Monks in Bozeman, and Environmentalists in Court

A delegation of Mongolian Buddhist monks arrived in Bozeman last week, and will be in town until the 20th as part of the Tributary Fund’s work on encouraging environmental leadership within religious communities. I will be talking with the monks in a small group session about the potential for monasteries to participate in environmental monitoring (including monitoring of wolverines, pikas, and other climate sensitive wildlife), and on the 17th TTF will host a public discussion at the Bozeman library to talk about citizen science in a broader sense. I hope that we will have a chance to talk with more specificity about wolverine citizen science and about the differences between citizen science in the US and citizen science in Mongolia. Please join us if you are in town; the library discussion session is a brown bag lunch, and runs from 11:45 to 1:00. As a bonus, my friend and colleague Marissa Smith, environmental anthropologist extraordinaire, who has accompanied me (with great patience and endurance) on several Mongolian wolverine expeditions, will also be there to contribute to the discussion.

In other news, environmental advocacy groups have apparently launched another lawsuit against the state of Montana, as part of an on-going attempt to shut down the trapping season. I’ve already written extensively about this issue, and I have several draft posts about the broader issue of the strategies that the environmental advocacy community  employs around endangered species protection, but they are not ready for posting. Instead, I defer to friend and colleague Arthur Middleton, who explores this issue in a recent column about wolf conservation in the Wall Street Journal (you can get free access by searching for the title of the piece and clicking on the search result). Wolves and wolverines are different creatures with different sets of biological and social challenges, and we are very fortunate that wolverines create none of the problems for people that wolves and bears do. But the point about the destructiveness of endless litigation remains the same.

Montana Judge Upholds Wolverine Listing Lawsuit

Very briefly, here’s something for people following wolverine news in minute detail. Apparently a group of environmental organizations sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service, asserting that the warranted-but-precluded decision of 2010 was incorrect because it evaluated Montana’s trapping season as only a secondary threat to the wolverine population in the Lower 48 (climate change being the primary threat.) The USFWS responded by urging dismissal of the lawsuit since they are already on track to issue a final decision on the wolverine’s status by sometime in 2013, possibly as early as January. A judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit yesterday, but ruled that the lawsuit will be considered moot if the USFWS issues a decision by January 18th, 2013. The judge also ordered that the USFWS must tell the court whether it will issue a January decision on or before December 14th – the day before Montana’s trapping season begins.

It’s exciting to have a potential date on which the decision will be issued, and I look forward to hearing whether this is a definite deadline. The actual media article – widely published in news outlets throughout the west – is pretty short, so we’ll have to wait for more information. There’s are a few more details at Ralph Maughn’s Wildlife News blog. Maughn’s post discusses some of the reasoning behind this lawsuit and the timing – mainly having to do with the implications of both the wolverine trapping season, and possible accidental deaths as wolf trapping is opened statewide. I don’t have time or inclination for further commentary on trapping, advocacy, strategy, and lawsuits, so I’ll leave you all to your own opinions. I will say, though, that I was recently face-to-face with a wolf trap out in the Mongolian countryside, and the park ranger with whom I was talking at the time said that wolverines are caught, with some regularity, in wolf traps here. I’ve heard the same story again and again from herders for the past three years. So while I’m not sure that constant lawsuits are the best way to go, there may be some cause to worry about wolverines getting into wolf traps. Of course, that assumes that wolverines and wolves are using habitat the same way in Mongolia and in the US, which doesn’t seem to be the case. I hope wolverines stay well out of the way as wolf trapping goes forward in the States.

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.

Cree Stories: Wolverine, Wolf, and Fire Medicine

Wolverines feature in the stories, myths, and legends of northern peoples in both the eastern and western hemispheres. The Cree, who occupy a vast swath of southern Canada and some of the northern United States, have a long-standing relationship with the wolverine. I first became aware of the Cree wolverine stories through the work of anthropologist Robert Brightman, whose book Grateful Prey is a classic exploration of the complexity of human-animal relationships in hunting cultures – in this case, the Rock Cree of Manitoba. The material that Brightman analyzes in Grateful Prey is presented in its original form – the transcribed tales of Cree storytellers – in an older, out-of-print book called Acaoohkiwina and Acimowina: Traditional Narratives of the Rock Cree Indians. The books was published by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1990, and I managed to find a copy in an obscure corner of a library, the pages falling out, the whole thing looking as though someone had typed up an individual copy with a typewriter and then abandoned it like a message in a bottle, to be retrieved decades later only by a tried and tested wolverine fanatic.  Acaoohkiwina refers to the primordial time-before-humans, when animals spoke and had their own civilizations and when the Trickster Wisahkicahk adventured through the world. Acimowina refers to the time after humans arrived. So the stories incorporate both the history of the creation of the Cree world, and more recent events. Wolverines play a role in both.

