Return of the Wolverines (and the blog)

It’s been a pretty big week for wolverine sightings in the US Rockies. A wolverine was spotted in Yellowstone National Park last week, and another in Lewistown, Montana a few days ago. These are both considered rare occurrences, although it’s worth thinking about why they’re considered rare.

In Yellowstone, there’s a long record of wildlife sightings that includes very few wolverines, despite the fact that the park fits certain habitat parameters and hosts an abundance of ungulates that could serve as prey and/or carrion. Yellowstone is high in elevation, cold, and surrounded on three sides by ranges known to at least periodically host reproductive wolverines (the Absarokas to the north, the Gallatins and Madisons to the north and west, and the Tetons and parts of the Absaroka range to the south). But the Absaroka-Beartooth Project, a five year study that ended in 2009, documented very few wolverines in the park itself or in the rugged mountains to the east of the park. Wolverines collared by the WCS wolverine study in the early 2000s were recorded crossing the park from ranges in the west to the ranges south-east of the park, but no one found wolverines living inside the park or using it heavily. This correlated with the dearth of sightings by tourists and rangers.

Of course, most tourists in Yellowstone stay on the roads, and most wolverines probably do not, especially in the summer when the tourists are most abundant, so there’s a potential disconnect between the habitat use of observers and the species of interest. Sure enough, this most recent sighting was on a road. So there is likely some bias in the wildlife sighting data.

But collar and research data – admittedly somewhat out of date at this point – also suggest that wolverines are just not inside the park in even the low-density numbers typical of wolverines. So are they selecting against Yellowstone, or is something else going on?

It’s worth remembering here that wolverines were extirpated from the US Rockies in the early 20th century and have been re-inhabiting former range since then. So Yellowstone may not be a bad place for wolverines, but it may be less desirable than surrounding mountains for various reasons – the high densities of competitors such as wolves and bears, the seasonally high density of people, the comparatively flat landscape that allows for less escape cover, or other factors that might make it more marginal. As long as the overall wolverine population remains low, wolverines will likely be less frequent in these livable but marginal habitats. As the population grows and becomes more dense on the landscape, wolverines are likely to travel through or even set up house in some of these regions.

Yellowstone may not even actually be that marginal – it might be great for wolverines. But Montana maintained a trapping season until a decade ago, which regularly took both dispersing juveniles and resident adults off the landscape and left holes in occupied habitat. So there simply may not have been enough wolverines to occupy Yellowstone; juveniles may have filled in the empty territories of trapped adults without dispersing further. With the closure of the Montana trapping season, more wolverines seem to be showing up in more places, many of them fairly far-flung. Correlation is not causation, but if we really want a fully connected and robust wolverine population with a chance of surviving the coming climate change onslaught, keeping the trapping season closed is, I hypothesize, a good idea.

As for the Lewistown wolverine, that sighting is considered rare because the animal was spotted in a place that is not wolverine habitat even in the absence of human occupation. The sighting seems especially strange to a lot of people because it was in town. But for all their reputation as emblems of wilderness, wolverines are seen in proximity to human settlements fairly regularly further to the north, where the populations are more evenly spread across the landscape and where attractants like garbage, pets, or interesting noises and smells might catch the interest of an exploring juvenile. In both Canada and Russia, wolverines show up in towns or at mine sites with regularity, if not with great frequency. The Lewistown animal was likely a younger wolverine looking for a new territory and bouncing among mountain ranges as it tried to figure out where to go.

Regardless, the excitement of people about these sightings was energizing to watch. It’s a good reminder of how wildlife can play an important role in creating connections between individuals and nature, as well as among individuals who share an interest.

A third video was made and shared last week by the crew at Swan Valley Connections, who have monitored wolverines and other rare carnivores for years. This sighting is less surprising from a habitat perspective – there are (again, comparatively) a lot of wolverines in this part of Montana – but it’s still a rare and exciting occurrence for a field crew to actually see a wolverine.

It’s been a big week for wolverine sightings in this part of the world. I was also pleased to manage to get some info about Mongolian wolverines into a CNN article about the Yellowstone sighting. This may seem like a minor thing, or even vaguely boastful, but when you’ve worked for 14 years to develop a project, with almost no help, no money, and no support from anyone, it feels like a small victory to see those two words – “Mongolia” and “wolverine” – together in a major news source.

Speaking of rare occurrences and appearances….this is the first post over here in over two years. I have a forthcoming post about why, about what a return to writing about wolverines looks like, and about what happens when labors of love become entangled with systemic problems and failures like bullying, exploitative behavior, and various forms of societal collapse. Fun times for all! The good news is that there will be an opt-out for people who still just want to hear about wolverines, because I’m really not interested in traumatizing anyone whose innocence is valuable to their peace of mind.

Finally, a big thanks to everyone who got in touch with me about these various sightings. That was another sign that wolverine enthusiasm remains high, and it was great to be in discussion with everyone who sent article or video links or just messages. You all are great.

Anyway, happy Week of the Wolverines, and stay tuned.

Wolverine Lawsuits 2020

Nearly four years after a Montana judge ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its decision not to list wolverines as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, environmental advocacy groups have filed suit against the agency to push for a decision. The April 2016 court ruling overturning the USFWS decision found that the listing process had ignored the best available science and been corrupted by political dealing between the states and the USFWS behind the scenes; a new decision was originally anticipated by the end of that year. Since then, there’s been silence, at least as far as communication to the public, on the status of the review and a potential timeline for the decision.

The lack of movement on what the judge described as an urgent situation for wolverines hasn’t been the only instance of the USFWS failing to take action on ESA decisions, however. Hundreds of species linger in similar limbo. In response, in early December of 2019, a coalition of wildlife advocacy groups filed a notice of intent to sue the USFWS if it didn’t release findings on these species within 60 days (article here.) Then, in mid-January 2020, advocacy groups announced their intent to sue over the failure of action on wolverines specifically (press release here).

As usual, it’s been interesting to track the way media outlets are covering this. Headlines for an article in the Missoulian and a piece from Wyoming Public Radio state that advocacy groups are “threatening to sue.” In a Lewiston Tribune article, groups “demand protection.” The advocacy group press releases characterize their actions as “seeking protection” for the species. The Wildlife Society’s piece, meanwhile, characterizes the legal action itself rather than the players, stating “Listing delay leading to lawsuit.” All of the newspaper articles have been reasonably fair in their content, regardless of how they’re characterizing the situation, but it’s interesting to consider how things are presented and the subliminal messages that headlines send about situations. In any case, we’re bound to see more press coverage as the lawsuit and the decision process move forward, so it’s a good idea to break out one’s critical literacy skills.

Beyond these articles and notices about lawsuits, information is fairly sparse right now, but a few other things are worth mentioning. Earlier in 2019, the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act through significant rule changes. Among other things, these changes allow the USFWS to arbitrarily define what is meant by “the foreseeable future,” effectively ignoring climate change if the agency decides that those effects aren’t “foreseeable.” The rules changes also remove the highest protections from species listed as threatened (previously, threatened species were granted the same protections as endangered species, including a prohibition on killing individuals; threatened species will now be granted those protections only on a case-by-case basis) and allow the agency to integrate economic impact considerations into decisions about status (which fundamentally undermines the purpose of the ESA in using science to protect our commonly-shared wildlife over the interests of private profit-making). A number of states and advocacy groups are suing the administration over these changes, but, if they remain in place, they give the agency further license to ignore climate-driven threats to wildlife.

