Two Years Later, Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Two years ago, five of us emerged from the Sayan Mountains of northern Mongolia after 23 days of skiing around the Darhad Valley. In his pack, Jason Wilmot carried 33 samples – scat, urine, hair – that we had picked up in the backcountry. Our journals and GPS units recorded 28 sets of wolverine tracks. We were gaunt, ragged, frostbitten, filthy…and ecstatic.

Or I was, anyway. As the director and lead scientist of the Mongolian Wolverine project, and the first person to undertake a systematic survey of wolverines in that country, I’d shared many an anxious conversation with Jason about whether long-range ski surveys, even in areas known to harbor wolverine populations, would prove a valid technique for yielding data. We weren’t sure that the expedition would provide worthwhile information. We speculated that we’d be lucky to find a single set of wolverine tracks and a single DNA sample. When we found our first track 45 minutes after setting out on the first day of the expedition, we laughed and said we could just turn around and go home. Mission accomplished, our single track and sole DNA sample retrieved. I was giddy, that first day.

By day three, as I crawled into a hole where the wolverine that had left track #5 had stashed a chunk of elk and the wing of a capercallie, the giddiness had settled into a persistent hum of excitement. Deep down, I’d hoped, and probably known, that the reports of wolverines that I’d collected from the Darhad over the past four years, and the pelts that I’d seen, meant that the species was in the mountains in force. But when you study the animal in North America, it feels almost miraculous to find a single set of tracks. I’d found tracks in Mongolia before, in summer snowfields, and even pulled samples from those tracks. Still, neither Jason – the co-PI on the project since its inception in 2009 and a fellow veteran of the initial 2010 Darhad wolverine research (horseback, not ski) expedition – nor I were prepared for the abundance of tracks and samples.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013

Jason, and wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland, originally conceived of doing wolverine work in Mongolia before I knew either of them. Jeff had taken an initial exploratory trip to the country in 2004, but, busy with work in the US, had done nothing further. When I met Jason in 2006, I was a grad student looking at wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but he and his wife discussed their wolverine work in Glacier and Yellowstone with me, and Jason expressed interest in doing work on the species in Mongolia, and I was immediately intrigued. I had been a Peace Corps environmental volunteer in Mongolia, spoke the language, and wanted to go back to study wildlife. A little bit of inquiry suggested that no one had ever done systematic work on Mongolian wolverines. Neither Jason nor Jeff had the time to dedicate to leading a project, but I did. What seemed at first like a pipe dream – go research the world’s most difficult-to-study species in a country with almost no infrastructure – gradually took shape as Jason, Jeff, and other wolverine biologists mentored me, supported my grant-writing, and shared my growing excitement as the pieces came together.

The major challenges were logistics and funding. It’s one thing to conceptualize a wildlife research project in the US, where helicopters, GPS collars, snowmobiles, and airplanes are available to those with the bank accounts to pay for them. It’s another thing entirely to conceptualize a project in a place like Mongolia, where technology that we’re accustomed to here in the States is absent even if you’ve got the funds.

Mongolia, however, has something that dominant American culture lacks – a human population that has been living with and observing their wildlife over thousands of years. A large part of that population continues to herd livestock through wolverine habitat to this day. My initial efforts focused on simply talking to people, using a blind interview technique that allowed them to identify wildlife species in the area without knowing which one I was looking for. I also took small clips from pelts of animals that had already been killed – emphasizing that under no circumstances was I asking people to kill wolverines for me – in order to begin to build a DNA database, to add to the five samples that Jeff Copeland had obtained from fur hats in 2004. Interviewing proved to be an effective method, and the extraordinary conversations about nature and wildlife that followed were both informative and inspiring. By 2010, we had quadrupled the samples from Mongolian wolverines. We had gone from an insane idea to a place where we were gaining increments of understanding.

