Non-invasive Methodology from Glacier to Mongolia

A great article looks at a new non-invasive wolverine monitoring effort in Glacier National Park. This effort, combining camera trapping and hair snaring, is a follow-up to Jeff Copeland and Rick Yates’ years of research in the Park, which were cut off just when the data was getting good. The Glacier Park study still represents the best dataset on wolverines in the Lower 48 – and it’s given us some of the most epic wolverine stories out there, including M3’s ascent of Mt. Cleveland and F4’s feats as the matriarch of Glacier – so it’s good to know that further efforts to obtain information about the animals are underway.  The project seems to accept volunteers, too, so if you are in the Glacier area and want to participate in a gulo study, this may be an opportunity. (Note that there are currently more volunteers – 50 – than the estimated number of study subjects in the park – 40. This seems a particularly stark illustration of the scarcity of the species.)

Posts here over the past few weeks have been sparse, and the Glacier article is a good introduction to the reasons for the paucity of writing: it’s research proposal season. I’ve spent the past three weeks with my mind in a knot, trying to work out some tricky questions about how to best collect information on Mongolian wolverines without ever touching – perhaps without ever even seeing – a live specimen. The crux of non-invasive work  lies in figuring out how to study the species at low cost, with minimal impact on the animal, and in ways that are appropriate to the study site. The work in Mongolia will build on Audrey Magoun’s camera work in Alaska, which, in turn, probably helped inspire the Glacier work. Except we’ll be doing it in Mongolia, where wolverines have never before been studied in even a rudimentary way, where infrastructure is non-existent, and where human cultural factors add a unique twist to wildlife research. This is why the process of adapting the methods has been so time-consuming.

After a 2010 summer field season that was successful beyond anticipation (albeit stressful as well) as we interviewed herders and hunters and got some solid information on Mongolian wolverine distribution, I’m excited about the prospect of returning to Mongolia to begin camera-trapping and DNA work. But a number of big questions remain. Time constraints last year meant that I was only able to visit three of five potentially important wolverine areas in Mongolia, leaving two to cover in summer 2011. And then, a week after I returned to the US, I received word that a London Zoological Society wildlife camera-trapping effort had caught a mother wolverine and two kits on camera in a location that I hadn’t previously considered. The images of the wolverine and her kits are stunning, captured at dusk as they rolled through a high, barren meadow, one of the kits pausing to put its face and paw to the camera. The wolverines were caught in the southern Altai, in the region where the mountains begin to shade into the Gobi Desert. It’s hardly what we would consider optimal habitat, and yet here we had conclusive proof that wolverines are actually breeding there. This site, too, warrants a visit. So one of the remaining tasks for getting the project up and running is to visit all three sites this summer and figure out which is the best – in terms of reported wolverine population, in terms of terrain, and in terms of social factors – for conducting a multi-year camera-trapping and DNA-gathering effort.

Site selection is the first step. Next, we had to devise a statistically defensible strategy for placing camera stations across the landscape in order to estimate wolverine population parameters. This sounds fairly straightforward but actually isn’t, especially when the size of your site is as-yet undetermined. The statistical acrobatics required to go from a camera-station grid, a certain number of photo-captures, and a bunch of DNA samples, to making even a rough determination of wolverine numbers in a given region, involve taking into account everything from the unknown size of wolverine use areas in the vicinity of the traps, to the response of individual wolverines to individual traps. This probably goes without saying, but it isn’t easy to turn wolverine personality traits into a mathematical equation.

If I’d had to figure this stuff out alone, I probably would have spent most of the last few weeks crying in frustration (or drinking heavily…). Luckily Audrey Magoun’s work in SE Alaska provided a starting place (information about the Alaska project is available at The Wolverine Foundation’s research page) for both the statistics, and for methods of constructing camera stations that will induce a wolverine to stand up and display its unique chest patch to the camera. A minor diversion involved figuring out what materials we would need to do adapt Magoun’s design to the realities of available goods in Mongolia; I spent a lot of time mentally touring Ulaanbaatar’s massive Narantuul market and trying to recall what was available.

The really challenging part of the Mongolia work is the social side, though. Mongolia has one of the lowest human population densities in the world, with something like 2.5 people per square mile (the average in the US is 87 per square mile.) But someone once pointed out that although Mongolians inhabit the landscape sparsely, they inhabit it very deeply – every mountain is sacred, every pasture is known and used, every remote route through the desert or the hills is traveled, every wildlife population exploited in some way. And wolverine habitat, which is  unoccupied by humans and rarely visited in the US, is occupied and utilized for livestock grazing throughout Mongolia.  Research and conservation in these habitats is as much a question of human behavior as it is of wolverine population parameters. Devising methods for incorporating communities into the work has also been a challenge, even though I’m confident that it can be done, and done well. And while we probably can’t count on 50 enthusiastic volunteers wanting to participate just because they think wolverines are rad, we probably can count on a degree of expert knowledge about the landscape and wildlife that is lacking in America. This will be a huge resource; we just need to determine how to utilize it in ways that are beneficial to us and to Mongolians.

The focus on non-invasive methods of wildlife research is new throughout the world, a shift away from the expensive, labor-intensive collaring work that’s traditionally told us about wildlife. Collar studies still have their place, yielding information that we simply can’t obtain from non-invasive work, and we do plan to eventually conduct a limited collar study in Mongolia. But in the meantime, I’m excited to be part of pioneering new methods, especially in a place like Mongolia, where low-input research methods will be necessary to keep track of wildlife beyond just wolverines.

So, research proposals submitted, and April almost here, we now have two months to plan for the June-August summer field season in Mongolia. Looking forward to getting back out there (though maybe not to being back in a Mongolian saddle, which are made of wood….) and continuing the search for Mongolia’s nokhoi zeekh, as part of a global effort that stretches all the way from Glacier to the Altai.






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