Despite the fact that the book felt like it might fall apart in my hands, the stories were vivid and engaging, the voices of the storytellers enlivening the tales. Few wolverine lovers will have the opportunity to experience the deep cultural relationships that exist between humans and animals in subsistence hunting cultures, and I wanted to convey some of this here on the blog. So I wrote to Robert Brightman, and he kindly granted me permission to excerpt the wolverine stories. I also asked if it might be possible to get in touch with the original storytellers to ask for their permission, but they have passed on. So with respect and thanks to them for sharing their stories, I will present their wolverine tales here over the next few posts.

Here, narrated by Cornelius Colomb, is the story Wolverine, Wolf, and Fire Medicine:

There’s this wolverine and the guy who’s with him, Wolf, and they were out hunting one day. The wolf was the one that had the “matches.” They make a magic fire. They just jump over the dry wood and that thing explodes and they make fire. And the wolverine never had that kind of – – of power. So he asked that wolf to have some of the powers.

Oh, the wolf said, “ That’s right, brother. I’ll give it to you.” Because, of course, he was a brother of the animals. So wolverine tried it and the damn thing exploded. “Oh,” wolf said, “ You’re alright, brother. As long as you don’t just play with what I gave you.”

Oh, the wolverine said, “No, no, I wouldn’t do any such thing. I need the fire.”

So later wolverine is monkeying around the shoreline. Sometimes old beaver houses, that’s where you see lots of dry wood. Every time wolverine sees dry wood he wants to make fire. Pretends that he’s cold. Throw a few sticks, jump over it, jump over ‘em, and it explodes. Few minutes, he’s done with the fire and away he goes again.  So every morning, wherever he goes, you see about five or six fires. That wolverine. Making fires all morning for nothing.

So the wolves got mad at him. Said, “I guess our little brother is making fun of our medicine. Every time we see him going he always fires all the way. Gotta cut off the ‘match.’”

So happens, the next fire, wolverine couldn’t make the fire. Tried it again. No. So one cool morning he went up on the hill. Seen lots of fires. All different kinds of animals making different fires. All kinda different smoke from there. One of them’s got different smoke from the other. And him, he had nothing. He was cold. So he hollered, “Brothers! Sisters! I don’t have no lights, no match, no way of making fire. But they’re’ll be people in years ahead. They’ll be wanting to make fire. But what they’ll do is start hunting us when they see our fires… [I]f we don’t have any fire…that way we’ll make it. But if we have fires, they’ll clean us out….” Oh, all the animals agreed with him. “I think that’ll be true,” they say. “If there’s gonna be any people, they gonna hunt us out.” So they holler at him, “Okay, brother, no more fires!”

So that’s how come there’s no fire for the animals. Otherwise they’d be hunted out. [laughs]. It would be lots – – people would be making lots of money as firefighters nowadays. Animals would be putting on all the fires like wolverine.

Trophic Cascades and Some Thoughts on How Wolverines Affect the Ecosystem

Several weeks ago, a ‘trophic cascades’ buzz surged briefly through the media, with a couple of articles – one in Yale Environment360 – talking about the ‘discovery’ that predators are important to ecosystem function, particularly in regulating biodiversity. This is actually not news to the ecology community – studies of trophic cascades from the 1960’s now rank among classic ecological papers – but perhaps it’s taken longer to reach the mainstream than I’d realized.

I’ve been meaning to write about this because people frequently end up on this blog through queries about the wolverine’s role in the ecosystem. This question comes in several forms – “How does the wolverine affect its ecosystem?” “What would happen to the ecosystem if the wolverine went extinct?” “How does the wolverine help the ecosystem?” Unfortunately for the people who are asking these questions, we still have a lot of research to do before we can provide an answer. But looking at the role of predators within ecosystems gives us a place to begin hypothesizing.