These rule changes, along with the general ecocidal disregard that this administration shows for wildlife and the planet, point towards an upcoming decision not to list the wolverine. Let’s be clear: the Obama administration didn’t list wolverines, either. So this isn’t just about Trump and his cronies. But it does highlight an attitude of breathtaking irresponsibility in this administration towards both wildlife and future generations of Americans (and everyone else), who deserve a livable planet and the joy, inspiration, and recreational opportunities that wildlife provide.

Beyond national politics, however – if anything can be said to be beyond national politics right now – the debate over wolverine listing comes down to questions of science, openness, and whether decision makers are operating in the common interest. Is the science good? Is the process open? Is the common interest being served?

Those are the questions. Keep your eye on the coverage, and the claims from the different players, and put on those critical thinking caps. I suspect I know the answer to all of those questions already, but we’ll see what happens over the course of 2020.

Type Two, Round Two

Back in March of 2013, five Americans got on a plane in Montana and flew to Mongolia to undertake a massive ski transect through the mountains that surround the Darhad Valley. We got scolded for our loud enthusiasm as we pored over maps on the 6:00 am flight out of Bozeman – apparently the hour was too early for our fellow fliers to deal with people talking about skiing for weeks in search of wolverines. We were pretty excited, and that excitement was audible.

Over the course of the ensuing month, we slogged through 230 miles of unconsolidated snow, often knee-to-thigh-deep. We were constantly hungry, and often uncomfortably cold. We dealt with some major group dynamic issues. I struggled for the first week with the weight of the pack, fell down a lot, and even cried once or twice. I got frostbite on my foot, my entire face peeled off (probably also some kind of frostbite, but who knows), and changed clothes only twice in 23 days. My friend lost about thirty pounds and spent much of the expedition gazing longingly at a single pack of fritos that he’d brought along and managed not to indulge in until our final day in the field. We all fell through the ice crossing a river as we emerged from the mountains, and were only saved from more misery and frostbite by the fact that we crawled out next to the ger of a local doctor, who promptly took us in and warmed us up.

In the midst of the trip, I had a half hour of abject terror trying to connect with my family, almost all of whom had been at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. I spent much of the rest of the trip in a haze of anger over an attack on my hometown and on an event that was closely tied to my family and an extended group of friends. The trip was physically and emotionally taxing at levels I’d never dealt with before. I got back to Ulaanbaatar and didn’t leave the guest house for days, except to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, which my friend and I consumed in one sitting as we decompressed. I don’t even drink, most of the time. That’s how bad it was.

Six weeks after we emerged from the field, I was busy planning the next trip. It would have to be a few years out, part of a long-term monitoring program, and, in fact, it would be most helpful and useful to wolverine research if I could replicate this insane expedition once every three to five years until I died. Those were my thoughts on the matter c. June of 2013, as I mapped out fundraising plans for future expeditions. I knew it would happen; it was only a matter of when. And whether or not I could trick a few more people into coming with me on the pretense of an exciting trip.

The ski trip, my students informed me last summer, was what is known as “type two fun” – the kind of fun that is only fun in retrospect, and mostly taxing while happening. Most of the fun I’ve had in my life has been, I’m pretty sure, type two fun. Type two fun is probably the hallmark of wolverine research, in fact, and getting into and out of a type two situation is one of the big initiation rituals of the aspiring wolverine biologist. Those with a particularly scientific turn of mind might hypothesize that everyone involved in wolverine field research has at least a slight masochistic streak.

Regardless, I’m now in Ulaanbaatar with a team of four friends, about to embark on the second wolverine ski transect through the Darhad – round two of type two fun for all. We’re starting in a better place in several respects – no bad group dynamics, I’ve done the trip before and know what to expect, and I’ve spent a lot more time in the region in the ensuing years. On the other hand, this year the snowpack is rumored to be much shallower, and Tumursukh Jal, the director of the three parks where we’ll be skiing, is concerned that we’ll be hiking a lot of the way. Our border permit, due to a typo at the border office, was issued for a soum several hundred kilometers to the east, and can’t be fixed until we arrive in Murun, so that’s another point of anxiety. And my pack feels like it weighs 70 pounds, because our first hitch, through Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, is nine days – which is a pretty brutal way to start, especially if you were counting on the first week as a gentle aid to training because your last month in the US was so crazy and so frigid that you barely got outside, let alone engaged in anything that might really count as getting in shape. So that’s yet another note of concern.

But after several days of 50 F weather (which, for the record, was approximately 70 degrees warmer than the weather in Montana the week before I left….) the temperature in Ulaanbaatar dropped again last night, and tonight the Bogd Khan Uul, the mountains to the south of the city, were brushed with snow. So things are looking up.

Tomorrow we leave for Murun, and thence to the Darhad to begin the trip. It’s going to be great to be back out there on the trail of Mongolian wolverines once again.





Ms. Wolverine’s Relationship Advice Column – Seeking Your Questions

For several years, I’ve collaborated with and translated for my colleague Ms. Wolverine to create a Valentine’s Day/Wolverine Birthday post offering relationship and life advice from a wolverine perspective. Several people have mentioned that these posts are now a favorite part of the holiday – and despite my ambitions to entirely transform Wolverine Birthday into a holiday where people think exclusively about wolverines, Ms. Wolverine takes seriously her role as an investigator and interpreter of our species’ peculiar social behaviors. I spend a lot of time explaining wolverines to you; she sees it as her job to explain you to yourselves. She would like to continue to offer her assistance to those seeking to understand and address their problems like a wolverine.

Initially, Ms. Wolverine and I may have, on occasion, created some alternatively factual situations in order to better illustrate certain points about wolverine sociality and behavior. But there are a lot of perplexing situations out there, and a lot of heartbreak and confusion, and so we would like to open the advice column to real questions.

Note that Ms. Wolverine is a wolverine. If you have a very difficult question that’s dear to you or potentially painful, you might want to seek a human advice columnist, because she will address problems as a wolverine would. She’s generally compassionate and kind, and she will take your questions seriously, but of course, there are some things that she may find difficult to understand. If you have enough of a sense of humor (or curiosity) about your issue to see it reinterpreted through a weasel lens, then please be in touch.

You may leave your questions in the comments below, submit them to gulo (at) wolverinefoundation (dot) org, or message them to us via the Wolverine Foundation facebook page.




There were supposed to be pictures in this post…

It’s been a while.

I’m writing from a ger in the remote backcountry of Mongolia, on an internet connection contrived by Nyamka, our camp cook and all-around Renaissance woman of the Darhad Valley. Only Nyamka could stroll into the base camp ger one afternoon after four months of complete isolation from anything beyond the Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area and, with total nonchalance, hook up a device that links us via satellite and Mongolia’s countryside phone networks to the rest of the world. It’s been nearly a month since I last bathed in anything other than a frigid river or a basin of melted snow, and yet I’m able to update my Instagram with ease. The world of wolverine research never fails to make one appreciate the little pleasures and ironies of life in the field.

