Wolverine photo courtesy Wolverine Foundation
MOUNTAIN JOURNAL INTERVIEWS ENVIRONMENTAL ANTHROPOLOGIST REBECCA WATTERS ON EFFORTS TO SAVE WOLVERINES HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD
MAY 13, 2019, Mountain Journal
Often when Rebecca Watters isn’t following carnivore tracks on the other side of the world, she’s sharing her insights about wolverines and the backcountry they inhabit as a columnist (Nature Without Borders) for Mountain Journal. Watters, executive director of the Wolverine Foundation, is part of the next bold generation of conservation-minded advocates and scientists. They’re not only concerned about the effects of climate change on rare species that need a lot of habitat, but she, as an environmental anthropologist, is helping to evolve the thinking surrounding human-wildlife co-existence.
Not since Watters agreed to pen her first column in 2017 has Mountain Journal been able to conduct a lengthy interview with her. Over the last few years, she’s been busy on a number of field expeditions to Mongolia where she’s been working alongside Mongolian scientists and rural people. In June, she’ll return to Asia again, through a partnership with Round River Conservation Studies, that is building cross-cultural relationships between young North Americans and their counterparts in other countries.
MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: Tell us about your current work, its purpose, where, with whom, and what you’re finding.
REBECCA WATTERS: I work in the Darhad Valley region of northern Mongolia. It’s a vast, isolated valley, completely surrounded by mountains and taiga. There’s steppe with its wildlife and with the classic Mongolian herding culture on the valley floor, and then the mountains, with mountain wildlife and with reindeer herding and unique hunting and gathering traditions. Siberia meets Central Asia here, and it’s an ecologically and culturally fascinating place.
I first came up to this region in 2010, because it’s the largest modeled area of wolverine habitat in Mongolia. I wanted to see what it was like, and talk to people about whether they were seeing wolverines, whether wolverines were culturally significant, whether wolverines were a problem for livestock, whether the communities would be interested in collaborating on a longer-term project for monitoring climate-sensitive wildlife and ecosystem processes.
Watters, bundled before heading out into frigid conditions tracking animals via skis.
Mountain Journal: And what have you found?
Watters: In 2012, in the midst of a gold rush that was devastating the taiga and causing all kinds of social problems, the region’s four small towns petitioned Mongolia’s parliament to place a huge swath of the mountains under protection. So now there are three protected areas, under a single office, the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration. The protected areas are now my main partner for all research activities. In response to their needs and interests, we’ve developed a much more comprehensive set of research objectives than just wolverines, including raptor monitoring, looking at pika sensitivity to climate change, camera-based occupancy modeling for a number of species, assessing butterfly and small mammal diversity, and tracking harvest rates for rare medicinal plants. But wolverines remain my major personal obsession.
Mountain Journal: How did it begin?
Watters: Back in 2013, I organized an expedition to ski through the mountains to track wolverines and to see if we could develop non-invasive genetic methods for population assessment. It was a big success, and we were able to identify individual wolverines and get some idea of their territories without ever having to bother the animals. I was struck by how easy it was to find tracks out there. There is apparently a pretty robust population of wolverines in this area.
This year, we replicated and expanded that ski transect to see if we could use this method for longer-term monitoring. I wanted to see if the same wolverines were still there, if the detection rates were comparable this year, and whether we could get additional samples from a few ranges that we hadn’t skied in 2013. We were also looking at the distribution of other species, such as lynx, wolves, sable, elk, musk deer and moose for the parks. Four of our five ski team members were from Bozeman. The Yellowstone-to-Mongolia connection was strong.
Mountain Journal: Have things changed much?
Watters: This year’s transect had similar detection rates for tracks, but a far lower sample collection rate. The expedition was fun but the snow was terrible for the longer-range tracking that you need to find scat samples for analysis. So now we know that, fun as it may be to ski around for a month in spectacular wild country, your results are really going to depend on the snow conditions. The fact that we were consistently detecting the same levels of activity this year as in 2013, for wolverines and for other species, was striking, though. We’d go days with no lynx tracks, and then suddenly, within a kilometer of where we detected lynx in 2013, we’d pick up lynx tracks. In a place where we found multiple intersecting sets of wolverine tracks in 2013, we’d find the same thing again this year.
Mountain Journal: You’re at the center of a very talented group of researchers in the northern Rockies who are part of “the wolverine community.” How does Mongolia compare to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
Watters: Ecologically, it feels very similar in many ways, although there are a number of species—boar, snow leopards, musk deer— that are present in the Darhad and absent here in the GYE. And vice versa – no bison or mountain lions or bobcats or coyotes over there. I think the wolverine population over there is healthier than in the GYE, but I don’t have quantified evidence of this beyond the fact that they are so easy to detect and they show up on a huge proportion of the cameras in our multi-species occupancy grid. But in any case, most people who travel from the GYE to Mongolia are quick to say how similar the two ecosystems are.
We have a lot of values in common with Mongolians, too. It’s a very egalitarian culture. De facto, it’s pretty democratic, although as in the US, there are sometimes struggles to make democracy and egalitarian values work on the political level.
Read full interview here.