enduring chance for survival over the long term. And two: that I’m able to get back to writing about the species and its ecosystem with an enthusiasm and a clarity of focus that have been lacking. So while I’ll probably write a post on whatever the final decision turns out to be, I’ll keep it brief. There are fantastic stories to be told, about the work in Mongolia and about other research, and that’s where I’ll be putting my creative energy.

Thanks for reading. Onward to an account of Mongolian adventures, and to a better, clearer, and more certain understanding of the wolverine and its ecosystem.

 

 

 

 

Notes From High and Beautiful Country

I’m struck anew at how this country seems to resist rapid movement by any conveyance other than horseback.

After an amazing ten days in the field setting up camera traps, I’m briefly back in Murun, the capital of Hovsgol Aimag. The trip down from the Darhad took three full days, most of which involved waiting around for vehicles, and the rest of which involved crawling along through mud and ruts at about 10km per hour while sitting in Russian vans – the world’s most uncomfortable motorized contraptions.  As we are not a fancy organization with a huge budget, however, we go by local transport.

And in the end, it’s worth the trouble. Working with the protected areas administration, with a grant from the Snow Leopard Network and cameras on loan from Panthera, I went back up into the country we skied last year, to set up camera stations in hopes of catching an image of the big cat whose tracks we found in the snow. One of the PA’s rangers, Ulzii, worked with me; we spent ten days hiking and riding through amazing country. I thought I’d seen the best of it during the ski trip last year, but it continues to get better with every expedition, and with more time to explore. I am at a public computer right now, unable to upload my photos or write a full piece about the experience, but the highlights included scaling multiple 10,000 foot peaks; watching a large swath of mountainside fall away in a huge rockslide in the valley opposite; getting hit by lightening (which was startling but resulted in nothing worse than exhaustion and a pretty bad headache); the sheer sense of fun with which Ulzii took up spraying perfume on rocks to create lures, and pretending to be a big cat when it came time to test the cameras; seeing elk and wild reindeer and a flirtatious and fearless Siberian weasel; finding a skull, probably a young musk deer, gnawed to shards, with a big pile of wolverine scat next to it; finding huge amounts of elk and ibex and moose sign, and even bear scat; inching along a headwall that was more a million pieces of mountain than a single mountain, ancient cracked talus precariously balanced and threatening to slide with every step; being up high in spectacular meadows ringed with snow and avalanche chutes, feeding into wild streams roiling down into hillsides covered in pale lichen and wild azalea and rhododendron, all of it underlain by permafrost; climbing up along those streams, scrambling over rocks and rapids to come out in another meadow, with a series of beautiful waterfalls, and then scrambling straight up big cliff faces (finding, in one handhold, the perfect nest of a small bird, three pale eggs nestled in the bowl) to come out on a huge plateau where you prowl back and forth, looking down at the plunging valleys all around, the half-frozen lakes below, the streams rushing down towards their rivers, and try to figure out how a snow leopard might think.

Now comes the waiting. I’m headed up to Bayazurkh, the soum to the west of the Darhad valley, to look into helping a fly-fishing company create a research plan for monitoring taimen, the 200 pound salmonids that swim the rivers here. From there, I hope to walk back to Ulaan Uul in the Darhad via the high mountains of Ulaan Taiga, the last remaining section of the Darhad mountains that I haven’t yet explored. From there, I’ll go back up into the mountains in late July to take down the cameras.

This will probably be the only day on which I have internet access until the end of July, but I plan to do a full write-up when I return – I’ve already composed a lot of it in my notebooks, and honestly it’s nice to be back to writing by hand, with a pen, and with no computer anywhere in the vicinity. Still, I look forward to getting back to writing here once I return. In the meantime, let’s hope that the snow leopard(s), the wolverines, the ibex, and the other wildlife of the Darhad visit the camera sites, so that we can learn a bit more about them and help the protected areas plan for their conservation.

 

 

Wolverines and Workshops in the Darhad

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The sign on Eliin Pass, the gateway to the Darhad, welcoming visitors to “the Protected Areas of the Ulaan Taiga.”

Last year, when we finished our ski trip, we ended up in the tiny Darhad town of Ulaan Uul, in the haasha of a man named Tumursukh. Tumursukh is the director of the three protected areas around the Darhad Valley – Horidol Sardag Special Protected Area, which has been a park since the 1990s; and Ulaan Taiga SPA and Tengis-Shishged National Park, which were put under protection in late 2012. Together with Lake Huvsgul National Park to the east, these protected areas comprise a vast swath of territory that is now formally off-limits to mining and other forms of exploitation.

