In a follow-up to a New York Times article about citizen science among the outdoor adventure community, the Times‘ “Green“ blog published a great interview with Wild Things Unlimited’s director Steve Gehman, who has been tracking wolverines and lynx and organizing citizen science workshops in Montana for 15 years. I appreciated the first article and thought it was well-written, interesting, and accurate, but I was really pleased to see the interview because it focuses on some scientific particulars that the article was unable to address in detail.
I’ve never met Steve Gehman but his approach to research provides an interesting counterpoint to more technology-heavy work. Collaring studies are vital to learning more about wolverines, but for many reasons, they aren’t always feasible. When I began thinking about how to gather data on Mongolian wolverines, I knew that anything requiring a wildlife vet, a big budget, and lots of technology was out – in other words, for logistical and financial reasons, the kind of project I’d been involved with in the Yellowstone region would be impossible to duplicate in Mongolia. Mongolians, however, have a resource that we don’t: a human population that lives in wolverine habitat and knows wildlife in extraordinary detail. I needed a way to leverage low-tech human power and sophisticated local environmental knowledge, and mix it with a few targeted, high-tech, non-invasive tools like DNA analysis, camera traps, and GIS. Reading this interview, it’s clear that I should have gotten in touch with Steve Gehman, whose goals are similar and who has been working to create the critical element that America lacks in this scenario: a corps of individuals with reliable local knowledge of wildlife. I particularly respect his interest in creating a program that minimizes the stress on the animals he’s studying, while also building support and knowledge for conservation.
The objective of creating an inexpensive, scientifically robust monitoring project based on wildlife-smart laypeople and non-invasive technology shines on the horizon of wolverine research, but we’re still moving towards that horizon. We haven’t arrived yet, and despite growing attention to citizen science, we have a few more mountains to cross before we get there. Audrey Magoun’s meticulous work with camera traps and DNA has broken ground on the use of non-invasive methods, but aside from presence-absence data, we haven’t yet quantified what we can learn from general tracking surveys and collection of DNA samples by citizen scientists, let alone how to apply that knowledge to management. Finding wolverine tracks in a mountain range suggests presence, for example, but does the presence mean that the range is occupied, or that a wolverine is simply passing through? Are wolverines reproducing in that range, and if so, how many are there and how are they making a living there? And even if they are present and DNA suggests that there are several animals of both sexes, how do we translate that knowledge into something useful for conservation, for example a suggestion about reproductive rates or recruitment? On one level, knowing that a rare or elusive species is around is enough to suggest that something’s going right, but for those of us with a fixation on what that ‘something’ is, citizen science still isn’t quite enough. I have hopes for the future, though.
The ambiguity and uncertainty are part of the intrigue; I don’t think any of us would be involved with this work if we weren’t stimulated by intellectual puzzles and the challenge of figuring out stuff like how to translate track observations into concrete data. I’m not going to get into occupancy modelling right now, but if you really want to shock your brain with some wild statistical methods (or, alternatively, depending on how you feel about statistics, cure a long-running case of insomnia), go look it up.
In the meantime, here’s a basic but very useful piece of information that has come out of Gehman’s years of tracking. He mentions that he and his crew are finding wolverine tracks at much lower-elevations than we might have expected. Combine this data with anecdotal observations from Mongolia, the recent trapping of two wolverines in southern Ontario, and our suspicion that wolverines in the Rockies are still expanding their range and don’t represent a fully interconnected population or a fully occupied landscape, and we have an intriguing intimation that we still have a lot to learn about the species at the southern edges of its range. That might be good news for wolverines if it means that they can survive at lower elevations, and it’s definitely good news for those of us who love the idea of spending as much time as possible out in the wolverine’s habitat. I hope we never learn so much that we sit back and say that it’s not worth encouraging people to get out into the backcountry and help us learn more.