What is a trophic cascade anyway? First of all, you need to be familiar with a basic food chain, which is divided into trophic levels – producers (plants), which take energy from the sun; primary consumers, (herbivores), which take energy from (read: eat) the producers; and secondary consumers (carnivores), which take energy from the primary consumers. Sticking to this very simple structure, it’s easy to imagine that those in the top tier of the food chain – the predators – are having an effect on those in the next tier down – the herbivores. To put this into even simpler terms, otters eat sea urchins, therefore otters have an effect on the sea urchin population.

The idea of a trophic cascade takes things beyond the obvious by suggesting that the otters also have an effect on the plants that the sea urchins are eating. This is less intuitive but likewise pretty simple when you think about it: if there are fewer sea urchins, the plants that they eat are likely to experience some benefit. This, in the simplest form possible, is a trophic cascade: a species affecting other species in non-adjacent trophic levels. These effects have been observed most strongly in aquatic ecosystems, where, for example, the extirpation of sea otters led to the elimination of kelp beds as the sea urchin population exploded. In terrestrial systems, trophic cascades occur at both the small (spiders, grasshoppers, and goldenrod) and large (wolves, elk, aspen) scales.

Of course, things aren’t always this straightforward. There’s no such thing as a simple food chain in nature; energy and nutrients cycle through complex networks of production, consumption, and decomposition, and frequently these webs include tertiary consumers (predators that eat other predators) as well as secondary consumers. And conceivably, the same individual could be both a secondary and a tertiary consumer (a heron, for example, might eat an herbivorous rodent or a carnivorous fish.) Direct numerical effects on population aren’t the only consequence of having carnivores around; research on trophic cascades has provided evidence that there is also an ‘ecology of fear,’ whereby the presence of predators changes the behavior of herbivores in ways that can also contribute to trophic cascades.

To complicate things even further, some secondary consumers – generally referred to as ‘apex predators’ – don’t like other secondary consumers – generally referred to as mesocarnivores or mesopredators – and kill them to eliminate competition, which can have an effect on the preferred prey of the mesopredator. (Wolves don’t like coyotes, and kill them when they can; coyotes prey extensively on pronghorn fawns. Since the wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, coyote numbers have dropped and pronghorn fawn survival rates have risen. A number of other examples of this phenomenon in reverse – eg, removing apex predators from ecosystems, which is sometimes referred to as ‘mesocarnivore release’ –  can be found here.) If this doesn’t give you enough to mull over in contemplating the complicated relationships among species, consider that there’s also evidence that wolves in Yellowstone, by reducing elk numbers and thereby encouraging the growth of willows and aspens, have allowed the return of certain rare songbirds by providing nesting habitat. As to the effects that those songbirds are undoubtedly having on their food networks, well….you can imagine that the repercussions go on and on.

For a long time, ecologists thought that ecosystem structure was regulated from the bottom up, by resource availability. Only with the advent of work on trophic cascades did people begin to appreciate that top-down regulation and structuring were also occurring. The realization was significant for conservation advocates because it gave a much more quantifiable value to predators, which were traditionally reviled for depleting supplies of game. Traditional Western wildlife management, from its inception, revolved around the removal of predators to ‘benefit’ the ecosystem as a whole. Evidence of top-down ecosystem regulation finally provided some rationale for keeping predators on the landscape (aside from “These animals are cool and inspiring,” which, unfortunately but understandably, has never been enough for some people.)

