Wolverines in Oregon, and Pikas in Peril

The media have been fairly silent on the topic of wolverines over the past few months, as we await the listing decision, but a couple of pieces appeared over the past week. One is about Audrey Magoun’s work in Oregon, summarizing her two seasons of camera trapping for wolverines in the Wallowas. I had the privilege of being part of this project for two weeks in December of 2011, and the amount of work that went into maintaining the camera stations was inspiring, especially since Magoun and her husband were solely responsible for most of the tasks. They documented the first wolverines in eastern Oregon, although only one of the three animals  – all males – that they picked up in the first year was documented again in the second.

Another article mentions wolverines as part of a broader discussion of the effects of climate change on alpine ecosystems. This is a fairly cursory overview of wildlife and climate change issues, but it’s good to keep track of what’s out there, what’s being said, and how the narrative about this topic moves forward.

Finally, here’s a piece on energy development in Mongolia; my project is mentioned towards the end.

 

Of Beasts and Blizzards

In the middle of the night a sharp-nosed creature nudged me awake from the other side of the tent wall, whining and pressing insistently against my ribs. Sleep dissipated slowly, and then abruptly. The sharp-nosed animal was the wind. The whine was the sound it made as it poured over the 600 foot walls of the bowl in which we were huddled, and hurtled itself into the tent, bowing the wall into my side and clawing at the guylines. Beneath the whine was another sound, crystalline, that replaced the round patter of the rain to which I’d fallen asleep.

Snow.

It was August 18th, and we were camped at 8500 feet after three days of leisurely hiking south along the Hoid Tamir valley and then west and up into the first of the high peaks of the Khangai. This little swath of mountains, the easternmost on the wolverine snow map, is barely tall or rugged by mountaineering standards; skirted by steppe meadows and then pine and larch forests along the lower slopes, the higher reaches of the arc give way to a maze of pika-filled boulder fields and nearly-impassable willow groves along creek banks and then, higher still, a wasteland of shattered talus that would make the peaks and passes themselves difficult to traverse with a heavy pack. Still, lakes dotted the high bowls and made good camping spots along the way, and we only had to reach about 9000 feet before we would begin to wind our way down into the Chuluut valley. I’d worried about the talus, I’d prepared for bad weather, but I hadn’t anticipated the blizzard that greeted us as day four dawned.

The Hoid Tamir River, Arkhangai Aimag

The herders who had waved us to their gers and given us tea and yogurt as we made our way upriver had talked about the rainy summer – a fat summer for livestock, a year that added wealth to the herding economy. In each ger where we stopped, strings of aruul and byaslag – dried yogurt and cheese – hung thick from the poles, while heaps of urum – clotted cream – sat on tables, and cow stomachs full of shar tos – clarified butter – lined the walls. The yaks and cows gleamed fat and sleek, the sheep and goats gamboled, the dogs were well-fed enough to wag friendly tails even through their barking, and the horses, tossing manes and lifting their hooves high, trotted towards us across the floodplain, stopped, stared, edged a few steps closer, a few steps closer still, until we stopped; and then they bolted, only to circle around to flirt with us again. In past years, with drought and harsh winters, lethargic animals standing among the bones of their herdmates in dead brown pastures had been a standard sight, so all the lush green grass and sleek animal life of this summer were heartening. But it wasn’t lost on me that in the first day we walked through one rainstorm and sat out another in a ger where a short and extremely drunk man butchered a goat at our feet; thunder rattled and the rain pelted down and the man shouted at us – perhaps because he was drunk, perhaps because the rain was loud, perhaps because we were foreigners and he believed we would understand him better at higher volume – that we should stay right where we were because the storm was ferocious. I wondered how long it would be before it started snowing up high.

On the second day the chill edge in the air and the clouds wedged up against the ranges on either side of the valley were cautionary, but the third day rose clear, with nothing but a bank of high wispy clouds to the east. We made our way up through the drainage of the Shivertiin River – in the US, we would probably call it a creek – towards a lake cradled in a high bowl below the peak of Shivertiin Uul. I’d been back here in 2010 and a family of herders had claimed that their dog had killed a female wolverine in this drainage during the winter. Unlike the valley of the much bigger Hoid Tamir below, the Shivertiin drainage was deserted in the summer, a narrow horse trail and scattered winter outbuildings along the lower reaches the only sign of human use. We could see the higher peaks on both sides of the valley now, Khan Ondor to the east, Shivertiin above us. Khan Ondor means “Khan’s Height.” Shivert, however, eluded me; the name, along with an apparent variation Shivee, occurs in ranges across Mongolia but I’ve never found a definition in a dictionary and no one has ever been able to explain the meaning.

