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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ski Expedition Photos: A Preview

Mea culpa, I have been unforgivably remiss in assembling any sort of account of our spring ski expedition through the mountains around the Darhad. The other day I was sorting through photos as I put together an article for NRCC’s newsletter, and was reminded that even if I lack words, I have images. Here’s a quick selection, a preview of things (hopefully) to come. Enjoy.

Forrest McCarthy, of Winter Wildlands, and Jason Wilmot, scientific adviser to the Mongolian Wolverine Project, admire a wolverine scat sample on the first day of the expedition.

Forrest McCarthy, of Winter Wildlands, and Jason Wilmot, scientific adviser to the Mongolian Wolverine Project, admire a wolverine scat sample on the first day of the expedition.

Yaks laden with gers and other possessions coming down from Jarai Pass during the annual migration over the mountains between Lake Hovsgol and the Darhad Valley.

Yaks laden with gers and other possessions coming down from Jarai Pass during the annual migration over the mountains between Lake Hovsgol and the Darhad Valley.

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Forrest McCarthy skis across Utrag Pass.

Ovoo at Utrag Pass. Ovoos mark places of power on the landscape, and travelers should stop and circle the monument three times to show respect to the landscape.

Ovoo at Utrag Pass. Ovoos mark places of power on the landscape, and travelers should stop and circle the monument three times to show respect to the mountains.

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Jason Wilmot and the rest of the expedition share mutual curiosity with a herd of domestic reindeer turned loose in the mountains for the winter. Salt-deprived reindeer tend to be very friendly, since it affords them an opportunity to lick human hands, clothes, and – if they can manage it – faces.

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Jason Wilmot, Forrest McCarthy, and expedition photographer Jim Harris follow wolverine tracks in the Tengis River drainage.

To the Field

Some of our luggage - gear and food resupply bags.

Some of our luggage – gear and food resupply bags.

It’s six in the morning and still pitch dark here in Ulaanbaatar as we stumble around doing a final count on bags and gear, packing stray items into bags to be left in storage here, testing the weight of our backpacks one last time. The van that will take us north to Murun will arrive in an hour. Due to the need to register our border permit, we are not yet sure whether we will set out from Ulaan Uul, in the Darhad itself, or from Hatgal, which is across the mountains on the edge of the Lake Hovsgol.

I will attempt to post our locations and send messages to my project’s facebook page and also to the tracking page attached to my Spot device, although both of these depend on finding a way to get in touch with the company, which has apparently locked my account because I tried to access it from Mongolia (this is the second time this has happened. For a global rescue service, this is a major flaw) so no one panic if messages and locations don’t show up. We should also be updating via satellite phone at the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation page, rotating among the five of us over the course of the expedition. Through ASC, if you’re an educator, you can also find a curriculum that will help students follow the expedition and learn about wildlife in Mongolia. We’ll be back in Ulaanbaatar around May 1st, and I look forward to telling the story then.

I am nervous, but also really excited, and very grateful for the contributions of everyone who helped make this happen: to National Geographic for funding this expedition, to Gregg Treinish and Forrest McCarthy for the hard work of organizing, route-finding, and figuring out what it takes to get five people on skis across 400 miles of mountains; to the numerous sponsors who have donated gear and food; to Jim Harris, our photographer, for being willing to come with us on short notice, carrying additional weight in camera equipment; to my many Mongolian friends, who have taught me the language and helped me to understand what wildlife means to people here; to everyone who reads this blog and has been supportive of my work in the US and in Mongolia over the past six years, particularly the Mongolia-Bozeman community, and the wolverine research community (because without the background they provided and the support for my previous trips around Mongolia, we wouldn’t even know where to survey intensively for wolverines in Mongolia, let alone have a context in which to make what we find meaningful); and especially to Jason Wilmot, who first told me back in 2006 that there was an unstudied wolverine population in a country that I knew and loved, and thereby sparked a seven-year effort (and counting….) to bring knowledge of that population to light – and who has come back here for a second trip despite the manifold quirks and discomforts of the first.

See you all in May, hopefully with some great wolverine stories, or, failing that, at least some great ski stories.

