By Evelyn Boswell MSU News Service
BOZEMAN – A team of wildlife biologists will soon ski 400 miles through northern Mongolia, searching for signs of wolverines in the rugged, frigid mountains of the Darhad region.
Headed by Gregg Treinish, founder of the Bozeman-based nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, the researchers left Bozeman on March 19 and plan to start skiing on March 26.
The biologists hope to find wolverine tracks and collect hair, scat and urine for DNA analysis, helping refine what little is known about the animals’ distribution. They also plan to scout places to set up wildlife cameras in the future, under the direction of a longer-term wolverine research project affiliated with MSU’s BioRegions program.
“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 expedition may also encounter wild reindeer, wild boars and Siberian musk deer.
“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,” said team member Rebecca Watters, who considers Mongolia her second home. A researcher with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson, Wyo., and ecological research coordinator with the BioRegions program, Watters has worked in Mongolia since 2000 and run a wolverine research program there since 2009.
Another challenge will be interacting with hunters and herders familiar with the area that may not offer reliable information about wolverines.
“The rules of Mongolian hospitality dictate that one should always try to please one’s guest,” said Watters, who speaks the language well and knows the culture.
At the start of her project in 2009, Watters asked Mongolian friends how she should interview herders and hunters. They cautioned her not to ask directly about wolverines, “because people would want me to feel welcome and would give me information that might not be true.”
She devised an interview technique that first had Mongolians identify wildlife photos, and then answer more targeted questions.
The team hopes to post at least one new photo online each day during the journey, and thousands of students across Montana and the nation are expected to follow the expedition online.
Treinish, who graduated from MSU in 2009 with a biology degree, funded the expedition through a grant from National Geographic. Honored in 2008 as one of the society’s Adventurers of the Year, his research adventures have been featured in the New York Times, Popular Science, Wired and NPR. He has traveled to five continents, hiked the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail and trekked the length of the Andes, which took more than 22 months and covered 7,800 miles.
To follow the Mongolian expedition, visit mongoliaexpedition.com.