Whatever it meant, the going was a challenge, with a 2000 foot elevation gain over about three miles. At around 7500 feet, we dropped over a lip of earth and then began to climb again; the terrain shifted from forest steppe downstream of the lip, to alternating fields of boulder-sized talus and thickets of willow as we pushed upstream. The cliffs grew nearer. The sky grew darker.

A half mile from the lake, the clouds opened up. We arrived in the bowl bruised by the talus, scratched by the willows, and damp despite our rain gear; bushwhacking through the shrubs, my gore-tex boots, otherwise infallible, had gotten soaked. We pitched a hasty camp. The rain defeated attempts to start a fire, and we crawled into our sleeping bags without dinner, colder than was strictly comfortable. I was worried about my boots, but fell asleep warm and dry and feeling secure.

Then at 3 a.m. the snowstorm prowled down off the cliffs and for an hour, as the wind bayed and the tent shuddered and cowered around us, when I knew but didn’t say that it was snowing instead of raining, when in the blur of half sleep it seemed like the sun might never come back and we might be blown off the mountain into an infinite, frigid night, I was scared. I haven’t been scared in that way for a very long time; a monster-under-the-bed, something-out-there-in-the-dark-is-waiting-to-get-me fear. I thought about what we would do if something did happen to the tent – a sturdy, three-season mountaineering tent, designed for serious conditions, it nevertheless seemed a frail creature before the swatting paw of the storm. I laid out my headlamp and put in my contacts and mentally located my jacket and gloves. I thought about my soaked boots. I thought about how to instruct Marissa on getting back down below the lip of the boulder field if my feet froze and I couldn’t make it.

The sky grew light and the fear dissipated, although the clouds and the snow did not. In daylight, it was just an August snowstorm, but we were still stuck. Going back down through those boulder fields would have been more risky in the whiteout than staying put, even without frozen boots. Marissa seemed incredibly calm, lying in her sleeping bag. I read a novel and, at one point, opening the tent flap to the whirl of white, made a dry comment about how wolverine research always involved near-death experiences. The litany of wolverine-related adventures is long, shading frequently into misadventure, and the nod to near-death experience is a sort of half-ironic, half-protective mantra invoked at the point where things become moderately exasperating, in hopes of telling the powers-that-be that we take the point, that wolverines must be respected for their tricksterish natures, and that we have no need of intensified reminders. None of the misadventures has ever actually been dangerous. I tossed my words out to the wind in ritual offering, and zipped the tent closed.

By noon the next day, the sky opened to the east, and we could see across to Khan Ondor, now as white and fierce as our own bowl. Going up over Shivertiin Uul to Chuluut was out of the question, so we broke camp and headed back down, wet boots and all. The snow was still falling intermittently, but not as fiercely as the day before. The talus fields were trickier than they had been on the way up, snow masking holes and making the rocks slippery. The trek down through the rocks felt like some evil Greek myth, Sisyphus’ boulder rolled perpetually before us and multiplied, again and again, into a thousand treacherous duplicates underfoot.

Then, at our feet, a familiar pattern, a loping stream of four-toed canid tracks, palm’s breadth, leading up the mountain, and showing us a reliable path back down. We backtracked the prints through the thinning snow, losing them here and there but always picking them up again. The tracks were small by Yellowstone standards – at home, these could have belonged to a large coyote – but here they could only be those of Tengeriin Nokhoi, Heaven’s Dog – the wolf.

Further down, another set of tracks appeared. These were headed downhill instead of up, and had been made by a lighter animal than the wolf; the animal had been heavy enough to depress and break the crust around the tracks, but not heavy enough to punch through the hardened snow. The imprints were faint but the tracks were as large as those of the wolf, and in a few places five widespread toes seemed to arc out around the edges. The trail among the boulders and thickets was too short to determine a gait; the tracks disappeared into the snowless ground beneath a sheltering larch and I couldn’t find them again anywhere nearby. Beneath the tree, a patch of overturned earth suggested that the animal had spent a few minutes digging before moving on.