It’s been a wolverine-filled six months in the Horidol Saridag – from (alleged) wolverine latrines discovered during the summer to a wild abundance of tracks once the snow started to fall in early September. A multi-species camera grid deployed across the protected area yielded a number of wolverine photos, along with lynx, wolves, moose, elk, ibex, musk deer, and other denizens of the taiga, In addition to wolverines, I’ve finally managed to get a long-term climate-change monitoring program off the ground, with the guidance of the park administration, and the help of 16 enthusiastic students from the Round River Conservation Studies’ inaugural Mongolia study-abroad program. We’ve surveyed for talus-dwelling and Daurian pikas, censused the little-known vansemberuu plant across a swath of its distribution in the park, counted more than 12,000 waterbirds on the lakes and rivers of the Darhad Valley, and put together an herbarium of more than 250 species growing within the park.

The adventures have, of course, abounded, from getting cliffed out in a canyon that wasn’t on the map, to subzero nights fording rivers to get back to base camp after overly-ambitious days retrieving camera cards. There’s too much to narrate succinctly in a single post. I wanted to post some pictures to tide everyone over until I’m back in Ulaanbaatar and/or the States, but as it turns out, the internet connection in the middle of nowhere isn’t adequate to upload a bunch of pictures – so those too will have to wait. See you in a couple of weeks!









A Territory of One’s Own

I made my way into the wolverine world by following a young female wolverine from the Absaroka-Beartooth project. Her ID was F3, and she enchanted me for years by being exactly the kind of animal I wanted to be: solitary and self-sufficient, commanding vast swaths of mountainous terrain, and – forgive the anthropomorphism – apparently unconcerned about whether she had a mate or ever produced offspring. She patrolled a huge territory in the Absaroka range, drove us crazy by raiding our traps without triggering them, and inspired a couple of expeditions into heartbreakingly spectacular country, where we were occasionally fortunate enough to find the scant scraps of an elk or a mountain goat that she had devoured. Every February, we watched her signals to see if she denned, and for years she didn’t. She just went right on patrolling her mountains, living her life in the high wild country on the borders of Yellowstone.

As a scientist, you’re not supposed to get attached to or project human qualities onto animals that you’re researching. But I was just a lowly volunteer on that project, not a scientist, and I figured I could give myself license to be inspired and awed. I had a lot of bad days back in those years, the legacy of working with torture and genocide survivors as a student and young professional. Thinking about F3 out there in the mountains prevented those bad days from being a whole lot worse. She was 18 pounds of trickster and pure momentum. She said to me, “You too can be on the landscape like this, and it will help you, too, survive.” I loved her. I owed her a debt. She gave me a template for how to find my way back into the world in front of me.

The remains of a mountain goat F3 had consumed. We retrieved the jawbone from a ledge on a cliff, almost exactly on top of a set of points where F3 had spent several days over the course of late winter and early spring, 2008

Eventually a male arrived in F3’s territory. He was captured accidentally in a bobcat trap in Menan, Idaho, and released by the Wildlife Conservation Society into the Centennial Range on the Montana-Idaho border. His ID was M57, and he promptly traveled directly to the Absarokas, where we watched his locations track F3’s through the summer breeding season and into the fall and winter.  F3 did eventually den, and gave birth to at least one male kit in early 2011. Shortly thereafter, the project ran out of funding to track them. Saying farewell to her was hard, but in a cowardly way I was glad to do it while she was still alive. In the interest of science, it would have been better to continue monitoring her, but it would have been a harder, harsher farewell to know, as we inevitably would if we kept watching her, that she was dead. I was far too attached to this wolverine, I’d imbued her with a significance and an identity that were purely constructs in my own mind, but those constructs propelled me in very real ways into very real opportunities.

Ultimately, it was because of F3 that I received an email in summer of 2017 seeking my expert review of a forthcoming children’s book on wolverines. I’m always happy to review wolverine publications, so I accepted. When I opened the file, I was first baffled, and then angered by a text that presented a deeply inaccurate picture of wolverine life history. The misrepresentation revolved around claims that male wolverines were territorial while females were not, and stated that wolverine social life involved – in language somewhat more appropriate for young children – strict control of sexual access to females by aggressive males. Females were portrayed as having undefended “home ranges” while males were territorial with the aim of mating with as many females as possible. In fact, the only reason for territoriality in wolverines, the text suggested, was male sexual control. The entire narrative centered the story of male wolverines, mentioning females only in terms of reproduction. Males dispersed. Males scent marked and defended territories. Males hunted. Males chased other male wolverines away and aggressively attacked predators without provocation, like some fantastical projection of berserker warriors. Females were there for males to mate with and to produce offspring for these males.

It was my encounter with this book draft that prompted an earlier lit review post about territoriality in female wolverines, because the author seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out how wrong they’d gotten the story. They said they all available sources backed up their account. At first I was floored by this claim. Female wolverines are obviously territorial; this is demonstrated by study after study. I couldn’t understand how anyone who had looked at the science could possibly maintain the idea that male wolverines were territorial but females weren’t. It’s screamingly evident in the literature that female habitat requirements largely determine wolverine distribution, and that the availability of sufficient habitat for female territories will be the determining factor for wolverine persistence in any given landscape. The contention that males alone were territorial was therefore not only inaccurate, but also shifted the focus away from important aspects of the conservation debate, which revolves around female denning habitat and connectivity for dispersal by both sexes.

And yet I shouldn’t have been surprised by this writer’s insistence that there were a lot of sources out there to reinforce the inaccurate picture of female territoriality. There are. I’ve encountered them repeatedly over the years. The author was working primarily from popular press pieces, and there’s a substantial disconnect between the scientific literature and the popular literature – even the popular literature that paints itself as scientifically grounded – when it comes to the behavior and requirements of male and female wolverines.

Take, for example, National Geographic’s website entries on wolverines. They have one site for adults, and one for kids. In both, male wolverines are centered and the claim that male wolverines are territorial while females are not is perpetuated. Here is what they say about wolverines on their page for adults:

Males scent-mark their territories, but they share them with several females and are believed to be polygamous. Females den in the snow or under similar cover to give birth to two or three young each late winter or early spring. Kits sometimes live with their mother until they reach their own reproductive age—about two years old.

Here’s what they say on their page for kids:

Males mark their territories with their scent, but they allow several female wolverines to live there.

It’s interesting to note not only the basic inaccuracy of these statements, but also the way the language grants agency and personality to the male wolverine, while keeping the female in a secondary role as an object rather than a subject.

A little grammar lesson for those who need a reminder – subjects do things, objects have things done to them.

In National Geographic’s story, a male “shares” his territory, or “allows” several females to live there. The preferences of the male are assumed – and conveyed – to be the key consideration. The male is a character. He does things. He makes decisions. He shares resources. The female has his babies and then takes care of them (nowhere, of course, does National Geographic mention that males share kit-rearing duties for the year or two that juvenile kits remain in the parental territories). In fact, linguistically the female isn’t even granted this much of a role as a subject; she never does anything except dig a den and give birth. The kits (the subjects) remain with her (the object) for up to two years, then they leave. She never does anything beyond her instinctual reproductive act.

This narrative of male activity, agency, and territoriality was recently reiterated in another popular piece on wolverines, this time in the Yukon news:

Males have large territories which overlap those of two to three females, all of which he mates with. This sort of sexual courtship and selection by proximity is not uncommon — the tough-yet-cuddly pika employs a similar strategy — but what makes the male wolverine unusual is that his interest does not end after mating season. Instead, males will continue visiting their mates and the resulting litters in a kind of paternal timeshare arrangement, investing considerable energy in their offspring, which are called kits, Jung says.