How does this relate to wolverines? Wolverines straddle the line between being a top predator and being a mesocarnivore; they hunt, they scavenge, they can scare grizzlies or wolves off a kill, but they are also killed by larger predators. Among the high peaks of the Lower 48, where there isn’t much apparent overlap with bears and wolves, they are likely the top predator on bighorn sheep and mountain goats, although they also apparently rely on sheep and goats that fall off cliffs. They consume a wide array of small mammals and may be consuming some plants (chemical compounds derived from vegetation are found in wolverine musk) although obviously not enough to have a major effect on plant communities. The point is, they interact with a number of different species because they are, within their habitat, generalists. One could speculate that a female wolverine denning in an area near pika colonies might have an effect on those pika colonies, which in turn could effect the plants on which the pikas graze. It could also regulate disease transmission among pika colonies by thinning out the population and reducing the density of vectors; conversely, it might have a negative effect on dispersal and the founding of new pika colonies. We could also hypothesize that wolverines might preferentially prey on lambs or kids (the goat variety, not the human….), and that this in turn would restructure the plant communities and maybe the distribution of goat or sheep herds in their high-altitude pastures. Finally – a question that the scientists who work on trophic cascades haven’t, as far as I know, asked – we could begin to test some hypotheses about whether mid-level carnivores or scavengers can affect ecosystems as a whole – for example, if wolverines are preferentially hunting mountain goat kids, do they reduce the mountain goat population enough to exclude some other predator? Do wolverines compete with raptors (by burying carrion, for example) in such a way that the raptors and/or the raptors’ preferred prey is affected? At the northern extent of their range, is wolverine predation on caribou calves high enough to have an impact on the caribou and if so, how does that affect the plants on which caribou graze? Are wolverines on the landscape playing any role in rates of wolf predation by pushing wolves off kills and forcing a pack to hunt more frequently as a result? Honestly, it seems fairly ridiculous to imagine that this might be true – but who knows?

Everything that I’ve written in the paragraph above is entirely speculative, and the alpine tundra ecosystems in which the wolverine lives at the southern edge of its range aren’t necessarily well understood as systems. The point is that we don’t know exactly how wolverines affect ecosystems in either the northern or the southern parts of their range, but it’s likely that they do in some way, and there are a million possibilities to explore. For people who are looking for an answer to how wolverines affect the ecosystem, hopefully the idea of trophic cascades gives you a place to start thinking about the many connections that exist among species and the many possibilities for asking targeted questions on the topic.

Khunnu bar ma?

On July 5th, we crossed the border into Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, and screeched to a halt beside a stream where a man and a boy were sitting next to a motorcycle. We’d been on the road for a week, conducting interviews and trying to figure out where wolverines might be; it was a painstaking process and, on that particular day, we’d driven 200 km over roads that barely deserved the name. We were dusty, dehydrated, and exhausted. Dispensing with the protocol that I’d developed to make sure people didn’t initially know what we were looking for – to prevent them from telling us, out of politeness, what they thought we wanted to hear – I pulled out a laminated picture of a wolverine, leaned out the window, and showed it to the man.

“Khunnu bar ma?”

It was my sole phrase in Kazakh; it meant “Are there any wolverines around here?” He looked up at me with clear – and clearly amused – gray eyes and said, “Bar.” This meant, “Yes.” Our driver, Baatar, reverted to Mongolian and asked, “Have you seen any recently?” The man looked at the picture, nodded, and said, “Yes, two or three days ago, up in the pasture above my camp.” He traced the stripe on the animal’s side, pointed to it, and said, “It had this stripe, and it went right across a cliff, fast, and disappeared around the other side of the mountain.”

“Can you show us where?”

He handed the picture back, and we were following him back to his ger and, if all went well, to our first confirmed wolverine sighting of the trip.

The Altai - Mongolian wolverine habitat

Hovd and Bayan Olgii are Mongolia’s westernmost aimags, or provinces. The Altai range runs like a spine along the border with Russia to the north, China to the south. Kazakhstan, which doesn’t share a border with Mongolia, is only a few dozen kilometers away, and that proximity explains the ethnic composition of the region. In the 1940’s, when the Soviet Union announced its intention to settle most of its nomadic pastoralist population, a number of Kazakh herders defected to Mongolia. Mongolia was a strong ally of the USSR, dependent on the Soviets for subsidies that supported its development, but the country of Chingis Khan remained independent – unlike the Central Asian republics – and was able to pursue its own policies with regard to pastoralists. Mongolia was a nation of herders, and the Kazakhs who fled to western Mongolia believed that they would be able to pursue a more traditional lifestyle in a country that remained surreptitiously proud of its nomadic heritage.

Their instinct proved correct. The Mongolia government established Bayan Olgii in 1940 as a Kazakh aimag. The Mongolian-Kazakh interface in Bayan Olgii and Hovd, where there is also a substantial Kazakh population, hasn’t always been flawless, but there have never been ethnic clashes of the kind that seem so prevalent in other countries with minority populations. Mongolians may make claims of superiority, but they are over minor issues (“Mongolian milk tea is true milk tea; Kazakh milk tea tastes like cow piss”), and the government has allowed the Kazakhs to pursue their own traditions without any attempts to Mongolize the population. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan maintained that Mongolian Kazakhs were more truly Kazakh than those living in their Russified homeland, where Russian is now more commonly spoken than Kazakh.