The tracks were too obscure to call for certain, but the possible five toes and the size were intriguing, especially in combination with herder reports of wolverines in the drainage, elk and deer sign that we’d seen earlier, the abundant pikas and the huge talus fields, and the now-very-evident presence of large quantities of snow. The fifth toe on some of the tracks might have been an illusion, the tracks might have belonged to a very large hare, but wolverine was not out of the question.

Alpine pika in a boulder field on Shivertiin Uul.

By the time we reached the lip of the boulder fields, the snow had stopped falling and had almost disappeared from underfoot as well. We camped early to give our things time to dry, and ate macaroni and cheese and packets of instant borsch from Russia. It became clear that what I had taken as calm on Marissa’s part as she lay quietly in her sleeping bag had actually been fear – that she had been, reasonably enough, freaked out by the snow and that, in addition, she had taken my deadpan comment about near-death experiences literally. She had thought I was telling her that we were about to die.

Chagrined at my failure to be reassuring, I asked what she wanted to do. I would have probably waited another day and gone over, or else dropped back down and skirted around the range to Chuluut – we had more than enough food, since I had packed a week’s worth of dehydrated camping meals in addition to our provisions of multiple kilos of borts – dried meat – and pasta and soups and oatmeal and cheese and salami – but I didn’t want to push it. We elected to head back to the aimag capital, Tsetserleg, and decide what to do from there. When we got back two days later, the town was abuzz with talk of the freak snowstorm and cold spell that had blanketed the Khangai all the way northwest to Tariat – the entire first half of our route.

The on-going storms in the eastern Khangai and uncertainty over conditions further to the west concerned us enough to elect in favor of caution. I’m not interested in dragging inexperienced hikers into situations that might put them off backpacking altogether. I was deeply disappointed as we headed back to Ulaanbaatar, but the brief time that we did spend in the field indicated, from the amount of wildlife sign and the unique perspective that a walking pace permits, that the trek would be worthwhile for research purposes. The maps were reliable, the people we met friendly, and the terrain was challenging enough to be interesting without being problematic. So for now, the plan is to take up the trek again next summer.

In the meantime, I found, in a small dictionary, the verb shivrekh, which means “to drizzle,” or “to spit,” and, in another dictionary, an indication that shivee refers to things that are perforated – for example, gigantic boulder fields with their numerous holes into which the unwary foot can slip. Shivee also refers to a sort of plant that grows in the Khangai, and to a structure, tipi-like, that is made of wood. And also, as a woman in Tsetserleg informed me, to smelly feet. All of these are potentially relevant to our experiences up there on the mountain, an entity which, as Mongolians would probably be quick to reiterate, is a creature in its own right, alive and as mercurial as any of the tricksters, human or otherwise, that haunt its slopes and pay their respects to its powers.

Trekking

Wolverine practices route-finding using maps of uncertain quality.

Forty-three topographic maps of dubious quality are currently piled on the coffee table in my apartment. The Russians created these maps in the 1970s, and there are rumors that the Communists intentionally made them a few degrees off, to thwart invading armies and, latterly and perhaps unintentionally, wildlife biologists. I am worried about these maps. I can navigate, but what do you do if the maps are wrong? I’ve spent the last few weeks staring at them, staring at Google Earth, and wondering how many herders are in the Khangai backcountry, and whether they’ll be able to direct us if we get lost.

At this point, there’s not much we can do; we leave in three days, to trek about 250 miles through the Khangai, surveying for wolverines and pikas and interviewing the herders we find. My original hiking partner, the one with whom I wrote the proposal and who had some backpacking and wildlife experience, bailed immediately due to other obligations, and finding another hiking partner – someone who could foot the bill to get to Mongolia, since the grant covers only in-country hiking expenses – has been a challenge. This year, with a mining boom gripping the country, tickets are ridiculously expensive, and so are in-country living and transportation costs. It’s been a bit of a shock, and it’s meant that the only real option has been finding someone who is already here. A friend of mine, Marissa Smith, who is doing her anthropology PhD research in the city of Erdenet, agreed to give it a try, even though she has never been backpacking before. Her work focuses on the intersections between urban and rural communities, the ways in which Mongolian professionals in the city maintain critical ties with the countryside, so this is a research trip for her, too. I am impressed by her spirit, but a little concerned at being the only one with any kind of backpacking experience, especially since my own experience is mostly limited to places with reliable maps.

Wolverine conquers a big pile of borts, dried meat. Knife for fending off wolves in foreground.

