Skiing Biologists Go to Extremes
BY EVELYN BOSWELL
A team of wildlife biologists are now skiing 400 miles through northern Mongolia, searching for signs of wolverines in the rugged, frigid mountains of the Darhad region.
Headed by MSU graduate Gregg Treinish and featured on National Geographic’s education website, the researchers left Bozeman March 19. Four of the five team members will fly home May 3.
During their time in Mongolia, the biologists hope to find wolverine DNA that they can add to an existing database, refine what little information is known about wolverine distribution, and look for places to set up wildlife cameras in the future, under the direction of a longer-term wolverine research project affiliated with the MSU BioRegions program.
In the course of the expedition, which the public can follow online, the researchers could encounter blizzards, extreme cold, herders, hunters and an assortment of wildlife that might include wild reindeer, wild boars and Siberian musk deer. What they really want to do is find wolverine tracks and collect hair, scat and urine for DNA analysis.
“We know that a population of wolverines exists in the Darhad region, but understanding the population dynamics, human threat levels, and the ecology of the species in this region will be critical as wolverines begin to feel the effects of climate change due to diminishing suitable habitat,” the collaborators wrote in a project summary.
“The Darhad region of Mongolia represents one of the world’s most unknown regions when it comes to wildlife species,” they added. “Although wolverine research has been conducted in the region for the past four years, a lot remains to be learned, and the country is a particularly challenging place to work on an elusive species.”
Mongolia is a ferocious country, according to team member Rebecca Watters who considers it her second home. A research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson, Wyo., and a research coordinator with MSU’s BioRegions program, Watters has worked in Mongolia since 2000 and run a wolverine research program there since 2009.
“The climate is extreme, the infrastructure is relatively undeveloped, and it takes 100 percent sheer willpower to push yourself forward on a day-to-day basis,” Watters said. “During my previous research expeditions in these mountains, we’ve run into blizzards, and that was in July and August, so I’m sure that the physical challenges will be huge.”
Mongolian temperatures in late spring will be so cold that the team might as well be skiing in Fairbanks, Alaska during the winter, added Cliff Montagne, the MSU soil scientist who directs BioRegions. Montagne has traveled to Mongolia 16 times – usually with students—since the mid-1990s.
An additional challenge will be interacting with hunters and herders who are familiar with the area, but may or may not offer reliable information about wolverines.
“Local people often tend to answer in ways which they believe will please the questioners,” Montagne said.
He added that Watters will be a key resource for the expedition because she speaks the language well and knows the culture.
Watters said, “The rules of Mongolian hospitality dictate that one should always try to please one’s guest, so when I asked my Mongolian friends, at the start of my project in 2009, how I should interview herders and hunters, they cautioned me not to ask directly about wolverines, because people would want me to feel welcome and would give me information that might not be true.”
As a result, she devised an interview technique that first had Mongolians identify wildlife photos, then answer more targeted questions. Now, after four years working in the Darhad region, Watters said she feels her method is working.
“The wildlife knowledge of herders and hunters in Mongolia is very deep,” Watters said. “I trust their understanding of what’s out there to a much greater degree than I did when I started this work, and I also have a sense of when to be more skeptical of what they’re saying.”
Jamie Cornish, an MSU education specialist, noted that Treinish was National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2009, and that the Mongolian expedition will be featured on the National Geographic’s education website.
Thousands of students across Montana and the nation are expected to follow the expedition online, Cornish said. Treinish and his team hope to post at least one new photo a day during the journey.
Treinish is founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a non-profit organization based in Bozeman. His research adventures have been featured in the New York Times, Popular Science, Wired, and on NPR. Among other things, he has traveled to five continents, hiked the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail and completed the first-ever trek of the Andes Mountain Range, which took more than 22 months and covered 7,800 miles.
—MSU News Service