“They’re actually very social, with good family tendencies,” he says. “They spend time just teaching young wolverines how to be wolverines…. It’s a bit unexpected.”

Males have well established ranges, and, due to their low population density, rarely encounter each other, making male-on-male aggression relatively low for such a powerful and territorial animal.

“They have their territories and other males respect that,” says Jung.

Great, but what are the females up to? Where do their preferences come in? How do they control their territories, and why are they controlling territories in the first place? This piece does implicitly acknowledge female territoriality and also male parental investment (a characteristic often associated with some degree of female sexual selection for prosocial behavior), but still assumes that the male is the active agent in the story.

Even in pieces for the popular press and social media by competent wolverine researchers, even in pieces where the territoriality of females is acknowledged, this kind of male-centered language persists. I’m not going to pick on individual researchers here, but well before the children’s book debacle, I had to put in place a policy on not publicizing any piece of writing or media that used sexist language – in particular, pieces describing “a male and his females.” This kind of language came across my desk, from within the research community, often enough that it required an internal rule for what I would share on my blog and on social media. The decision was about accuracy – a description of “a male and his females” is an anthropomorphic device that belongs to the era of heated Victorian Orientalist fantasies of the harem, not to science writing. But it was also about insuring that no subliminal messages were conveyed to men who might experience the sad tendency to use their anthropomorphic perceptions of the social order of wildlife to excuse behavior in their own labs or extended communities. The issue of men harassing women is as real in the scientific community as it is elsewhere, and who knew what sort of subconscious permission such descriptions might convey?

Those deluded men aside, I don’t want to suggest that all of these examples are necessarily the result of conscious sexism on the part of the writers of this material. In fact, some of the authors I’ve referred to are women. But it’s precisely the fact that this language is probably not conscious that I want to consider in more detail.

Here’s another paragraph:

Female wolverines disperse and establish territories at around two years of age. A female may travel widely before she finds a suitable location, but once she does, she defends and scent-marks her territory against other females. She may permit a male to remain, and she may share him with other females who tolerate his presence in their territories. She mates with her male in the summer, but holds the fertilized eggs in suspension until the winter. If she is in good condition, she will become pregnant sometime in December, and give birth to her young in early February. Her male will visit her den and may bring her food. Once the kits are weaned, they may travel with either parent for a year or two before dispersing to establish their own territories. Male wolverines may indicate their suitability as a mate to females by diligently participating in kit-rearing activities, allowing a female to select for reproduction that is less costly to her and therefore in her own best interests.

I wrote it, of course. This paragraph is no less accurate than anything that’s been written about wolverines in the popular literature, and yet in rearranging the subject and object, in centering the female and her actions, I’m guessing that it probably strikes some readers as wrong or off. To suggest that female wolverines are sharing a male or possessing a male is a linguistic device, but it’s neither more nor less true than suggesting that a male wolverine controls and mates with “his” females and then supervises their production of his kits. Why then do we often see references in popular wildlife writing to “a male and his females,” and never (to my knowledge, although I will send a wolverine sticker to anyone who can give me an example of this in a piece on mammals) to females sharing a male, or to a female and “her” male?

Most scientists are assiduous about avoiding anthropomorphic language when it attributes motivations, emotions, or human-like thoughts or behaviors to animals. And yet linguistically, when we discuss wildlife biology, we reproduce human (and largely Western patriarchal monotheist) gender roles despite ourselves. This is something that is so deeply embedded in our language and our culture that it would take real and constant work to avoid it. Most scientists and science writers think that they are capable of objectivity without that level of attention to language. I’d like to suggest that they aren’t capable, which explains why even otherwise decent, conscientious people casually use the language of male territorial dominance and sexual aggression without any evidence that this is the actual dynamic at play in animal lives.

Or in short: perhaps popular science writing about wolverines neglects female territoriality because it’s culturally antithetical, and therefore linguistically awkward, to talk about females possessing, controlling, hunting, attacking, selecting, creating, deciding, dominating.

When I initially started working on this post this past summer, I went to the public library and checked out, at random, 14 children’s books on wildlife. I wanted to see how pervasive such gendered wildlife storytelling was in books for young children. I had two main concerns at that point. One was the way in which subconscious gender bias limits the questions that scientists may ask – and indeed, the things that scientists may be capable of observing –  when it comes to wildlife (more on that, and its potential repercussions for conservation, below). The other concern was how this sort of language depicts ostensibly objective, “scientific” and “natural” sex roles to children who are too young to have any awareness of the cultural constructedness of gender. The effects of exposure to such purported truths about the natural behaviors of male and female animals might, I thought, be negative for both boys and girls, cis-gender and trans alike.

I worked on the post fitfully over the next few weeks, delving into literature about different attitudes towards wildlife among women and men, girls and boys, and digging up two old anthropology articles that, back in college, had first raised my interest in the ways that academic experts express unintentional bias through language choice (in this case, the two articles were about marriage customs, one dealing with polygynous marriages in Africa, in which “men have multiple wives,” another dealing with polyandry in the Garwhal Himalaya, in which “men share a wife.” Where, I wondered, reading these articles at age 19, are the women sharing a husband, the women having multiple husbands?) My intent was to show how this morass of literature, from children’s books to academic articles, conveyed both information about the wider world to various types of student, and also, through choices about how to describe that information, purveyed and reinforced particular cultural assumptions about sex, gender, relationships, and power. I had plans to talk in that original post about the newfound veneration of the “natural” among the current child-rearing generation, and how that veneration has led to things as various as the rise of organic food, the dangerous anti-vaccination movement, the silly “paleo” diet, stressful dynamics around natural childbirth and breastfeeding, and other claims about living a better life through an imagined pre-industrial, pre-agricultural authenticity. In light of this, any story that told young children that being male involved a “natural” tendency to control the sexuality and reproduction of females, and that being female involved being a passive object to be fought over and possessed without any active choice in the matter, seemed doubly perilous.

This was a pet project at the time. It was personally relevant because I had been sensitive to these kinds of narratives about sex and gender as a child. I knew by age five that following the life course that was socially gendered as female – namely, taking a male mate and producing a family –  was not in my future, and throughout my childhood I wanted, more than anything else, to find a model for being an autonomous, self-directed, independent female person active in the public world. Stories and animals were both important guideposts in that process. So the topic of human gender roles in animal stories was highly personal. But I didn’t think that there would be much broader relevance to a piece about how depictions in children’s books of male sexual aggression and territoriality among wild mammals might reflect something about the way men and women behave in America. Given the sexual predator occupying the White House, it hardly seemed like there would be a receptive audience for subtle and elaborate arguments about how we use wildlife stories to indoctrinate our children to believe that it’s natural for a female to accept, without question, the sexual advances of whatever bombastic male shows up in her vicinity, let alone the even more subtle and elaborate argument that overlooking the territoriality of female animals conveys a message to young children that establishing territories (or, analogously, having ambitions, staking a claim to a field, defending their own visions, setting out into the world and adventuring and making a life for themselves on their own) is not something that females “naturally” do.

Then the Harvey Weinstein story broke.