Still, in the past few weeks, we’ve gone through all of our available sources – guidebooks in several languages, interviews with people who have relatives in the countryside near our route, discussions with ex-pats who run ger camps or tourist operations in the area – and the lack of exact knowledge promises to lend the adventure of discovery to the trip. We hear rumors of monasteries and sacred trees, meditation sites of old mendicant Buddhist monks, ice age petroglyphs depicting ostrich and mammoth, strings of bronze age tombs scattered through the valleys. We have the coordinates for hidden hot springs. We know where talus slopes host pikas, and we have GPS layers showing the densest concentrations of argali and ibex. We have a single small map that tracks traces of snow leopards across the range. We have the wolverine snow model, and the phone numbers of various tanil – acquaintances – in the countryside. We should be okay.

Wandering the mountains has an honored history here. Supplies for traditional mendicant Buddhist monks, National History Museum, Ulaanbaatar. Note wooden frame backpack against wall. (Photo: Dan Sirbu)

List of supplies for mendicant monks. We are omitting ” Tibetan large pot,” but otherwise the equipment seems pretty constant. (Photo: Dan Sirbu)

As we ‘scotched’ our 43 Russian maps – a ghetto version of laminating in a country without laminating machines, involving rolls of clear packing tape and a great deal of patience – Marissa commented that so far, backpacking trips bring to mind being involved in a coke packaging operation. This analogy is a first for me; let’s hope the rest of the trip doesn’t resemble drug dealing. I was also vehemently informed by the Ovorhangai Aimag Fire Department that I would definitely be eaten by wolves, because twelve people had recently been pulled off motorcycles and devoured. I pointed out that I wouldn’t be on a motorcycle, but that didn’t seem to reassure anyone. I did buy a very big knife, just in case.

This will probably be my last post before we set out, so here’s some information for people who want to try to keep track of us as we go.

Below is an image of our approximate route, starting in Tsetserleg (“Garden”) and ending in Uliastai (“Place with Aspens”), with each week’s distance marked in a different color. Chuluut (“At the Rocks”) and Khangai (“Rich Land”) soums are two small towns that we will visit to resupply. Ikh Uul (“Big Mountain”) and Tosontsengel (“Oily Happiness” – I can only assume this refers to the oil used in butter lamp offerings, although fat in general has positive connotations here) are potential bail off points if we run into any trouble in the very sparsely populated western part of the range. We will probably catch a ride, if there is one, to Uliastai from the vacation camp beneath Otgontenger, due to time constraints. I set up a Spot page, where you can allegedly see our progress in real time, at http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0miBnXWyHoPYOqJYENL2TKghZUeCI6Qnu

I have been trying to test this for the past few days and have had issues with the system, now including being locked out of my account until I can contact customer service – which, of course, is quite a challenge from Mongolia. Hopefully it will be functional again when we set off.

I am going to be posting updates to my Facebook page, and these will be reposted to the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project’s Facebook page. So if you want to follow these posts – I will immediately send a message if we see wolverines, snow leopards, a yeti, or a gang of wolves on motorcycles – then “like” us and you too will be among the first to know what amazing creatures are roaming central Mongolia.

So that’s it for the next month! Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog, who comment and engage with wolverine work, and who show your support in so many ways. I look forward to being back in touch in mid-September, and till then, safe travels and good adventures to all.

The Return of Nokhoi Zeekh

Last year, wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, pika biologist Embere Hall, and field assistant Tuul joined me on expeditions in search of climate-sensitive wildlife in Mongolia.  We tracked wolverines in the Altai mountains, scoured talus fields for alpine pikas in the Khangai Range, and interviewed herders and hunters everywhere about the complex Mongolian relationship with wildlife. We learned an incredible amount about species that had seldom or never been studied in Mongolia. We had some fabulous cultural experiences (sharing tea in family gers, learning about Mongolian horsemanship, playing volleyball with enthusiastic children), and some we probably could have done without (being awakened at 2:00 a.m. by drunk herders insisting that we consume a liter and a half of vodka with them, discovering in the middle of nowhere that Mongolians don’t always carry enough spare tires, breaking down in the middle of a river and frantically bailing water out the windows while the engine refused to restart and the van threatened to tip over.) On the whole, it was a great summer, and we covered a lot of territory.