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

I didn’t, however, want to be one of those obnoxious Americans who shows up in a place, does some research, and claims a bunch of “discoveries” for herself, so from the outset I viewed the work as collaborative and reciprocal. I kept in trust the particulars of cultural stories and practices that belong to Mongolians, shared the basic scientific data on distribution, and saw the project as a long-term investment in building research and conservation capacity with interested communities. By 2010, when Jason first traveled to Mongolia with me, I’d delineated the Darhad and the surrounding mountains as the most likely region for doing a longer-term project. For one thing, it was the largest region of modeled wolverine habitat in the country, and the interview data and the pelts that I saw confirmed that they were there and that people saw them pretty frequently. For another, there was one protected area already in existence in the mountains, and another two were being proposed, which meant that we would have the structure of a dedicated conservation entity to work with. My particular objective – find out what wolverines are up to – could be combined with building conservation capacity amongst rangers and protected area staff. This made it the ideal location for a sustainable project. And finally, this region had robust existing ties with the Yellowstone ecosystem through programs such as BioRegions International, affiliated with Montana State University, and several tourist companies and conservation outfits. So the potential positive outcomes were manifold.

The big challenge, however, was moving from the efficient, low-cost, first-cut interview and basic survey techniques, to a more scientifically rigorous assessment of the Darhad population. Jason and I had discussed and tentatively planned ski surveys for DNA samples as an intermediate step between interviewing, and camera and collar work that would allow us to obtain demographic data and test hypotheses. I’d taken a year off to work for the Clinton Foundation in Cambodia after our 2010 expedition, so we’d just started to discuss these things again in 2011 when Forrest McCarthy, a renowned mountaineer, wolverine researcher, and friend from my time in Jackson, got in touch to ask if I wanted to collaborate on a proposal to National Geographic. He wanted to do ski surveys for wolverine in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where I’d previously interviewed people and found some tracks. Forrest had a friend who had been working on the Chinese side of the Altai and who had picked up a number of wolverine tracks there. Forrest imagined an expedition on the Mongolian side of the range, and floated the idea to an acquaintance, chance met at an outdoor gear expo, who had some connections at National Geographic. The two of them decided to try to organize an expedition. This dovetailed perfectly with the ski surveys that Jason and I had been discussing.

In the conversations that followed, I suggested that for the sake of long-term scientific and conservation impact, we shift the proposal to the Darhad, since I intended to continue to work in the region, and the ski expedition could help us refine baseline data in preparation for more serious research. We already knew that there were wolverines in both the Darhad and the Altai, so simply detecting tracks and picking up DNA wasn’t very useful unless those efforts were placed into the framework of more comprehensive work. Hence the Darhad was a better target than the Altai for a one-off ski survey, since a National Geographic sponsored trip would be one among many mutually-reinforcing research activities.

Forrest, at some cost to his personal interest in the Altai, agreed to the change. Jason and I wrote the grant based on our previous work, tweaking pre-existing proposals, and Forrest and his acquaintance, Gregg Treinish, added expedition details. Forrest was instrumental in assessing the maps and terrain to develop a route navigable on skis and still useful to wolverine research, since he’d run ski-based wolverine surveys before. Gregg proved adept at getting gear donations, and the staff of his organization – through which we submitted the grant – worked hard to make sure the logistics were in place. We were later joined by Jim Harris, a talented photographer with a background in wildlife biology. Thus the first Mongolian wolverine ski expedition was born, in conjunction with the scientific objectives of my long-term project.

So what is the state of Mongolian wolverine work, and the broader efforts to build conservation capacity, two years after we stumbled out of the snowbound mountains?

For various reasons, the road to hard scientific results from the DNA samples has proven as circuitous as the expedition itself. There have been a number of issues around this, which don’t bear examination here, but rest assured that the samples will eventually yield published results. There should also be a methods paper, examining long-range ski surveys as a technique for collecting data of a certain scope and quality. First, though, we need to assess whether what happened in 2013 was normal, or whether it was a fluke. To do that, we need replicate ski surveys to show that this is an effective way to obtain data and – perhaps – monitor over the long term. Those replicates are in the works.

In the meantime, however, I was able to spend last summer developing the other, probably even more important, piece of the project, which involves collaboration with the Mongolian protected areas administration and entities in the US that can help insure a long-term program for research and conservation in Mongolia. With the collaboration of BioRegions International, we built a summer workshop program for 40 staff, rangers, and local environmental officers in the Darhad. Two US National Park Service scientists from the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, and conservation biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute, served as presenters in an exchange that is the first step in what will become, over the next several years, a comprehensive inventory and monitoring program. I remained in the town of Ulaan Uul and the mountains around the Darhad for an additional eight weeks, training staff in GIS, and working with the rangers to set up a camera survey for snow leopards.