Like many other women who have suffered harassment and bullying in professional situations (and that’s all of us, isn’t it?), I found myself mesmerized and nearly paralyzed by the pageant of courage and slime that simultaneously poured forth as the #metoo movement gained momentum. Part of the paralysis was the way the stories pushed many women back into the dark spaces of past private horrors – if you were fortunate enough to have escaped having been the target of physical violence yourself, chances were that you were supporting friends who hadn’t been so lucky, while also trying to fit your own less violent but still disturbing experiences into this bigger and suddenly very visible narrative. We were forced to relive and mourn the opportunities lost when our high school grades imploded after we walked out of the classroom of a high school teacher who harassed us, or the way our work suffered when we suddenly had to manage a sketchy boss whose inappropriate interest required the expenditure of extra energy and effort to remain professional, or the stress and collapse of motivation that followed having to deal with a narcissistic, bullying man claiming credit for our work and screaming abuse at us when we challenged him. Just to pull a few random examples out of, say, my own past.

Beyond that, there were so few news stories examining the causes of harassment or inappropriate advances, so few stories calling for men to be self-reflective about their role in these situations. The message was, “Women, step up! Put yourself through the mental and emotional agony of making these accusations because right at this moment, we’re willing to listen to you!” The message was not, “Hey, men who are in a position of power relative to the women in your professional lives, think carefully about whether you REALLY need to proposition a woman whose career is entangled with yours – do you think that might possibly put her in an awkward situation? Yes? Well then sit down and keep your mouth shut and your pants zipped.” Predatory men were scared and squirming, no doubt. But not one of the men taken down in this series of scandals has had the courage to step up and say, preemptively, “I know I’ve done wrong, I’ve treated people this way in the past and I regret it, I apologize, and I resign.” Not that victims stepping up is a bad thing, but the ultimate message was that misbehaving men, on the whole, are incapable of holding themselves to any standard of behavior, because this sort of aggression is “natural,” and that survivors (male or female) must, on top of everything else, undertake the task of making them accountable. And even when held accountable, the perpetrators appear incapable of any actual growth as human beings; the apologies offered so far have been, without exception, lacking in self-reflection or true remorse.

To me, though, the most depressing thing was thinking about all of the art that never got made, the science that never got done, the brilliant business ideas never enacted, the potential never realized, the many women who struggled to support their families on less than they should have, because these barriers were put up, time and again, to equal participation in the workforce and public life. Sex is a subsidiary part of this exclusionary process, a locus of denigration in relationships where power is contested, but there is a much bigger issue at play than parsing the definitions of which body parts in which proximity with which degree of consent constitute “inappropriate sexual behavior.” What we are looking at now is a deep cultural reckoning, and most of the babble in the media is about the wrong topic. The predictable accusations of puritanism and sex-panic, of the overreach of the sexual revolution, of the lack of character of women who just needed to stand up for themselves and not be victims, were hurled from sources near and far, highlighting America’s eternal, tiresome, prurient obsession with the psychic danger of sex, the risk of pollution (in the anthropological sense) that sex poses to public institutions and public figures and the workplace itself. But very few people or media outlets have talked about the real underlying gender issue, which is our country’s equally tiresome discomfort with female participation, ambition, and vision. This is a nation that cannot decide whether it wants women in heretofore exclusively male public territories like the arts, politics, and business. Masturbating into a potted plant in front of a woman who is hoping to make it in the entertainment industry is not about sex; it’s about reinforcing to the woman that she is in a male territory and that the perpetrator of said potted-plant-masturbation wants it to remain male territory.

In short, the question is not, “What, exactly, constitutes sexual assault?” The question is, “What behavior interferes with an individual’s ability to work to her potential?” Whether that potential involves raising a family or rising to genius in the arts or sciences, having to deal with a man making insinuating comments, groping and assaulting you, or simply being verbally abusive or belittling in a nonsexual way, is an obstacle to thinking of a professional territory as your own.

Back into this mess loped the F3 of my imagination, and she showed up with questions: When, if ever, do we contemplate what a solitary female animal does with her time and her energy when they are her own, unimpeded, directed exclusively by her own will? What does she do with her talents when there’s no one to push her around or get in her way? How does she establish and demarcate her territory, and how do we discuss what she’s creating and defending? What is the “natural” state and behavior of the independent female animal?

As it turns out, of those 14 children’s books, only one contained the kind of biased language I was worried about. It was about deer, and it did indeed refer to “a male and his females,” but it was also a very old book. Newer books were far more gender neutral. There was an excellent series of books on wildlife research featuring both male and female scientists and great storytelling about their work and their species of interest. Things were not as dire as I’d assumed they would be (although my 14-book survey was hardly exhaustive, either).

Is this progress?

I don’t know. I do know that animals have served as analogies and symbols for humans for as long as we’ve recorded our visions of the world. When we celebrate or even highlight qualities or characteristics of a species, we usually find something resonant for ourselves in those qualities. Even scientists tend to slip through the veil of ostensible objectivity when they talk or write in lay terms about their species. I certainly do it, and I’ve hung out with other scientists for long enough to have seen and heard them do it too. We speak with authority, and that makes these slips interesting, because they convey values and worldview under the guise of authoritative objective fact. It’s something to think about, something to be aware of, and something to combat, especially when it affects the lives – and the work – of half of the world’s human population.

It’s also something to think about and combat because it’s scientifically problematic. This is a topic that deserves a post of its own, but in short, if you’re looking primarily at male animals and their needs, if you’re seeing them as the center of the story, you may be blind to important dynamics that are scientifically intriguing and also have implications for management. We see what we are trained and habituated to see, and that constrains our ability to observe and to imagine. It also constrains our ability to implement effective conservation measures. If, for example, some degree of female sexual selection is operating in the case of wolverines – if a female wolverine is picky about her partner, if she chases off males she doesn’t like, if she simply refuses to mate with or bear or raise the kits of a male she dislikes (infanticide happens…), if, in a worst case scenario, a female wolverine leaves her territory and sets up a new one when she dislikes a resident male  – then it would have implications for everything from trapping (removing any adult animal is likely to be catastrophic to reproductive success of a given population node) to reintroductions (randomly paired animals are less likely to successfully establish a reproductive population) to connectivity (the landscape must be fully connected not only to insure successful dispersal but also in order to allow a suitable supply of males for the female to select one who meets her preferences). A scientist wedded to the idea of male sexual dominance and male sexual selection through competition and territoriality would be functionally intellectually impotent in the face of such dynamics.

I mention this only as a “what if,” not to make a statement that female sexual selection is at play among wolverines. But I will add a final note on F3, my female wolverine from the Absarokas: her kit was not fathered by M57, the male who followed her for months and who regularly visited her den while she was nursing the kit. The kit’s DNA excluded M57 from its lineage, which means either that F3 was sharing her territory with two males, or that she mated with a disperser who was passing through. M57 was observed in close proximity to the den site, both via telemetry and in person by the crew that skied in to locate the den site. Maybe he knew F3 had chosen another male and was trying to kill the kit or kits (the crew retrieved DNA from only a single kit), or maybe he was helping to raise it because the social bond he shared with F3 – winning her favor and approval by demonstrating his parenting skills and his acquiescence to her needs – was ultimately more important to his long-term evolutionary success than passing on his genes in a single year.

Maybe in her territory, her rules govern. It’s a hypothesis to explore in wolverine research, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s a rule to live by in the human world.

F3’s den site in late summer 2011. The chambers were beneath the downed trees. Note human for scale, and pink tape in tree overhead. The tape marks the approximate depth of the snow in May, when the crew skied in and observed M57’s tracks (verified by collar location) in the area.