The Mongolian snow and temperature map, showing areas with late spring snowpack 1-7 years out of 7 (yellow), and regions with maximum August temperatures less than 22C. Thanks to Jeff Copeland for use of data from his paper, 'The bioclimatic envelope of the wolverine (Gulo gulo): do climatic constraints limit its geographic distribution?' Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2010.

This summer, I’ve returned to Mongolia to pick up where we left off, continuing the quest to learn more about Mongolia’s climate sensitive species, and about wolverines – nokhoi zeekh, to Mongolians – in particular. Transitioning from a full time job saving tropical forests to the full time adventure of trying to track down one of the world’s most rugged species in one of the world’s most rugged countries is, as it turns out, somewhat mentally exhausting, but after two weeks of recovery, of easing the mind from Khmer to Mongolian, and of meeting with various other wildlife biologists, I’m ready to set out again. On Monday I leave for ten days in the Darhad Valley of northern Mongolia, conducting further in-depth interviews with hunters and shamans in the region. From there, it’s on to Myangan Ugalzaat Protected Area in Khovd aimag, where a mother wolverine and two kits were camera-trapped last August. Lydia Dixon, a colleague from Wyoming, will join me in late July to explore the dimensions of wolf-livestock conflict and wolf symbolism in Mongolian culture. We will probably travel to Khentii aimag, the last place on the Mongolian snow map that I haven’t visited, and then on to Ikh Nart Reserve in the Gobi, to look at their research and ecotourism projects as an example for our own work in the future.

Last year we sought to refine our understanding of wolverine distribution in Mongolia, assessing whether the species is present in areas represented on the snow map and in areas from which we had reports but that weren’t on the snow map. We verified, through pelts, fresh tracks, and the detailed information provided by interviewees, that wolverines are present in all three of the ranges we visited. In the Altai, we also verified through interviews in non-wolverine habitat (eg, areas that aren’t on the snow map) that wolverines are not usually seen at lower elevations, and that they are widely perceived to be a creature of high altitude snowfields. Likewise, in the lower reaches of the Khangai, tales of wolverines were less frequent, although not entirely absent. In the Darhad, however, hunters reported wolverines at far lower elevations than predicted; ecologically, the region is part of Siberia, and the higher reaches of the mountain ranges seem nearly devoid of prey, so perhaps certain factors push wolverines to the margins of the steppe-forest interface here.

Collecting cultural information on wolverines was another important objective of last year’s work. Wolverines carry none of the symbolic importance of wolves, they aren’t considered a delicacy like marmots, and unlike bear or musk deer, they aren’t worth huge amounts of money in China. Mongolians referred to them as heregui amitan, which literally translates to “an animal that isn’t needed,” a useless species. Disappointing as this is to those who might wish for a wealth of folktales and spiritual implications, the worthlessness of the wolverine is probably a blessing. People don’t hunt wolverines proactively, killing them only if their dogs tree one, or one is caught in a marmot or wolf trap. Wolverines don’t have medicinal value and their fur isn’t in high demand. A species hoping to survive in the ever-decreasing margin between human population footprint, economic demands, and climate change couldn’t wish for more, at the start of the 21st century, than to be unnoticed.

This year, in returning to the Darhad, we’ll collect more detailed information on harvest rates and distribution within a bounded area. In Myangan Ugalzaat – which is far to the south, nearly on the border of the Gobi Desert, and which is the only protected area in Mongolia to specifically refer to wolverines in its management plan – we will assess the possibility of working with rangers to set up a camera grid for a multi-year project. In Khentii, we will conduct the basic interviews that we have done elsewhere in the country, to see if breeding populations are present. From this summer’s work, we hope to focus on one region for the next several years. Much as I enjoy the excuse to travel around a country I love, it will be a relief to sink into a single place for a while, and to spend a little less time peering at the road map and wondering whether the roads from one critically important, farflung place to the next actually exist, or whether they are just a cartographer’s wishful thinking.

I probably won’t have too much opportunity to update this blog until mid-July, so check back then for news about wolverine work in Mongolia and beyond.

Pikas, Gulos, and Climate Change

A small but notable mention of wolverines appears in an article about climate change impacts on North American pikas. These small, talus-dwelling, temperature-sensitive members of the rabbit family are dying out of colony sites where temperatures rise above 24º C in the summer, and where decreasing snowpack leaves them less insulated in the winter. In the past decade, pikas in the Great Basin have migrated uphill an average 475 ft, compared to an average of 40 ft per decade through the 20th century. In the same alarming vein, pika colonies blinked out every 10.7 years, on average, throughout the 20th century; in the past eleven years, colonies have been going extinct every 2.2 years. These trends appear to extend beyond the Great Basin, encompassing the rest of the Rockies as well.

