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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolian Bone Crusher

This blog has served a number of purposes over the years. It’s been a place for me to document my work, keep track of research and news, formulate and share ideas about carnivore conservation, explore the cultural connections between people and wildlife on two continents, and collect wolverine sighting reports from people all over the country. I expected all of these outcomes, more or less, when I started the blog and the Mongolian Wolverine Project back in 2009.

What I did not expect was the community of friends and supporters that developed around what I’ve been writing. Devoted wolverine enthusiasts have taken the time to contact me, share their ideas and work, give me feedback, invite me to their field sites, meet up for face-to-face discussions, and in some cases even come to run half-marathons with me. Many of these people have been interested in wolverines for far longer than I have, and I’ve learned a lot – and gained a lot of energy – from my conversations with them.

Among these individuals, British artist Jeff Cain was one of the first and most consistent in sharing his interest in the species. Jeff belongs to that small and unique group of people who have the Wolverine Thing – that odd, inexplicable fascination with the species, a sort of sacred obsession that strikes particular people. He has traveled all over the world to photograph, draw, and paint them, and has shared a number of great wolverine stories with me. He is a wildlife filmmaker as well, again with a primary interest in wolverines, although he’s worked on a number of other species. He follows wolverine research attentively, and his paintings are sometimes dedicated to particular researchers and their work. His enthusiastic emails of encouragement, along with photos of wolverines and images of his artwork, always appear in my inbox shortly before I set out on any major expedition, usually at the moment when I’m starting to question the validity of what I’m doing, or worry that I don’t have what it takes, or am ready to have a minor meltdown over the physics of fitting 20 camera traps into a very small suitcase. Those emails have frequently provided the antidote to pre-expedition nerves, and I remain grateful for such long-distance support.

A detail from "Mongolian Bone Crusher." Copyright Jeff Cain.

A detail from “Mongolian Bone Crusher.” Copyright Jeff Cain.

Earlier this month, I went to the post office to find a large mailing tube with British stamps waiting for me. Inside was a print of a gorgeous painting, depicting a wolverine chewing on a boar skull in Khentii Aimag, northern Mongolia. The painting was titled “Mongolian Bone Crusher,” and the print was inscribed to me. Jeff had contacted me some time ago to tell me he was working on it, after I told him that I’d found what I referred to as a boar skull that had been chewed on by a wolverine (I was mistaken. It was a deer. At a quick glance, the skull in fragments, its ivory read as an incipient tusk. But I’m glad that the painting depicts a boar skull, because that marks it as Eurasian, and not North American.) I love the fantastic detail in this painting – the texture of the fur and the moss, the gleam in the wolverine’s eye, the way he’s crunching through those old bones and living up to his gluttonous reputation. You can win all kinds of recognition in the scientific world, but having a wolverine artist paint a picture in honor of your work feels like the best possible stamp of approval. A Jeff Cain painting of one’s wolverines is a sure indicator that one has entered the official annals of the wolverine world. I am truly honored, and can’t wait to frame and hang the work.

DSCN3459Jeff Cain’s Wolverine Artwork website highlights his work, including the Mongolian Bone Crusher and other paintings dedicated to particular research projects and researchers. I’m adding it to the permanent list of links on the blog, and encourage everyone who appreciates wildlife art to check it out. I love this work because it combines two of my great interests: wildlife science and art. It’s a conscious attempt to express the details of what we’ve learned about wolverine ecology in the medium of beautiful and meticulous painting.

This post hardly does justice to Jeff’s work, but it’s been too-long delayed by travel and a busy schedule over the past couple of weeks, so I want to get it out there. A huge thanks to Jeff, and to all the people who follow this blog, support this work, and have taken the time to share their interest, ideas, and creative work. You are the best!

 

Mongolian Archaeology Presentation in Bozeman

A brief divergence from wolverines: my friend and colleague, Dr. Julia Clark, will be giving a talk next Thursday, March 5th, about her archaeological work in the Darhad Valley. The talk is at 5 pm at the Bozeman Public Library’s small conference room, and it’s free and open to the public. The event is hosted by BioRegions International, the project that I work with in Mongolia.

MongolianArchaeology

Julia did her dissertation on the transition between hunter-gatherer and herding lifestyles during Mongolia’s Bronze Age, between 5000 and 3000 years ago, with a focus on the Darhad region, which is also where my work is currently based. She’s the first woman to lead an international archaeological expedition in Mongolia, and she single-handedly facilitated multiple years of field camp that gave learning opportunities to Mongolian and American archaeology students alike. She’s also been a great supporter in various ways, including some fun field time, and a briefly exhilarating suggestion that she had unearthed a Bronze Age wolverine jaw bone (it turned out to be a fox, but it’s the thought that counts.) She also introduced me to a Mongolian guy who, several weeks later, on the other side of the country, in an entirely coincidental moment, happened to save me and my entire party from our vehicle, which was stuck in a raging river and rapidly filling with water. Long story, but I would probably still be stranded in Hovd if not for Julia and her archaeology connections. So I encourage you all to come out for the talk if you have the chance. Hope to see you there!

And if you are interested in volunteering with her project, you can find details on the application process here.