 

 

The Expedition Begins

The week before any trip to Mongolia, I start to exist in a liminal space, in which time and outlook are skewed, a bubble that encompasses the place where anticipation, nostalgia, and panic crash into each other with unrepentant ferocity. I love Mongolia, I love my research, I love adventure, but there is a significant inertia that drags at me with the demands of having to reorganize my cultural mind, my primary language orientation, my living arrangements, and my entire social life. During this liminal week, I develop a subdued sort of hedonism that is entirely absent from my life at any other time. I voraciously eat fruits and vegetables; I soak in the bathtub for hours, reading The New Yorker; I dress in my fanciest clothes just to run to the grocery store; and I sleep, as intentionally as one can do anything while unconscious, luxuriating in a comfortable mattress, real pillows, and soft bedding. Baths, bedding, fruits and vegetables, and dress-up opportunities being substantially absent through most of Mongolia, I guess that these small indulgences are reasonable, but in the 48 hours before leaving, they assume a disproportionate importance, as if I cannot possibly bear to leave them.

Then, somewhere in line at the airport, usually after I’ve cleared security, the switch flips and the liminal space retreats into the distance and I’m fully engaged in whatever adventure I’m embarking on.

This morning at 4:30, reality hit in the Bozeman airport when I stumbled through the door and saw my fellow Mongolian Wolverine Ski Expedition team members hauling a mountain of bright red dry bags, ski bags, and backpacks towards a check-in counter manned by a woman who was trying to look stoic about the impending task of sorting through all this luggage. Suddenly I was elbow deep in energy bars and dehydrated food, sorting and rearranging weight, shifting heavy items to my carry-on bag, and desperately wishing for some caffeine. On the ride to the airport, I’d stared out at the lights of town and thought, “I cannot believe that we are really doing this. What the hell possessed me, to think that skiing 400 miles across northern Mongolia in spring was a good idea?” By the time the plane took off and my fellow team members – wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, adventure geographer Forrest McCarthy, and Gregg Treinish, director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation – pulled out maps of the Darhad, we were so elated about the prospect of the trip that bleary-eyed passengers requested that we tone it down, 6:00 a.m. being apparently too early for proximity to unfettered enthusiasm.  Still, the switch had been flipped, from backward-looking to forward-looking, from anxiety to excitement.

 

Wolf Pack, Wolf Skin

On Friday, the Mongolia ski expedition team set out for a shakedown – a trial run to test equipment, fitness, and group dynamics. It’s the first time all of us have been together since we started planning this trip more than a year ago; I spent the summer in Mongolia, and team member Forrest McCarthy has been in Antarctica all winter. Expedition organizer Gregg Treinish, of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and I are both based in Bozeman, and Jason Wilmot, who is based in Jackson, has been through town a couple of times, but we’d never all been in the backcountry, or even in a room, together. So when we convened in the midst of a snow squall in a parking lot at the Taylor Fork off of Gallatin Canyon, with a carload of brand new gear and a whole lot of expectations, I was nervous and excited. In less than three weeks, we’ll be setting out on a 350-400 mile loop of the mountains around the Darhad Valley in northern Mongolia. This was our opportunity to  figure out how we function as a pack.

Two straightforward admissions: I like wolverines because they reflect an independence of character that I think I possess. I’m not a creature of hierarchies or groups, I’m incapable of engaging in competition or dominance games (I just zone out or leave situations in which these things are important), and I know that working well with others is not always one of my strong points. And also, I have been worried all winter about being the only woman – and a small, lightweight woman who hasn’t been winter camping in 12 years  – among a group of incredibly fit, strong men who are backcountry experts. It’s one thing to carry a 50 pound pack when it’s 25 or 30 percent of your body weight; it’s another thing altogether to carry it when it’s 50 percent of your body weight. All winter I’ve been hauling bait and camera station supplies around the mountains, hoping that this would render me tough enough, but no matter how frequently I go out, I still end up exhausted after a few hundred yards of hauling a burden uphill through thigh deep powder. I consistently felt like a failure. The complex dynamics of working in Mongolia also weighed on my mind. I’ve set out to traipse through the mountains of Mongolia alone or with a few good friends, for work or for fun, dozens of times over the past 13 years, but I’ve never felt so responsible for the experience of people who, at least in the case of Gregg and Forrest, I don’t know that well, and who have absolutely no experience working in Mongolia or on long-term, community-based international conservation and research projects. So as we divided up the new gear and packed it into our bags, I was on the verge of hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t keep up? What if I wimped out in the cold? Worse yet, what if we all simply hated each other?