Kit scat under a log, about 0.4 miles from the den site.

Of necessity, this piece focuses mostly on the male-female dynamics of workplace harassment, since that relates most closely to the gender-essentialist narratives conveyed in wildlife writing. But any time power is used to humiliate or drive out any innocent individual and thereby limit their potential, it’s wrong, whether that individual is female or male. This piece also deals largely with cis-gender heteronormative definitions of sex and gender, male and female. This too is something that I consider problematic in the way that wildlife writing conveys a “biology is destiny” story, even when we know that this isn’t true for some animals (you all will enjoy reading about the wide variety of same-sex mating and partnering in the animal kingdom here, and about various birds in same-sex partnerships here, here, and here). I cannot address these dynamics fully without making this piece unreadably long, but I am 100% supportive of complicating the gender narrative as much as possible and am also 100% supportive of all trans and LGBTQIA folks as we broaden the possibilities of lives lived to full potential. 

Sugar or a One-Eyed Horse

On the far western edge of Mongolia, in the Altai Mountains of Bayan Olgii aimag, a national park nudges the border with China. This place is called Chigertei (Чигэртэй), although it is sometimes spelled Chikhertei (Чихэртэй), which is how I read and wrote it for the few months between first hearing about it and actually setting foot there. The g-versus-kh debate is a reminder of the region’s unique cultural dynamics; the majority of Bayan Olgii’s population is ethnically Kazakh, descendants of a small number of refugees who settled in Mongolia during various 18th and 19th century conflicts with the Russians and Chinese. In 1940, the socialist government of Mongolia formed Bayan Olgii as a Kazakh aimag, creating a place where Kazakhs were allowed to maintain traditions that were more harshly curtailed in Kazakhstan itself, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Following the advent of democracy in 1990 and the opening of Mongolia to the wider world, some of these traditions became world renowned. Eagle hunting and the richly embroidered Kazakh ger hangings made for weddings are synonymous with the region. Although all official business in the aimag is conducted in Mongolian, school is taught in Kazakh, Kazakh remains the language of everyday interactions, and many families in more remote regions don’t speak much Mongolian at all. Bayan Olgii is a region where Mongolian and Kazakh run up against each other, culturally and linguistically, in interesting ways.

This is the source of the Chigertei/Chixertei mashup. Chixer means “sugar” in Mongolian, and Chixertei, roughly translated, means “sugared,” which, as a Mongolian speaker, I took to be a poetic reference to the snow that girds the Altai peaks for most of the year. Chigertei, on the other hand, means “a one-eyed two year old horse” in Kazakh. A long time ago, my Kazakh counterpart from the park administration told me as we jolted along the road to the park, there was a one-eyed two year old horse that hung out in the valley, and that’s how the place got its name. Why do Kazakhs have a specific word for a one-eyed two year old horse? Are there a lot of one-eyed horses running around Kazakh-populated areas? Is there a different word for a one-eyed three year old horse? Mongolian is like this in its precision – there are verbs to describe a calf running around with its tail in the air, or the act of tying ribbons in a horse’s mane to designate it sacred. There are dozens of words to describe the colors of a horse’s coat, and a whole herd of words to describe yak-cattle hybrids depending on the generation of hybridity. There are several words for “friend,” some of which indicate a greater degree of affection and closeness than others. There are a whole set of verb tenses that you employ to indicate how recently something happened, and how certain you are that it actually happened if you didn’t witness it with your own two eyes. But with Kazakh, I had no idea where things get specific, because the sum total of my Kazakh skills could be summed up in the two most essential phrases in any language: “Thank you” (Rakhmet) and “Are there any wolverines around here?” (Kunnu bar ma?) The exchange on the road to Chigertei served as a reminder that I was on strange ground. I’ve worked in Mongolia for 17 years and I’m used to being agile and fluent, culturally and linguistically. It felt both off-balance and also exciting to be in a place where I didn’t know what was going on 100% of the time.

Whatever direction you take the name, Chigertei appears to be full of wolverines, and that was why I was there. In May, a colleague who had set up cameras for snow leopards in Chigertei contacted me to tell me that he had gotten dozens of photos of wolverines, and would I be interested in collaborating on a project? I’d been to the Altai before as part of my wolverine quest, most recently in 2011, to interview and collect pelt samples. I’d wanted to work there on a more extensive and systematic program, but hadn’t had the time to do the most laborious preparatory task for any wildlife work in Mongolia – setting up relationships with the various authorities and finding local counterparts who were interested in collaborating. Barry Rosenbaum, the wildlife biologist who had put up the snow leopard cameras, had already done that work, so it was easy to agree. Easier still because snow leopards were my first wildlife love, the animal that had led me to the high mountainous landscapes that wolverines inhabit. Barry would be collaring in Chigertei’s sister park, Khokh Serkh, which meant that I might, if I were very lucky, have the opportunity to see an animal that held enormous personal significance.

Luck seemed to be in short supply for the first ten days after we set snow leopard snares in Khokh Serkh (the name, definitively Mongolian, means “dark blue billy goat” and refers to both the Special Protected Area and the mountain range encompassed by the SPA). The plan was to spend the first ten days of the trip collaring snow leopards, and then a week in Chigertei, 40 kilometers to the west, setting up baited wolverine camera stations. After a frigid first two days in the Khokh Serkh base camp, the weather warmed, and the Mongolians and Kazakhs insisted that the snow leopards would stay up high and away from our snares, snoozing in the sun, until the weather changed again.

Whatever the cause, the snares remained empty. The cameras we’d set up nearby yielded beautiful photos of ibex, quail, and ermine, but no sign of big cats. I was happy to be out on a snow leopard expedition, but it was mostly waiting, interspersed with the daily anticipation and letdown of heading up to the higher valleys to check the snares. The time between was spent rambling around the mountains, but there was something edgy and almost spooky about the steep, narrow, rocky valleys, dark in the scant light of the failing year. On one of our daily excursions to check the snares, my horse’s cinch strap slid back, the horse panicked, and I was thrown, dragged through a boulder field on a steep slope, and kicked twice. The damage was relatively superficial – bone bruises, a torn ligament or some other trauma in my right wrist, the most shockingly purple hoof-shaped bruise on my left buttock – but I couldn’t hike for a while afterwards, or sit on a horse, which meant several long days sitting in camp trying to figure out how to do anything useful when my only functional limb was my left arm. I was more than ready to get out of Khokh Serkh by the time we piled into the range rover and headed to Chigertei.

The land of sugar and one eyed horses was enchanting by comparison, a wide open swath of valley flanked by dramatic high peaks, the weather moving fitfully and spectacularly across the mountains and the river and the moraines left behind by recent glaciers, and wolverine tracks everywhere.

The high peaks on the western border of Chigertei Valley.

