The Wallowa Wolverines

On April 17, 2011, wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun was snow-shoeing through a narrow valley in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon when a familiar inscription in the snow caught her attention: the scrawl of wolverine tracks, heading through the valley bottom and then uphill. Audrey was en route to one of several camera stations that she and her husband Pat Valkenburg had set up in the Eagle Cap Wilderness as part of a study co-sponsored by the Oregon Department of Fish and Game. After years of experience studying wolverines in Alaska, the couple had an instinct that the Wallowas might be good habitat, but the tracks were the first definite sign that the range was occupied. The tracks – which Audrey thought probably belonged to a male, because of the length of the stride – were also the first scientific confirmation of wolverines inhabiting Oregon. A few days later, when Audrey and Pat checked the cards in their cameras, they found that two different wolverines had visited the stations earlier in April. .

The presence of at least two animals indicated that the mountains might support resident, breeding wolverines, but the photos alone weren’t enough to prove this. Wolverines, as anyone who studies them knows, move around incessantly, and young males can disperse over long distances and hang out in regions that don’t necessarily support females. Determining the sex of the animals in the photos would yield important insight into what the two wolverines might be doing here – whether they were living in the area, defending territories, and raising kits, or whether they were simply hanging out until a territory opened up somewhere else.

A wolverine at a basic camera station in the Wallowas, April 2011. Photo courtesy of ODFW and Audrey Magoun.

Audrey and Pat returned to the camera station sites with backpacks full of gear and bait, with two-by-fours slung over their shoulders, odd contraptions of metal and plastic rods strapped to their packs, and a hardware store’s worth of nails, screws, screwdrivers, pliers, and drills stashed in separate ziploc bags. The initial stations had consisted of hanging bait and a camera and were rigged to simply document presence. The new stations that Audrey and Pat constructed resembled wolverine-scale jungle gyms, with a haunch of r0ad-killed deer dangling just above an apparatus that would encourage a wolverine to stand on its hind legs to reach the meal. On either side of the apparatus, Audrey painstakingly set a row of alligator clips, held open by another set of alligator clips, to snag hair for DNA. Then they left, hoping that the two wolverines would be habituated enough to return, and hungry or curious enough not to be bothered by the transformed stations.

Camera-traps’ utility in identifying individuals among species like tigers, which have unique stripe patterns, was recognized almost immediately when camera trapping began gaining popularity as a conservation research tool, about a decade ago. Researchers can’t visually ID most species to the individual, however, so camera stations are generally designed to document presence of a species in a given area, often with accompanying devices to snag hair for DNA samples, which can help calculate how many animals might be in a region.

Audrey, who has studied wolverines for decades and is constantly thinking about how to improve research methods, first realized that wolverines, like tigers, have unique markings that would allow an individual ID: their chest patches. But since a wolverine’s chest patch is not fully visible when a wolverine is doing normal wolverine activities on all fours, Audrey had to figure out how to induce the wolverines who visited the stations to stand up on their hind legs and display their full markings. In doing this, Audrey realized, they would also be giving a view of their entire undersides, which would allow researchers to determine sex, and reproductive status of females in the spring. By adding a set of hair snags to the station, Audrey had created a minimally-invasive tool for gathering a huge amount of information on an elusive and difficult-to-study species.

The two Wallowa wolverines did return to the stations. Both were male; Audrey christened them Stormy and Iceman. At the very end of the season, a third wolverine appeared on the cameras. The photos of this wolverine, Zed, were not as clear as those of Stormy and Iceman, but Audrey was pretty sure Zed was a male too. They hadn’t documented females, but they’d documented enough wolverines to excite Oregon’s wildlife world, and the project was funded for a second season. One of the big objectives for the 2011-2012 season was to document a female.

I’d been hearing about Audrey’s work for years, and I’d communicated with her via email; like anyone approaching a hero of one’s chosen field, I was timid and self-conscious about talking to her, although she was always very generous in responding to my questions. As my work in Mongolia went forward and it became increasingly clear that a collaring study would be too logistically complicated, camera-traps seemed like the best option for the work I wanted to do. But when I looked at the book that Audrey had published about the technique, the complex diagrams induced the kind of headache that I get when I try to visualize in the abstract some mechanical operation that is best learned hands-on. I overcame an extreme case of nerves and emailed her to ask if I could come out to Oregon in December of 2011 to join the study for a few weeks, so that I would know exactly what it took to run a camera-trap grid in Oregon – and, by extrapolation, what it would take to do something similar in Mongolia.

To my surprise and delight, she generously said yes, and on December 3rd I set out from Bozeman, Montana to join the project. Audrey had made it clear that I was headed to an unheated farmhouse without plumbing, to engage in heavy physical labor in a rigorous alpine environment. Nevertheless, I would have been less nervous if I’d been invited to high tea with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. It promised to be an interesting two weeks.

Field School

In the past two weeks, I’ve acquired several new skills worth mentioning:

1. Shooting bottles of water off a target with a rifle.

2. Running a snow machine.

3. Butchering roadkill.

4. Eating every species of wild North American ungulate except antelope. (Note: this is unrelated to item 3)

It may sound like I’ve been on a crash course on becoming a redneck, but in actuality, all of these skills are essential for the the budding wolverine camera-trapper. Audrey Magoun and her husband Pat have been more than generous in sharing their knowledge of these and other essential and somewhat more esoteric skills (selecting exactly the right configuration of trees for setting up a camera station, creating a gymnastic apparatus that will induce a wolverine to reveal the pattern of its chest patch, using laser pointers to fine-tune a camera’s position, and positioning a vast assemblage of alligator clips to snag fur in a way that won’t alarm the wolverines, among others.) It’s been a great two weeks, and one of the greatest things about it has been the total lack of internet access. But I’m shortly (and reluctantly) to return to the land of the Connected, where I’ll be updating the gulo-curious on recent adventures in the Wallowas! More soon.


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.