Gregg’s girlfriend was also along for the weekend, and she, Jason, and Forrest had all brought their dogs, so we were a big group as we embarked. We left a car at Taylor Fork and then drove north to set out from Big Sky. Our route would take us over approximately 25 miles of mountain terrain, over the course of two days. As we wound our way up into the mountains on the first evening, we left the well worn trail and pushed further up towards the passes that would lead us back to the Taylor Fork drainage. The pack didn’t feel anywhere near as heavy as I’d feared, although I was still behind – until we left the trail and set out over crusty, unconsolidated snow. The guys, along with our three canine companions, began to punch through the crust. I stayed on top and pushed ahead. Forrest, veteran of a zillion expeditions and instant source of calm confidence for anxious novices, neatly summed it up by pointing out that what might seem like a weakness can, in certain circumstances, turn into a strength. This is how wolverines take down moose and reindeer. My trepidation diminished.

We spent a spectacularly starry night testing our tents and bags, which were surprisingly comfortable and warm. The next day we headed up towards the first pass. The sky was clear, Lone Peak arced up into the blue with breathtaking grace, and it was pure exhilaration to be out, with mountain peaks on the horizon in all directions. With the guys still punching through the crust and with me lagging on the uphills, though, we were concerned that we might have to turn around, but Gregg encouraged us to push on towards our original goal. It was a long day, with multiple tumbles on my part down steep slopes as I adjusted to the new skis. Jason and Forrest are both amazing to watch on skis, fearless and elegant, with their dogs bounding just ahead or behind. I am a lot less graceful, and it took some time to get used to the kicker skins and the weight and balance of the new pack. We arrived at our campsite after dark, mostly because I’d been so slow on the uphills. Halfway through the day I’d started to run a strange fever, concentrated in my ear lobes and the lymph nodes of my neck, and had become unbearably dehydrated. I felt pretty awful by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, though I hoped this was all just an adjustment and part of the learning process. My sister, who is a marathoner, has been a source of confidence and inspiration as I’ve prepared for this trip, and I fell asleep thinking of her advice about the mental and physical fortitude that it takes to complete these big endeavors: once you survive it once, you know you can do it again. I’d made it through day one. Everything after this was just another day.

Skiing from Big Sky to the Taylor Fork, testing gear, skills, and the fortitude of Montana's amazing dogs. Photo by Forrest McCarthy.

Skiing from Big Sky to the Taylor Fork, testing gear, skills, and the fortitude of Montana’s amazing dogs. Photo by Forrest McCarthy.

Sure enough, the next day was easier, with the exception of an absolutely terrifying, steep,  icy slope that I felt like cursing with eternal damnation. But the clear skies, the great skiing through rolling meadows below, the abundant tracks of ermine, marten, snowshoe hare, and squirrels gamboling through the forest, and the mountain views more than compensated for the moments of doubt up on the steep pitch. Gregg’s encouragement to press on towards the Taylor Fork, Forrest’s consistent confidence, and Jason’s absolute competence in all things related to being out in the mountains, were reassuring, and all paid off. I’ve been out on research trips with guys who have constantly put me (and other female companions) down for lack of experience or strength, and this is my number one test of any men with whom I hike – do they try to make me feel bad? Do I, in turn, find myself wishing that one or more of them might conveniently fall off the nearest cliff? Despite very disparate personalities in the everyday civilized world, we functioned pretty well as a group in the backcountry. I still feel like the weak link, but as Jason pointed out, as the only person who speaks Mongolian and has connections in country, I will be the critical piece once we’re in Mongolia. So we all have our roles to play, and like any wolf pack, each member helps the whole to function.