How does this relate to wolverines? Anecdotes suggest that gulos sometimes prey on pikas, so the loss of a food source is an issue. But more importantly, pikas and wolverines share habitat, and the same things that limit pikas – temperature and snowpack – also limit wolverines. Pikas are easy to study; there are a lot of them, and they have tiny little legs, so they can’t go very far. Keeping track of them is easy. Wolverines, on the other hand, are rare, and move constantly and quickly, so keeping track of them – and figuring out what is going on at a population level – is much more complicated. (Pika biologist Erik Beever, whose research is the subject of the article above, implied at a March 2010 pika conference that people who want to study wolverines are the masochists of the wildlife biology world, neatly summarizing the issue by pointing out that it takes only one individual to observe many pikas, but many individuals to observe a single wolverine. Which is probably true, but who wants life to be easy?) What happens to pikas is probably an indicator of the challenges that wolverines will face over time. Obviously it’s not a one-to-one substitution, but the parallels are clear.

I’m also interested in this mention of wolverines and pikas because our project in Mongolia includes a pika component, for precisely the reasons that Beever refers to in this article. Wolverines in the old and the new world are the same species; American pikas and Mongolian pikas are in the same genus, Ochotona, with two species in the US and four in Mongolia. Both of the North American species are talus-obligate, which means that they are found only in the mountains. Two of Mongolia’s pikas are burrowing species, living in the steppe. The remaining two are montane-dwelling, and one, the alpine pika (O. alpina) appears to be talus-obligate. We aren’t entirely sure, because scientists have done little research on Mongolia’s mountain pikas. Our fieldwork in Mongolia last year included surveys for alpine pikas in three of Mongolia’s mountain ranges, and we hope to set up longer-term monitoring sites to determine whether alpine pikas are responding to climate change in the same way that North American pikas are responding. We will use methodologies similar to those used in the US, generating a globally comparable dataset.

I haven’t dedicated nearly enough space to the topic of the broader context of the Mongolia project; this is, after all, The Wolverine Blog, not the Wolverine and Other Interesting Animals Blog. But as Erik Beever also pointed out at that same conference, ultimately it’s more efficient, from a conservation point of view, to care about all of the species in mountain ecosystems instead of intensively focusing efforts on only one. He is absolutely right. We need broad solutions for the entire suite of high altitude species, before it’s too late.

Nokhoi and Nokhoi Zeekh

My colleague Embere, of the Teton Science Schools, and her husband John managed to make their flight, unexpectedly moved forward a day, yesterday afternoon, after a two week trip through central Mongolia’s Khangai Range in search of pikas. Of Mongolia’s four pika species, Ochotona alpina, a talus obligate, is perhaps most similar to North America’s high altitude Ochotona princeps, alleged to be disappearing from low-elevation sites due to climate change. Embere’s trip to Mongolia initiates what will hopefully be a long-term monitoring project to see if Mongolia’s high altitude pikas are responding similarly. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hire a recent graduate of the Mongolian National University’s ecology program as a field assistant; Miki finished school in June and is interested in high-altitude ecosystems – including wolverines – and we hope that she will continue to be involved with the project. Intriguingly, thriving pika populations were common at several locations in the Khangai, but during an informal stroll through talus fields at the low-elevation Bogd Khan Uul outside of Ulaanbaatar, we found evidence of previous pika presence, but no current sign. It’s too soon to reach any conclusions, but it raises some interesting questions.

For a small critter, pikas are actually time and energy intensive, so I didn’t have as much time during our trip to talk to people about wolverines as I would have liked. I did, however, hear from one herder whose dog killed a small female wolverine this past March. As expected, he said that the region’s peaks maintained snow into late May or early June, and said that during the winter, wolverine tracks were easy to find.

In Mongolian, the word for wolverine, nokhoi zeekh, means ‘dog weasel;’ in the encounter between nokhoi and nokhoi zeekh, it’s a pity that the wolverine lost. I asked if the herder noticed whether the wolverine was lactating or not, but he laughed.

“No, the carcass was just garbage, and it smelled terrible. Those animals stink, you know. I threw it out without really looking too closely.”

I asked if he thought it might be possible to retrieve the skull or any of the bones, but he laughed at that, too.