For me, though, the situation presented some interesting complications. I’ve worked hard for years to master Mongolian language and customs, and I feel comfortable in a Mongolian context. I’m intellectually Buddhist, and at heart I share the Mongolians’ animist worldview. Heading to Bayan Olgii, I was thrown back into a situation where I didn’t speak the language and had only a vague understanding of the customs. I’d visited Bayan Olgii as a Peace Corps volunteer and felt welcomed despite the lack of language skills, but that was before September 11th and the Iraq fiasco. Kazakhs are Muslim, and who knew how things might have changed in the face of America’s rhetoric about the Islamic world? All I wanted to do was find wolverines and pikas and talk to people about environmental knowledge – if neo-conservative geopolitics interfered with that, I was going to be extremely disappointed and angry.

In the herder’s ger, we sat on low stools while his wife served us milk tea (despite Mongolian assertions, it tasted delicious) and an assortment of dairy products.  A two meter long wolf pelt hung on the wall, against a backdrop of tapestries sewn by the women of the family. We sat drinking tea and talking – the herder spoke fluent Mongolian, although his wife didn’t – and as he explained where he’d seen the wolverine, all the dust and exhaustion of our trip melted away. An hour later, I was up in the high pastures above his camp, scaling the cliffs along the outer edge of an avalanche chute in an attempt to get closer to what appeared to be melted out tracks. I couldn’t think of any other animal that would go straight up a snowfield like that, but the tracks were too old to reach any conclusions. Disappointed, I came back down for the night.

Early the next morning, I was back in the high pasture, scrabbling up another cliff. The tracks in this avalanche chute were likewise too old to be conclusive. Frustrated, I inched back down. It was still cold – cold enough so that the snowfields had been frozen solid when I first got up here – but it was starting to warm up, and the sun on the black talus felt good. I glanced down at a lower snowfield and nearly tripped over my own feet. A faint track, lace-like from above, meandered across the field.  I was too far away to tell for sure, but I knew anyway. In the Absarokas, I’d watched a wolverine detour across a slope in order to run across a snowfield; I knew with an inexplicable conviction that these were gulo tracks. When I reached the snowfield and crouched beside them, they blossomed like five-petaled flowers across the ice crystals. They hadn’t been there last night and,  the snow had been frozen until a half hour ago or so. I’d missed the wolverine by twenty minutes at the most.

Gulo tracks in the Altai

Strychnine and Consequences

A copy of the Yukon wolf conservation and management plan, written in 1992, fell into my hands today.  On page 3 of the plan, the unintended wider effects of wolf slaughter campaigns in the 20th century are highlighted:

“During the 1920’s, strychnine poisoning of wolves was first allowed in the Yukon….Government poisoning programs started in the 1950’s when up to 154 strychnine poison baits were set out in the southern Yukon each winter. Between 1957 and 1967, a total of about 600 wolves were killed and many other animals were accidentally killed, including more than 150 wolverines.”

Mike Schwartz of the Rocky Mountain Research Station published a paper on wolverine genetics, estimating that the effective population of US Rockies wolverines – that is, the number of wolverines contributing to the gene pool –  is somewhere between 28 and 52 animals. Most of these are in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming holds six or seven known wolverines. Colorado is home to one. We couldn’t lose 150 wolverines, because there are probably barely that many in the US in the first place.

Wolverines are more widespread in northern Canada than they are in the Lower 48, but 150 unintended deaths in the course of a decade still seems substantial. Strychnine and other poisons were widely used in wolf and coyote eradication campaigns in the US, and there is speculation, even beyond the wolverine research community, that the poison baits intended for other predators eliminated wolverines from the US Rockies and the Sierras. The range expansion that we are seeing now, as wolverines make their way to Colorado and California, is, according to this theory, part of a decades-long recolonization process as Canadian and then Montanan wolverines make their way south. In one sense, then, the story of wolverines in the US Rockies in the 21st century is a story of a resilient species making its way home in the wake of astonishingly irresponsible human behavior. And it took little human effort; all we needed to do was stop interfering.