By the time I got home, my face, hands, arms, and chest had broken out in hives and I was running a serious fever. My ears were so hot that they felt like they might combust, my lymph nodes were hard as rocks, my fingers were swollen and painful, and I had huge welts across my face. This morning, I went to the doctor, who said it was probably just a bad reaction to the sun. Later in the day I saw my Mongolian friend Badmaa, who is here in Montana on a Fulbright scholarship. She said that the condition looked to her like something that Mongolians refer to as huiten alergiin, an allergy to cold – she described the symptoms right down to the burning ears. And then she added that the other name for it, in Mongolian, is chonii hurgan, or “rough wolf skin” – a suitable initiation for a temporary transformation into a creature of the pack.

Wolverine Sighting in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

Studying wolverines in the Rockies can be almost unbearably frustrating. Gaining a picture of what is actually happening in a meta-population that is scattered across far-flung mountain ranges in at least four states is a mind boggling challenge. One of my enduring regrets is the lack of impetus for a state-wide study of Wyoming’s wolverine population. Our knowledge remains fragmentary, mostly centered on the two National Parks. We suspect that there are relatively few wolverines in Yellowstone National Park and the mountains to the east. The Wildlife Conservation Society monitored the population in Grand Teton National Park for several years, recording the southernmost known reproduction in the Rockies in 2005, and following one of the two female kits all the way to the Wind River Range, several hundred miles to the southeast. The WCS study stopped monitoring the Teton wolverines shortly thereafter, and since then there have been no formal studies of wolverines in Wyoming. We rely on anecdotal reports and, if we’re lucky, verified sightings by backcountry travelers. For the past several years, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative has engaged in an on-going educational blitz to try to make skiers and hikers more aware of wolverine sign and the best way to record and report sightings. One of the centerpieces of this campaign was a laminated, pocket-sized card that adventurers could carry with them (a .pdf of that card is available from this page.) We distributed hundreds of these cards, but measuring their efficacy was tricky.

In late May, Brigid Mander, a professional ski writer (and friend) from Jackson who had been deluged with wolverine chatter from the NRCC crowd, headed into the Wind River Range for a ski trip. She and her companions became the first to document a wolverine in the range since 2006 (as far as I know.) This is pretty exciting. Hopefully we can find some way of conducting a more formal study in that range soon.

Here is Brigid’s account of the sighting:

We went into the Winds for a six-day couloir skiing mission at the end of May… It was more wintery than we expected, snow on the access road and the approach was easily skinnable form the parking lot, lakes were all still frozen. We didn’t really expect to see any wildlife, because it was so frozen and snowy. 

Things were going smoothly; and on our third day in there, we headed from our camp… over to ski some lines in a nearby basin. Just after we entered the basin itself, we saw tracks running along the lake – big tracks, with claws!  I suggested they were wolverine tracks to the crew, based on the ones I saw in BC in the McGregor range – these ones seemed quite a bit larger, but clearly had the chevron shape pad and giant claws (thanks to my handy NRCC card, which I didn’t have with me but had looked at quite a bit). However, no one believed me, and the general consensus was that it was a bear.  
 

Wolverine tracks in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Photo by Brigid Mander.

Wolverine print with ski for scale. Photo by Brigid Mander.

Next, we saw a bunch of little tracks along with it, they didn’t look quite the same, but it looked like three more small animals I thought some looked distinctly canine – but it was hard to tell. They looked similar but we just weren’t sure. The crew decided now it was a mother bear with babies. Of course, there was no vegetation showing yet in the basin (or for miles in any direction, really!), and the lakes were quite frozen, so a bear heading higher and farther into a frozen wasteland seemed unlikely (but, no one had come around to my wolverine opinion…yet!). 
 
The tracks continued along the side of the lake, for over three miles to the end of the basin.  Here, the little tracks were gone but the big ones headed from the lake, and up around the back of the basin under a pass. They were going in and out the holes in the snow, next to huge boulders, checking out the deep windrifts created in the snow. It was very busy creature, and we saw its tracks everywhere – even up at the base of the couloir we went to ski.  
 