We stayed with one of the few families that winters in the valley – there are many more in the summer. The family were relatives of Yelik, our liaison at the park. His forebears had lived in Chigertei Valley for generations, he said, and pointed to a crumbling cemetery that we passed on the drive in, and said, “My family are all there. Two hundred years.” His cousin Yerlan, her husband Jaksalak, and their daughter Raya were our generous hosts, giving us space in their adobe house, renting horses to us, and regaling me with tales of wolverine sightings up and down the valley. For the first time ever in eight years of wolverine work in Mongolia, I heard stories of regular wolverine depredation on small livestock. Jaksalak told me, through translation into Mongolian by our ranger Aska, that he’d seen five wolverines together in the early summer, that he’d spooked them out of a thin line of forest that ran east-west along the north-facing slopes of the valley, and that they’d fled up into one of the big bowls above treeline. Five wolverines together could only be a family, and if it was a female and her kits-of-the-year, that meant she’d successfully nursed a litter of four. When I asked where they habitually saw wolverines, Jaksalak and two fellow herders waved their hands across the valley: everywhere.

Adobe and stonework home in Chigertei

It was pointless to speculate based on unverified stories, of course, but the herders of Mongolia know their wildlife well – far better than the Americans who report wolverines in their backyards and then send me photos of porcupines or foxes – so I was inclined to believe them. The photos from the snow leopard cameras showed at least two individuals visiting the same camera station within days of each other, and returning repeatedly.  It was all very tantalizing. But we’d learn more only by doing some scientific documentation.

The first day out, back in the saddle for the first time since being thrown off, I had a hard time focusing on where I was, too busy clutching the reins and trying hard not to think about the horse slipping on the ice, kicking me, dragging me across boulder fields, snapping my neck. Then we came up over a massive moraine and stopped at a boulder covered in petroglyphs, and all the crowding fearful thoughts disappeared as we dismounted and looked at the animal figures chipped from stone ages ago. Aska opined that the figures were little wolverines; I thought they were ibex. They were probably from the Bronze Age, which, in Mongolia, extended from about 2000-1000 BCE. There are petroglyphs like this all over the country – very ancient ones showing woolly rhinoceros and ostriches and mammoths, more recent scenes of men in chariots and reindeer with the beaks of birds. Out of all of this vast, Pleistocene world, the wolverine remains like a talisman of a lost past.

Petroglyphs. Depending on which end you see as the head, you can imagine these as running ibex with curved horns, or open-mouthed, stripe-tailed carnivores.

We rode further up the moraine and came out into a side valley, walled in at its head by another jagged range of peaks. From here we went on foot up the valley, and then up an east-facing slope, walking carefully among the snow-covered large-boulder talus. Before long we crossed wolf tracks, and then, inevitably, the prints of a wolverine. They led up through the talus field onto the ridge, where they and the wolf tracks joined a well-worn game trail running along the crest of the slope.

Dukhai and Aska on the wolf and wolverine highway

We set up four cameras in that valley, all of them along the east-facing slope. The west-facing slope was sheer scree and bare of snow, steeper and higher, far less appealing as a travel route. Aska and Dukhai, another of the winter herders, guided the effort, choosing spots where they’ve seen wolverine tracks in the past.

That night the wind rose until it howled around the outside of the house. Inside, Aska practiced his English by reading aloud from the back issues of the New Yorker that I bring with me on these trips; his pronunciation was flawless, and after a a sentence or two he would tell me, in Mongolian, what he understood, and then I would explain where he’d understood correctly and where he’d gone wrong. Since it was the New Yorker, this necessitated trying to explain phrases like “pathologically incompetent president” and “hipster locovore Brooklynites,” which was both headache-inducing and also a welcome challenge to improve my Mongolian skills. Neither Yerlan nor Jaksalak spoke Mongolian, although Yerlan liked to order me to eat more of the various dishes she cooked, thus improving my Kazakh vocabulary by about 1000% in the space of 24 hours. At some point, I explained to Aska in Mongolian that the wolverine’s Latin name meant “glutton” and that it had a reputation for eating enormous amounts of meat; Yelik, overhearing this, explained to Yerlan and Jaksalak in Kazakh; and everyone began saying “Gulo gulo!” before digging in to whatever dish Yerlan put on the table in front of us. Most of the time this was besbaramak, the signature Kazakh dish, which involves most of a sheep or goat, boiled for several hours, and served with enormous flat noodles, boiled carrots and potatoes, and sometimes a side of horse sausage. Invoking the wolverine came shortly after we washed our hands and bowed our heads and lifted our palms up for a quick blessing on the food from Allah. Sometimes I ended up translating whatever I understood back into English for Barry, although I’m terrible at remembering to do this, because translation is a task that requires focus. Later that evening, Aska and I digressed from New Yorker-level topics into our mutual enjoyment of the show Vikings, discussed which characters we most liked, and chatted about Norse history and Kazakh history. There was more comfortably cosmopolitan code-switching going on in the confines of that little adobe house, under the howling wind in the remote Altai, than in any place I’ve been in a while.

The wind went right on howling, and when we got up the next morning, a blizzard was beating down on Chigertei. Aska and Yelik swore it wasn’t as bad as the snowstorm that had hit the valley a few weeks before, so with that in mind, we all put on our warmest clothes and rode out.

Parking the horses in the blizzard.

It could have been worse. It could have been a few degrees colder, the wind might have had an even sharper edge, the snow could have been thicker, the visibility even more curtailed. As it was, I could see the dim outlines of the near mountains, if I squinted into the wind and snow, and I could remind myself that I’d been far colder and more uncomfortable, once or twice, on the ski transect of the Darhad that I’d done back in 2013. It was tolerable, in other words, in the minimal sense of the word. We were riding further out that day than we had the day before, but over less tricky terrain. The conditions did not make the horse any less nerve wracking, and Yelik and I had a moment of mutual vocabulary-building when I explained that I was nervous about galloping the horse in icy and snowy conditions. “Nervous” was new to him, and I realized with shock that I’d never used that word in Mongolian before – how had I avoided having to learn it when I’d dealt with everything from ornery horses to psychotic and potentially rabid dogs to drunk herders breaking into my ger?

I saw almost nothing of the valley we reached, except for the sites where we set the cameras. Those sites emerged out of the blinding white as we stumbled towards them, knee-to-thigh deep in drifted snow, the whole landscape eerie and markerless. We left the horses behind near a stone wall enclosing a hay field or corral and waded upslope. These stations we baited with the flanks of a goat, roadkill not being an option in Mongolia as it was in the US.

Dukhai, Aska, and Yelik setting up a camera. They did 100% of the physical labor since I couldn’t use my wrist. They deserve all the credit in the world for the success of this trip.

The crew resting at the top of the slope after wading up through the snow.

Mongolian snow conditions – never fun, but somehow still entertaining.

For our pains, whatever powers exist out there granted us bluebird conditions the next day, which took us up the north-facing slopes and through the thin larch forest to the base of the massive north-facing bowls. Where these bowls narrowed, and along obvious wildlife highways running east-west, we set the last of the cameras, baited with the rest of the goat.

On the north-facing slopes at the edge of the forest, glassing for elk, ibex, and argali

Yelik and Dukhai setting up a bait station.

I stayed high up on the mountainside, walking back along the wildlife trails; Yerlan and Jaksalak’s home was perched beneath the slope several kilometers to the east, and, in a move that probably fooled no one, I pretended that wading through the deep snow at high elevations for all of that distance was super fun, because my horse – which was really Aska’s horse, he’d trained it from a colt – had been edgy all morning on the ride out. I was happy to turn him over to Aska and hike back.

Headed home.

