Wolverines: Bozeman researcher conducts study in Mongolia

Wolverines Bozeman researcher conducts study in Mongolia
Rebecca Watters, director of the Mongolian Wolverine Project, makes a home in Bozeman when she’s not overseas. Last spring, Watters and four others spent a month exploring a region of Mongolia to formally document wolverine existence. She plans to return this year to do more research.
She was told not to get her hopes up, that some people had worked on wolverine studies for 20 years and never seen one of the creatures in the wild.
So Rebecca Watters wasn’t expecting much on the backpacking trip into Montana’s Absaroka Mountains six years ago – a scouting trip seeking signs of wolverines.
While washing dinner dishes near a stream she heard her trip leader, wildlife biologist Jason Wilmot, screaming at his dog.
“Dusty! No!” he yelled. Watters couldn’t imagine what was happening, but her senses went on high alert. The Absarokas, after all, are grizzly and black bear country. As it turned out, Wilmot’s pup was on a collision course with a curious wolverine that had wandered over to investigate the campers along the talus slope.
Luckily, Dusty heeded his master, and the wolverine hung around for 17 minutes, popping its head up from different locations like a feral jack-in-the-box. Watters said the encounter, although brief, had a “profound effect” on her life.
“They’re just such smart animals,” Watters said. “You can tell there’s something going on in their mind.”
Wolverine move
This single meeting with the largest member of the weasel family launched Watters into a new obsession. Since she was a child growing up in the Boston suburb of Southborough, Mass., Watters had been fascinated by wild animals and wild places.
“When I was 3, I became obscenely obsessed with whales,” she confessed over coffee in a Bozeman shop.
A self-described science geek, many of her childhood summers were spent with her parents and younger sister in a New Hampshire cabin built in the 1920s that had no running water, insulation or television. Spare time was spent exploring the mountains.
College and the Peace Corps saw her scratch an adventuresome itch with studies and work in Kenya, Cambodia – where armed motorcycle guards had to accompany her into the jungle – and Mongolia. She now speaks Mongolian and has acted as a translator for other groups traveling there.
“One reason I went to Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer was because it reminded me of the West,” Watters said.
That one backpacking trip into the Montana mountains had reaffirmed for her something she had discovered at an early age: she loved vast open spaces and the creatures that inhabited them.
“I’m more interested in wildlife than dealing with people’s issues with wildlife,” she said, a fact driven home by her graduate research on wolf reintroduction, the work that brought her to Bozeman, now her part-time home.
Spring quest
With wolverines on the brain and a fascination with the wildlands of Mongolia, the 37-year-old Watters last spring got a chance to further combine the two interests. She applied for and received a grant to explore Mongolia’s Dharhad region on skis to search for wolverine sign.
The work would be a follow-up to research she began in 2009 as she interviewed hunters and herders in Mongolia about wolverine sightings, animals that had not been formally documented in the country.
“People up there say they see wolverines all of the time,” she said. “And they have the pelts to prove it.”
Accompanying her last spring were Utah photographer Jim Harris, Jackson Hole mountain guide Forrest McCarthy, wolverine researcher Wilmot and Gregg Treinish of the Bozeman group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.
The expedition was a learning experience for Watters. During the spring trip, she skied 230 miles for a month with the four men into the sprawling mountainous region – her first time skiing with a backpack and her first extended winter camping trip.
“This was my first long expedition, so there was plenty of learning for me,” she wrote in her blog. “But they were, in a way, my mountains; I’d traveled around in them in bits and pieces over the course of twelve years, and they felt comfortable. Living in the cold, camping in the snow, and bundled into layers of warm winter clothing, we became snow beasts of the Darhad, too.”
As the travelers entered northwestern Mongolia, Watters seemed to have packed her earlier luck in the Absarokas along.
“We predicted that if we were lucky, we would find four or five sets of tracks during the trip,” Watters said. “Instead, within 45 minutes on the first day we found tracks.
“We began to realize that we needed to step back from our assumptions,” she said.