Talking to Tumursukh last year, on the heels of a scientifically successful expedition that left me nearly giddy with excitement over the wolverine population in the region, it became clear that the big story in the Darhad was not any single species, but rather the potential of these protected areas. The overlap of the largest contiguous swath of wolverine habitat in Mongolia with one of the largest protected regions was happenstance, something that I had not anticipated when I started working up in this region in 2010, but it was also a tremendous opportunity to turn a highly personal and (let’s face it, somewhat quirky) quest into a project that will help build capacity for Mongolia’s protected areas staff, and potentially serve as a flagship program to help protect an entire ecosystem.

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The Horidol Sardag Range.

With that in mind, I worked over the past year with BioRegions International, a small, Bozeman-based NGO with a long-standing program in Mongolia, to bring two US National Park Service employees and a conservation specialist from the Craighead Institute to Mongolia to explore the possibility of working with these protected areas over the next years – or even decades – on research, monitoring, and management. Over the course of a two-day workshop in Ulaan Uul, we exchanged lessons learned by the US National Park System over the past century; learned about the structure of the Mongolian protected areas service; got to know Tumursukh’s 32 staff and rangers; talked about methods and methodologies for research, monitoring, and data management; and worked through a planning exercise in which they shared their visions for the protected areas over the coming five years. We emerged with a list of needs and are planning next steps. The energy and the excitement were palpable. I was utterly blown away.

Much of the credit for the success of this workshop goes to BioRegions, and especially the director, Dr. Cliff Montagne of Montana State University, who has been working in Mongolia over the past 15 years and whose commitment to this country and to a holistic vision for its future have my deep respect. His student Badmaa, who just completed her master’s degree on a Fulbright scholarship at MSU, provided the best translation I’ve ever experienced, not to mention contributing her own knowledge of environmental issues in both Mongolia and Montana, and her many years of experience as a coordinator for BioRegions. The National Park Service gave approval for Kristin Legg and David Thoma to travel here in an official capacity to share their expertise on planning, monitoring, and management, and they did an amazing job. Lance Craighead, founder of the Craighead Institute and bear researcher of many years, provided essential input on long-term planning, GIS, and – of course – bears. Mishig, who was our driver and coordinator last year during the expedition and who has been the local BioRegions employee for many years, was critical to our success, not only through planning and driving, but also through introductions to key individuals – almost anyone of any importance in the Darhad is one of Mishig’s classmates, and that is a special relationship that opens a lot of doors here. We were fortunate to also be working with a Mongolian man named Tsend, whose insights into long-term organizational planning and project management will be essential as we go forward. We were also traveling with Tersh McCracken, an American obstetrician, his son Ian, a medical student, and an outstanding medical translator, Badam. While they spent most of their time working with the staff of the local hospital, their presence also went a long way towards illustrating the fact that conservationists care about communities as well as wildlife. I also deeply appreciated everyone’s enduring good humor about various situations, from being called on to judge local singing and art competitions, to unpredictable schedules, to terrible roads, to never-ending snow and biting cold, to my tendency to nearly faint every time anyone brought up the subject of childbirth (which was way too frequently.)

This trip up into the Darhad was only the first of the summer, however. I’m now in Ulaanbaatar, waiting for a border permit that will allow me to return, to put up cameras for snow leopards in the mountains where we found a track last year. I’ll be working with two of Tumursukh’s rangers to do this, and in the six weeks that the cameras remain up, I’ll return to Ulaan Uul to continue to work on monitoring and planning with the rest of his staff. I’m planning to climb Delger Khaan, the most prominent peak in the Horidol Sardag range, and hopefully do some basic surveys through Ulaan Taiga – these two ranges cover the area that we were unable to ski through last year. I’m also planning to spend a lot of time talking to the rangers about wolverines, and about how to establish protocols for collecting DNA samples every winter from here on out. I’m capable of thinking bigger than a single species, sure – but by far the most heart-warming moments of the workshop were, for me, the rangers pulling me aside, one by one, to show me photos that they’d taken, on phones or cameras, of wolverines or wolverine tracks, everywhere in the mountains around the Darhad. This is the beginning of many things, and some of them are still, and only, and always, about that amazing and inspiring animal that led me back up to those mountains in the first place.