I hit a set of wolverine tracks and followed it up into the trees, out of sight of the group of men riding their horses across the plain below. Suddenly there was yelling, a huge commotion from the men, ringing dimly off the trees. I’d followed the tracks far enough into the forest that by the time I came back out, all I saw was the group of them leading their horses back to the house. They were on foot, which was strange, but I thought that they’d gotten off for a smoke break. I arrived back maybe a half hour after they did, opening the door and ducking into the dim light of the interior, ready to prattle on about the exciting wolverine tracks, but everything inside was silent and heavy and the hair went up on the back of my neck.

Yelik shook his head and said, in English “Today was so scary.”

Aska was lying on the floor, on the rolled out thin mattresses on which they slept, and I remembered the shouting and knew immediately that something had happened with the horse. And it had; while I’d followed those tracks up into the forest, Aska had stopped to take a photo. He’d spurred the horse to catch up with the others, and the horse had hit a wind-scoured snow drift; his front legs had plunged into the snow, Aska had slid forward so that his boots jammed into the stirrups, and then slid off the right side of the horse. In Mongolia horses are freaked out by anything approaching on the right, including riders who slide down on that side. The horse bolted, dragging Aska at a full gallop for somewhere between 30 and 50 meters through a boulder field. He was kicked in the shins, just as I had been, before he got free of the stirrups.

“I thought he was going to die,” Yelik said. And then he added, “Now I am nervous.”

Aska was stoic – more so than I’d been, definitely. His shins didn’t look bruised, although that didn’t mean anything; mine hadn’t visibly bruised either, but they ached terribly, some deeper, invisible bruise in the bone. More than the physical, though, he seemed shaken up by the flashbacks; after an hour or so he asked if I had any sleeping pills, because every time he shut his eyes he kept reliving the fall. I didn’t, but I gave him some advil and told him it should help, and apparently it did, because he said that he slept fine.

That night we enjoyed a final round of “Gulo gulo” over besbaramek. The next morning we set up a final bait station just above Yerlan and Jaksalak’s home. Aska hiked up with me to set the cameras, to prove that he was okay, and then rode his horse 40 km back to the town of Deluun. Watching him ride off so confidently, I took a deep breath and promised myself to stop being such a wimp about the horses henceforth. The enormous bruise on my butt, which I surreptitiously checked the day before when I was up in the forest alone, was starting to look less black and was fading to a violent dark purple. My wrist was still a problem, but I took the improvised cardboard brace off and decided to deal with it later, even though it still hurt to, say, hold a pen, braid my hair, or scratch my back. Horse danger was a fact of life in Mongolia and you either dealt with it or you were incapacitated by your need for safety.

The rest of us rode back to Deluun in a land rover. Over the winter, Aska would rebait the camera stations as needed, and Yelik would switch out the cards in December to see which stations were receiving wolverine visits. I was pretty sure that most of the bait would be devoured by foxes, but there were enough wolverine tracks to make me hopeful. Ultimately, we wanted to identify the best places to set up a trap or two for collaring, and, if we were very lucky, find places where multiple wolverines were visiting the cameras. The only thing to do now was wait, and head back to Khokh Serkh in hopes that we would capture that even more elusive animal, the snow leopard.











Big Wild Places

There is next to nothing good about the c. 12 hour flight that takes a denizen of the western US to Beijing, thence to transfer via a confusing and ever-changing array of airport obstacles to a flight to Mongolia. Every time I’ve flown through Beijing, I’ve been presented with some new challenge – a lack of clarity over whether to pick up and transfer my bags or not, a bus transfer to the domestic terminal even though Mongolia is clearly an international destination, the hauteur of Chinese transfer desk clerks obviously deeply skeptical of my interest in leaving civilized China for a difficult place like Mongolia, the sheer frustration of waiting hours in airport limbo, without access to any source of water or food, to check in to a connecting flight, and the inevitable – truly inevitable – delays in the late-night flight to Ulaanbaatar. This time around, the annoyances began in Bozeman, with an American check-in clerk who refused to believe that I didn’t need a visa to transit through Beijing and threatened to revoke my ticket. While I detailed the actual visa requirements, he mansplained what he was reading about visa requirements on his computer screen, until a fellow clerk came along and pointed out that he should probably read the next paragraph down, which said exactly what I’d just been explaining to him: that you don’t need a visa to transit through Beijing if you’re in the country for less than 72 hours. He did not apologize. I may have rolled my eyes. I may not have been discreet about doing so. It was 4:30 in the morning, which is not the hour that one wants to get into that kind of discussion.

Still, there is one part of the flight to Beijing that I love so much that I’m willing to overlook minor annoyances like inexplicable bus rides and pompous American clerks: the flight path arcs over Alaska and Siberia, transiting the Arctic Circle. The views are spectacular. From 30,000 feet, these great northern expanses, sparsely inhabited, seem to sing with some sort of awesome, wild energy. Mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, the occasional road that seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere, all trace across the landscape in patterns of shadow and light and color. Snow-covered mountains merge with cloud cover to create dreamscapes. Tiny settlements are dwarfed by the space around them. The world is big from that height, and inspiring. It’s the kind of vision that takes you out of your own head, out of the limits of whatever has been worrying you, and reminds you that possibility is real.

On this trip, the view had a particularly welcome effect as it reset the cramped thought patterns of the past year. It was a good prelude to landing in Ulaanbaatar, where the mountains are now graced with yellowing larch and blankets of snow, and an even better prelude to heading back into the field in the Altai, which are high and fierce and stark. To lead this kind of life, you have to want those landscapes and you have to be willing to surrender your minute day-to-day fixations to their demands. To do so requires a kind of love that most people who spend a lot of time in the field understand.

Tomorrow I get on a plane and head out to Bayan Olgii, where I hope this head-clearing process will continue, and where I also hope I will find some wolverines.

Siberia from the plane

Siberia from the plane, somewhere near the Kolmya River

Siberian rivers and lakes and mountains



Return to the Altai

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a colleague who suggested, politely but also pointedly, that I should probably start updating this blog again. I said yes, of course, I really had every intention of doing so, very soon.

Then, when I was on the phone with my parents yesterday, talking about my upcoming travel plans, my mother, politely but perhaps also pointedly, said, “Well, maybe this trip will provide some good fodder for your blog?” And I realized that I hadn’t even posted a single update about my upcoming plans, despite the fact that they are both wolverine-relevant and also pretty exciting.

Early tomorrow morning, I leave for Mongolia to set up camera traps in the Altai for wolverines. The Altai form Mongolia’s western border with China and Russia, and contain Mongolia’s highest peaks. The glaciated landscapes of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park are breathtaking, as I was made aware when I first visited this region in 2001. That was before I was very aware of wolverines, but not before I was aware of the other compelling denizen of the higher elevations of Asia, the snow leopard. I returned to Tavan Bogd and neighboring Khovd Aimag in 2010 to conduct interviews on wolverines and other wildlife, and had some thrilling encounters and near-encounters while I was up in the mountains.

This trip is in cooperation with a snow leopard project affiliated with the Denver Zoo, which means that I’m not only camera trapping for wolverines, but may also have the chance to fulfill a 17-year-long dream of seeing a snow leopard in the wild and participating in snow leopard collaring activities. So it’s pretty darn exciting. I’m also exhausted, however, and have about a dozen other writing projects right now, so sometimes it’s hard to remember to keep this blog up to date. But my mother is probably right – as mothers usually are. This trip should be story-worthy.

More details will be forthcoming once I reach Ulaanbaatar – thanks for reading and stay tuned.