The weather, however, which had started out questionable in the morning, had turned hellacious, very cold, and extremely windy, and we were blowing over in our skintrack. The snow in the couloirs didn’t look great anyway. So we turned around after some discussion, and three of us were ahead of the others. 
 
We were still up high on the flank under the ski lines, and then down below us near lake levels we saw this creature running at top speed, looking like a frantic black bear – I felt bad for it, as it was fleeing and looked scared. But then I noticed a big tail, and could make out the wolverine stripe around its haunches – Simon skied after it to get a picture, and it sped away over the snow and then up into the rocks, where it stopped and turned around and looked at us from a distance. By the time we got under where it had run up to, it had disappeared somewhere. We were stoked! We had to admit that the sighting kind of made up for getting shut down on the skiing for the day. 
 

Wolverine in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. The animal is just visible at the center of the picture. Photo by Simon Peterson.

The next day we were back up, and we saw some more very similar, if a little older, tracks, all up there, high in the basin under the cliffs that the couloirs come out of. We didn’t see the wolverine again, for the rest of the trip, or any other wildlife for that matter. That is the story! 

Wolverine tracks showing the gait and scale. Photo by Simon Peterson.

Jeff Copeland in Couer D’Alene

Jeff Copeland will speak this Tuesday, April 12th, in Couer D’Alene, Idaho, about his research. The talk is sponsored by Audubon and begins at 7pm in the auditorium of the Lutheran church. An article on the upcoming talk and Copeland’s research can be found at the Spokesman-Review. (I, of course, am very excited to see that Mongolia made it onto the poster!)

A related article appeared in the same issue, about the possible impacts of wolverine sightings in the area where a snowcat ski company has been operating for the past few years. The young couple who own the company claim that they were assured that wolverine presence in the area wouldn’t be a problem for their permit when they bought the company in 2009, but the permit has since been revoked because of wolverine sightings. Although they are appealing the decision, they are unlikely to win.

This is a difficult topic. I’m sympathetic to people (especially people my age….) who have invested their time and money in pursuing a business that offers opportunities to get outside, and it’s terrible that they stand to lose that investment. They asked the right questions before they started. The assurances about wolverines not interfering with the permit were probably well-meant and may have been true at the time, but management has to change as our knowledge about a given situation changes. One of the more telling sentences in the article states: “Considerable confusion persists among land managers on interpreting rules regarding wolverines, which have been considered but not yet accepted for Endangered Species protections…” This is true: wolverines are a unique case right now, leaving us with a situation that is unfortunate for everyone – for business owners trying to make a living, for wolverine researchers trying to find funding to answer vital questions, for managers who might want the best for both wildlife and the human community but who can’t give assurances about the future of either, and, most importantly, for the wolverines themselves, who are facing down odds that they can’t comprehend, and which they can only meet with their indefatigable attitude….which, for the first time in their history as a species, may not be enough.

Land managers are taking a proactive, precautionary stance on trying to protect the species, and wolverines need that. The community of wolverine-interested people needs to be cautious, however, about rallying against back-country recreation. Endangered species protection in the Western US is overwhelmingly contentious. If you don’t live out here, it’s hard to grasp how deeply people’s identities – on both sides – play into the question of what we do about our wildlife. There are people who are primed to get riled about “federal interference” in their lives, and there are people who will passionately defend their right to speak “for” the species. The future of wolverines does not need to become a battlefield in this on-going war. Wolverines aren’t symbols of any political battle, and they shouldn’t become one. They’re outstanding and inspiring in a way that should reach anyone who loves being outdoors, whether on a snowmobile, a snowcat, or a pair of skis, whether as a hunter, a backpacker, or an artist. We’re all invested in the future of these places and the species they contain.

The situation in Silver Valley points most urgently to the need for more research to answer these questions in a way that leaves business-people less vulnerable, and managers more certain in their decisions and assurances. We need to figure out how females select denning habitat, to what extent they are disturbed by winter recreation, and what the implications are for management. Let’s get those questions answered, so that we know what we’re dealing with and what’s best for the future of the species and the people who use the habitat.