Admittedly, some of the tracks were old and could have been made by the same animal. But following a snowstorm that erased any old tracks, the group found fresh sign, and continued to find tracks in every drainage they skied.
“The only days we didn’t see tracks were when we were in the lower part of the valley where there was no snow, and when we saw herders migrating and they had trampled the snow,” Watters said.
Mongolian mountains
The explorers were traversing huge, remote valleys, at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, surrounded by 10,000-foot mountains. Temperatures would commonly drop below zero at night, and sugary snow made trail breaking tedious and physically draining.
“There’s almost nothing between you and the Arctic Circle,” Watters said. “That’s not to say it’s uninhabited, but it’s habited in a way that makes it feel intact.”
They were traveling in the Horidol Saridag mountains in the province of Khuvsgul, which is also the name for a huge freshwater lake in the province just south of Russia.
The trip crossed into two recently protected areas, the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area and Tengis Shishged National Park. The regions were set aside as the country copes with offsetting the effects of an expanding mining industry, illegal logging and an increase in the number of livestock that are grazed across the countryside.
The nation’s protected areas, which cover about 16 percent of the country, are home to Mongolia’s most endangered species, including the snow leopard and gobi bear.
Along the way the American travelers were resupplied twice as they made a large loop through the region that is also home to moose, elk and possibly snow leopards.
“It’s an unstudied system,” Watters said. “Baseline on all of the species is pretty limited.”
Back for more
In 2014, Watters plans to return to Mongolia as director of the Mongolian Wolverine Project with remote cameras to set up baited stations to lure animals into camera range. Donations should provide her with 16 cameras, which also have the potential to capture photos of the elusive snow leopard.
She hopes to stay through December, exploring the area that in some respects has become a second home.
Watters stressed “the huge importance of cultural and local knowledge to the research endeavor. I couldn’t do it without the openness and the generosity of the communities in which I work.”
Ultimately, Watters would like to set up a collaring operation to track the travels of Mongolian wolverines. That will take more grants, and more grant writing, on Watters’ part – one of her duties when she’s not off on expeditions into the wilds. In the end, when the data is analyzed and published, she hopes to show how information about Mongolian wolverines may hold keys to preserving the animals in the lower 48 states.
“It’s an animal of the cold and snow,” she said. “Whatever the exact mechanics are that drives that, the loss of snow will have an effect on the population.”
Listing the wolverine
In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the wolverine for listing as a threatened and endangered species. The agency extended the comment deadline to gather more biological data after there seemed to be some disagreement between researchers.
Some scientists are concerned that as winters have shortened, habitat for the wolverines could disappear. The scientific disagreement seems to be whether snow is necessary for the animals to survive.
“The big question is what would listing do for wolverines?” said Rebecca Watters, director of the Mongolian Wolverine Project.
She hopes listing would prompt a greater discussion about how humans deal with wildlife and climate change, an issue that’s bound to be more pressing if the current trend of shorter, warmer winters continues.
What’s a wolverine
Wolverines are typically shy animals that live in remote, high-elevation terrain in North America, Europe and Asia. It’s believed that snow is important to their survival, since they den and give birth in places like avalanche chutes.
Wolverines are well adapted to such regions with large feet to keep them atop the snow as they travel and thick fur that insulates them against the cold. They are known to live 10 to 12 years in the wilds of North America, but the females don’t reproduce until age 3 and then only give birth every other year.
The big mustelids – a family of carnivores that includes minks, badgers and martens – measure about 2 to 3 feet long and weigh from about 24 to 40 pounds. Although they will feed on plants and berries, they mainly dine on meat and will kill smaller animals as well as ones larger than them, earning them their ferocious reputation. Wolverines also consume carrion, which may be where their scientific name – gulo gulo – from the Latin word for glutton, comes from.
Since the animals are elusive and live in remote country, they are difficult to study and estimates on their population are almost as evasive. It’s believed there are about 300 wolverines in the lower 48 states.
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