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

This summer, we will be returning to Mongolia for another round of workshops, with a focus on community-park interface, small business opportunities with a triple-bottom-line (human, environmental and financial well-being) orientation, and continuation of the programs started last year. We will be joined by staff from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and a conservation biology student from MSU. We’re working on developing an internship program that will allow Mongolian park staff and community members to travel to the US for more intensive training and exchange – perhaps even with a wolverine field research component.

Finally, I’m developing a field research program that will implement an intensive two-year wildlife survey in one of the three protected areas. The wildlife survey will be multi-species, since it makes no sense to nearly kill oneself in the backcountry for the sake of a single species – but of course, wolverines remain the animal of greatest interest to me, and closest to my heart.

So for all the work, all the excitement, all the hardship and frostbite and sweat and hunger and cold, the 2013 ski expedition gleaned a very small piece of a very large puzzle.

But wait. Did you catch that sentence where I mentioned replicate ski surveys?

Yes, those are part of the multi-species survey plan. A friend attempted to retrace our route this year – he ended up truncating it, but collected additional samples and track data, and is up for trying again next year. Despite the rigors of the endeavor, I’ve had numerous other volunteer offers. And the most important objective is to train the rangers on these techniques – whether they’re on skis, reindeer, or horseback, it’s their mountain range and their wildlife, and the fate of the Darhad and its wolverines lies with them. So as we develop a systematic monitoring protocol, we’ll be training – and learning from – them.

Two years out, that’s where we are – contemplating going back in for Mongolian wolverine ski expedition #2, and kind of relishing the thought. But this time, it will be one part of a survey that will look at wildlife populations in a much more comprehensive way. That bigger puzzle will be decoded, piece by piece.

Oh, and the collar and camera work – that’s out there too. There will be more to follow on this topic. We’ll be getting to know individual Darhad wolverines pretty well, I promise.

For making the expedition happen, I remain grateful to National Geographic and the expedition participants. Two years later, I also have to take a moment to reflect on how far the work has come. Since the expedition, certain players have shown the vision and cooperative spirit that make conservation projects like this effective. To the Wolverine Foundation for their financial, moral, and intellectual support, I’m indebted. To BioRegions and its directors, I owe great thanks for their openness to collaborating to develop a wildlife conservation focus with the parks in northern Mongolia. Sustainability is key to any ethical wildlife research project these days – there are no conservation outcomes without commitment – and BioRegions is key to achieving this. To Tumursukh, the  director of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration, and his outstanding staff and rangers, for their hospitality, eagerness to teach and to learn, and enthusiasm for conservation – mash ikh bayarlalaa. You’re an inspiration (and I’m psyched to see that huge photo of wolverine kits on the wall of the park visitor center.) To expedition members Forrest and Jim, who have in so many ways remained supportive of my work, and who got over their initial annoyance with my very slow ski pace – sorry, guys – and went on to develop a collaborative proposal for a second, summer expedition in the service of wildlife research in the Darhad – I’d gladly have you back on any of my projects, and I hope that both of you find time in between your even more amazing adventures elsewhere to return to Mongolia. To Jason and Jeff, my wolverine guides and mentors – words in a blog post will never be adequate. I’ll see you both in the Darhad. Bring your sense of adventure. It’s only going to get better from here.











2 thoughts on “Two Years Later, Looking Back and Looking Ahead

    • Yes! They were amazing – and they remain my favorite set of tracks ever, purely by virtue of the serendipity involved in their discovery (if Jardenbek hadn’t been the guy we asked, if that random sheep hadn’t awakened me at 6 am….) By rights I owe you and Sara many, many thanks too – but since I didn’t go into detail about the Altai expedition, the cultural dimensions, or the rest of the moral support issues involved with all of this, I thought it would be a bit out of left field to put you into this post. But you both deserve big thanks too.

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