Jason Wilmot, my wolverine biologist colleague and boss at NRCC, arrives tonight, and then the wolverine work really begins, as we head north to Lake Hovsgol with Miki…assuming, that is, that we can get our border permits in time, and find Miki a backpack and a pair of hiking boots that can stand up to a real wolverine trek.

As a final note on pikas and wolverines, an article from Yale Environment360 explores the links between climate change and the Endangered Species Act, with a focus on pikas as a flagship species. This article missed the wolverine entirely in its list of climate-sensitive species up for consideration for listing, but it makes some points that are relevant to attempts to protect Gulo gulo – particularly as Colorado begins to discuss substantial investment in reintroducing wolverines to the southern Rockies. Interesting times for those contemplating the future of nokhoi zeekh around the world.

Going West

Ulaanbaatar this year is unbearably hot. Taking shelter from the worst of yesterday afternoon’s heat, my friend Marissa, her friend Ganhuyag, and I sat in a tsainii gazar – a ‘tea place’ – off Enkh Taivan Avenue, sipping cola, working our way through plates of Mongolian food, and talking about life in western Mongolia.

Ganhuyag grew up in Hovd Aimag, one of the Mongolian provinces that follows the curve of the Altai Mountains south from Siberia. Along with Bayan Olgii Aimag to the north, Hovd is a frontier, where Mongolian shamanic and Buddhist culture encounters Muslim Kazakh, and where communities of Uriankhai – ethnically Tuvan – linger in pockets tucked away beneath the high peaks.

In 2001, a fellow Peace Corps environment volunteer who was serving in Bayan Olgii watched a wolverine chase several argali across a mountainside in Tavan Bogd National Park, the region of high peaks nestled against the very furthest western tip of the country. Last year, rangers in a protected area in Hovd saw strange prints in the snow; thinking that they were tracking a baby bear, they followed them, and sighted a wolverine. The spine of the Altai from the Gobi north contains, according to Jeff Copeland’s snow model, large stretches of late-spring snow, and some of the higher peaks are glaciated. The cliffs and high pastures are home not only to livestock, but to abundant marmots, pikas, argali – the world’s largest wild sheep – and ibex – a large wild goat. Altogether, it should be good wolverine habitat.

Over our plates of tsoivan and guliash, however, Ganhuyag explained that after our meeting a few days previously, he’d called his family and his wife’s family, who still lived out in Hovd, and asked them about wolverines.

“This animal is finished in the West,” Ganhuyag said, “In the Khangai, in Hentii, in Hovsgol, there are still some, but in the Altai, they aren’t there anymore.”

But they used to be there?

Yes, but they weren’t anymore. His father-in-law, who was a great hunter, suggested that maybe the wolves had killed them off, but maybe people had killed too many, or maybe they had reacted to changes in herding practices or reduction in wild prey, or any number of other factors. But yes, in the past, this animal had been around.

At our first meeting, Ganhuyag had told us a story about a wolverine killing an adult yak in his family’s summer camp when he was a child. Now, he added a story about his father having seen one in the 1970’s near a town that was well into the arid Gobi-Altai region. It added further fuel to the speculation that Mongolian wolverines are (or were) either abundant enough to send out dispersers to very marginal habitat, or are in some way adapted to survive in different conditions than wolverines elsewhere.

As we talked further, this time about pikas and their sensitivity to climate change,  Ganhuyag mentioned that his family’s summer pasture had always been snow covered into early summer when he was younger, but that since he had left for college, in the late 1990’s, the pastures had been bare of snow from spring on.

I couldn’t help following multiple chains of speculation: that if Mongolian wolverines were actually just normal wolverines, snow dependent for denning, the reduction in snowpack would mean that they would be retreating into higher areas, further from human observation (or were simply being knocked off the map altogether.) That if Mongolian wolverines were not, by some twist of adaptation, snow dependent, and they really were diminishing in number in the Altai, there was probably a mortality source that was too great for them to bear, and that source was most likely – but not absolutely certainly – human.

We chatted further with Ganhuyag and made arrangements to travel out to Hovd to visit his family at their summer pasture and talk to them about their perceptions of wildlife and the changing environment in the Altai. From there, we would travel north to Bayan Olgii, stopping en route to talk with Kazakh and Mongolian herding communities, and seeking out a group of Uriankhai, a group renowned for their hunting skills, at a sacred mountain in Tavan Bogd National Park.