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(P.S. – I’ve given up traveling with my SLR, which is too heavy for backpacking, and the quality of photos has suffered correspondingly. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to use this new little camera more effectively in the future. For now, you get the general idea, in spite of the blurriness.)

 

A Wolverine Day in Mongolia

This morning, May 14th, I woke up to snow spiraling down onto the streets and buildings of Ulaanbaatar. It seemed like a good sign – tomorrow is the day that we use to mark wolverine kits’ departure from their dens (even though there’s some deviation in the exact timing), and snow over UB on May 14th is a sign of what makes this country a good place for gulos.

Tomorrow is also the day that a group of scientists and I will depart for the Darhad, to work with the director of the valley’s three protected areas, Tumursukh; his rangers; the provincial environmental department; and community members from two of the region’s towns, Ulaan Uul and Bayanzurkh. Our visiting American scientists this year include two employees of the National Park Service, David Thoma and Kristin Legg, and Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute. All three specialize to some degree in planning and monitoring, and the scope of work this year is much bigger than wolverines. This year, under the umbrella of BioRegions International, a Mongolia-focused non-profit based in Bozeman, Montana, we will be working with the protected areas to think about long-range management plans, monitoring protocols, environmental problems, and possible areas for collaboration beyond basic wildlife research.

As if this prospect were not enough, I walked into Ulaanbaatar’s landmark Cafe Amsterdam this morning to find myself face-to-face with Doug Chadwick – the author of the definitive book of wolverine adventuring, The Wolverine Way – and Harry Reynolds, director of the Gobi bear research project (Chadwick’s recent article about the Gobi bear project is here.) At this point, Cafe Amsterdam has hosted more American wolverine enthusiasts than most places in the US.

Later in the day, I finally had the opportunity to meet Dr. Lhagvasuren, one of the senior scientists at the National Academy, whose enthusiasm for wolverines and wildlife research was immediately apparent. He ran through the things he’d heard about wolverines in his years of work in the countryside: that they were sent by god to keep the world clean, that they were very powerful, that people were wary of them for that reason. He said that some people were reluctant even to touch a wolverine pelt, because of the power of the animal. They were not bad animals, exactly, but they had powers. He said that if you messed with a wolverine, if you harmed or killed one, it would come back and take revenge. We were speaking English, and when I asked him whether “god” meant Tenger, the Sky, or Erleg Khan, the king of the underworld, he paused and then said, “Probably both. I think both.”

Back at the apartment, I sorted through a suitcase full of automatic cameras that the park rangers and I will use later this summer to try to catch a glimpse of the Darhad’s snow leopards – and also, of course, the wolverines. Checking the settings on the cameras, I felt a sudden lightheaded, tremendous desire to find these animals again. It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Winter was difficult and the wolverine work was on hiatus. But since I arrived in UB three days ago, the momentum has been building, a reminder that wolverines are indeed powerful, and that once you engage with them – even in the most benign ways – they have their claws in you and you are obligated to them. So here we go, again, into the wilds of Mongolia, in search of the great and powerful wolverine.

 

 

CU Boulder Wolverine Event

For Denver and Boulder residents, tomorrow night, CU Wild will host a screening of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of wolverine experts. And me. I’ll be there too. The event will be held at CU Boulder, in Fleming Law room 155, from 6-8pm. It’s free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

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Backcountry Film Festival in Jackson

Forrest McCarthy’s film about our Mongolia ski expedition will be showing at the Backcountry Film Festival in Jackson, Wyoming, this Saturday, January 11th, at the Pink Garter Theater. Jason Wilmot will be there for a question session. I may be there, and rumor has it that Forrest himself may make an appearance, fresh from Antarctica.

There will be two showings, one at 5:30 for all ages, one at 8:00 for ages 21+ – presumably the 8:00 showing involves alcohol. (If you really want an immersion experience, I’d suggest vodka shots.) Tickets are $10. Children under 12 are free. Proceeds go to the Wyoming Wilderness Association, which works to protect the wilds of this lovely and inspiring state. You can buy tickets at the door or online. Come see our film, support this worthy cause – and hope to see you there.

(And where have I been for the past month or so? Working on a different writing project, completely unrelated to wolverines; crunching numbers on some of the ski expedition data; trying to find funds to analyze the rest; and planning the coming season in Mongolia. I may start updating again more regularly but it depends on the state of the other writing project, a YA novel about paleontology. Or more accurately, what it’s like to be a really dorky teenager obsessed with something none of your peers can relate to. But I will be back at some point. Thanks for your patience.)