Happy Tsagaan Sar, and Ms. Wolverine on Coping With Snow

Today is the Mongolian Lunar New Year, marking the beginning of the Year of the Wood Sheep. Here is a little synopsis of what lies in store, from the American Center for Mongolian Studies:

The year of the Sheep year is seen as a time for healing and stability after the chaos of 2014’s Horse year.
This year is the year of the Wood Sheep or Goat. The year is symbolized by the color green, meaning new growth and renewal. The main theme for the next 13 months should be on intimacy, family and close friendships. It is a year to develop a gentle heart and open acceptance on all levels. 
Another aspect of the wood sheep is creativity; it is a time for art and the cultivation of beauty. The year of the sheep is a time to pick a direction and not give up or become discouraged because Sheep can only move forward! 
With this in mind, we encourage all to renew old academic relationships, seek out new opportunities for collaboration, commit to your research goals for the year, and publish as much as they can.
Ms. Wolverine adds, “The Year of the Sheep is bound to be a good year, because sheep are tasty.”
gulotsagaansar

Traditionally, Mongolians greet their elders with blue khatag scarves as part of the New Year celebration.

 

On that note, our second missive to Ms. Wolverine deals with something that wolverines are especially equipped to advise on: snow.

 

Dear Ms. Wolverine,
I don’t have a relationship question, but I am looking for advice dealing with all the snow we’ve received in the North East. How do you maneuver through snow pack? How often do you go outside and face the elements, and how do you not get frustrated with it? I fear this winter may break many of the primates back east—whether they are trying to entertain their young, train for a marathon, or just get to work. Please advise….

-Snowbound in MA

Dear Snowbound,

First things first: can I move in with you? Our snow out here in the Rockies is pitiful this year. Here’s a fun real-time snow map that allows you to keep track of snow cover all over the country. You will note that the entire northeast currently looks like an ice-cap. We still have a fair amount of snow in the mountains, but the weather is so warm that the trees are budding and the crocuses blooming. I’m concerned. We may have to consider a mass migration.

Now, on to how to survive extreme snow conditions.

Here’s the thing: you are a human. Humans evolved in Africa where there is not a lot of snow. Therefore you are not naturally equipped to cope with these conditions – unlike the far better adapted wolverine. We have nice thick fur coats that keep us warm down to -40° F. You may also have noticed that we have gigantic feet. Wolverines, like humans, are plantigrade walkers, which means that we walk with our heels on the ground. Bears do this too. Animals in the cat and dog family walk on their toes; they are digigrade animals. Plantigrade walking is far superior in snowy conditions because you have greater surface area to support your weight. This is why wolverines can bound along in snowbound regions, while animals like wolves have more difficulty. Possibly this helps explain why we wolverines do so well in snowy regions: our competition is seasonally excluded. Importantly, too, ungulates have difficulty in deep snow conditions, which gives us an advantage that sometimes helps keep us fed, especially when those stranded ungulates are already weakened by winter conditions. But I digress. Back to the point: Even though you humans also walk plantigrade, you only have two feet, and they are not that large when you take into consideration your relative body weight. So you will sadly never be able to be as elegant or efficient in the snow as a wolverine.

I know, however, that you have that amazing capacity to substitute things made with your little monkey hands for all the natural gifts that you seem to be lacking, so I suggest that you acquire some of those fake snow feet that you people have invented – either skis or snowshoes – and put those on. Then you’ll be able to move around more easily in the snow. By “going to work,” I assume you mean “finding food,” so these items will help you corner those stranded ungulates I mentioned above. I’d recommend that you get some of those detachable claw things – arrows? bullets? – to help you dispatch them, though, because your teeth are also pretty pitiful.

Likewise, I suggest that if you are in training for a marathon, you figure out how to use skiing as a partial substitute for running. I know the impact on the muscles is different, but from what I have seen, the cardio workout can be just as good. Snow provides its own opportunities for being a great athlete. Also, you have those treadmill things, and even if you don’t like them, I suggest that seven feet of snow on the ground might constitute adequate extenuating circumstances for adopting the practice, if you insist on running.

As for entertaining your kits, here’s something fun that you can do that will help prepare them for survival as adults: take all your food out of that funny freezer thing in your house, and bury it in various snowbanks here and there in your yard. Then test your kits’ ability to sniff it out. If they can’t do it quickly, frankly they are going to need some serious help surviving in the future. If they can find it all within a reasonable time, they’re doing well, and when they disperse, you’ll know you’ve helped give them a good education.

Aside from that, though, snow is a lot of fun for adults and kits alike. You asked how often we go outside – I don’t know if you are aware of this, but we actually live outside. We only go inside when we want to destroy a cabin or something. We spend all our time outside and are experts on snow activities. So here are some other things that you can do, either on your own just for fun, or with your kits: Ski. Snowshoe. Build a snow den. Build a gigantic wolverine out of snow. Find some icefalls and climb them really fast. Find a mountain and do the same. Establish territories and have a snowball war in which you try to keep the other wolverines….I mean, the other humans out of your territory. This is also great practice for adulthood. Track wildlife – this is much more fun in the snow! Find a long hill and slide down it. Run back up and do it again. Repeat until you are hungry and need to go retrieve some food from the snowbanks in your backyard. 

Seriously, snow is fun. Especially for kids, who don’t have to stress out about “going to work” yet. Don’t be afraid to send your kits out and let them enjoy it. They will have great memories. And find ways to appreciate this unique winter even if you are an adult. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get out and about by new means, see things in a new way, and gain a new perspective on the human place in the natural world.

I know that people in New England and especially in Boston are very stressed out about all the snow. My final admonition is this: Remember that Mother Nature is the boss. Your trains aren’t running on time because you got seven feet of snow? People’s roofs are collapsing? Those hives of human activity called ‘cities’ are basically shut down? What did you expect? Welcome to climate change. It’s going to wreak havoc on my home….and probably yours. We’re in this together.

Tell me your address, and when you stash all that food in the snowbanks for your kits, be sure to include some moose, a bit of deer, maybe a beaver or two….I’ll be along once I run my own cross-country ultra marathon to reach my new home.

See you soon!

Ms. Wolverine