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Gulo Gulo! What The American West Can Learn From Wolverine Conservation In Mongolia

Mountain Journal interviews environmental anthropologist Rebecca Watters on efforts to save wolverines halfway around the world

"Wolverine in Taiga," a painting by Robin Murray.  To see more of his amazing wildlife art, go to www.robinmurrayartist.com
"Wolverine in Taiga," a painting by Robin Murray. To see more of his amazing wildlife art, go to www.robinmurrayartist.com
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. 

Watters—we would be remiss if not mentioning—has become a role model for young women who are interested in pursuing careers in the natural sciences.  During her sojourn back in the northern Rockies, which included hosting government officials on a wildlife-watching trip through Greater Yellowstone, we caught up with her.  The interview begins below.  —Mountain Journal editors   
Expedition members, including volunteers from Bozeman, ski into the high treeless steppe of Mongolia hoping to cut fresh wolverine tracks. Occasionally, in the taiga, they may also cross paths with the paw prints of lynx or even a wolf or elusive snow leopard.  Photo courtesy Hilary Eisen of Bozeman
Expedition members, including volunteers from Bozeman, ski into the high treeless steppe of Mongolia hoping to cut fresh wolverine tracks. Occasionally, in the taiga, they may also cross paths with the paw prints of lynx or even a wolf or elusive snow leopard. Photo courtesy Hilary Eisen of Bozeman
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.
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. 
Wolverine photo courtesy Wolverine Foundation
Wolverine photo courtesy Wolverine Foundation
Mountain Journal: Wolverines and lynx aren’t predators of large livestock but there are other large carnivores in Mongolia.  What are the attitudes like? 

Watters: Livestock herding is a huge part of life for most Mongolians, and is seen as the foundation of culture and society. But here’s where there is a bit of divergence, because environmental values and respect for wildlife are strongest in rural areas and among herders. Nature is not seen as something separate from, let alone opposed to, human society and interests. Mongolia has been a crossroads of culture and civilizations for centuries, but amidst all of those influences, the foundations of their own civilization have been shamanic and animistic. So the mountains are your neighbors and hosts, elk and moose are the mountains’ livestock, wolves are the mountains’ dogs, and you have social relationships with these entities in the same way you do with other people. 

That said, in the same way you have conflicts with other people, and with their poorly-trained dogs, or in the same way some people treat other people badly, sometimes you have conflicts with wolves, sometimes you exploit resources in ways that are probably unsustainable. And while by law 70 percent of the local population had to sign the petition to Parliament to create the parks, there is local opposition to the protected areas as well, particularly by people who were benefitting from the gold rush. So that conflict feels very familiar. 
"Americans, especially in the GYE, can be pretty colloquial in their ideas of what environmentalism is. We assume that our issues are universal, that conflict is inevitable and that there is no alternative to that conflict. To have come of age as an environmentalist and as a scientist in a place where there is an entirely different set of assumptions is probably one of the most powerful gifts I’ve received in my life. It offers the ability to imagine relationships in a totally different way." —Rebecca Watters
Mountain Journal: Wildlife populations in Greater Yellowstone are most robust and secure where there isn’t a lot of people. What’s your perspective on remoteness from major population centers in Mongolia?

Watters: In terms of development, there are no paved roads up to the Darhad, the region sees only about 1000 tourists per year, and there are only about 20,000 people living there. There is very limited private land ownership in Mongolia, and pasture is protected as public land in the Mongolian constitution. Public land is an important value, there’s little conflict over that. But I’ve seen other places in Mongolia blow up in terms of building out and becoming tourist traps, so this is something that needs to be planned for very carefully. 
Watters outside a Mongolian ger almost 20 years ago. Photo courtesy Rebecca Watters
Watters outside a Mongolian ger almost 20 years ago. Photo courtesy Rebecca Watters
Mountain Journal:  How does being in northern Asia inform your perspective on conservation in the US?

Watters: I first came to Mongolia as a Peace Corps environment volunteer back in 2000. My training was in anthropology. Mongolia made me into a conservationist/environmental anthropologist. So I came into the conservation world over there, not in the US. 

There’s a huge value in having spent time in a place where some of the GYE’s biggest environmental flashpoints— public land, carnivores, livestock husbandry – are non-issues. These things have value over there, and you don’t need to argue about it. Everyone in Mongolia accepts that climate change is real. They laugh at us for being ignorant enough to argue about it. 

Americans, especially in the GYE, can be pretty colloquial in their ideas of what environmentalism is. We assume that our issues are universal, that conflict is inevitable and that there is no alternative to that conflict. To have come of age as an environmentalist and as a scientist in a place where there is an entirely different set of assumptions is probably one of the most powerful gifts I’ve received in my life. It offers the ability to imagine relationships in a totally different way. If you can’t imagine something, you can’t create it, and I think that’s a big problem for Americans as we try to tackle a number of pretty complicated problems, including our environmental future. 
"Our own definitions of conservation come out of our colonizing history and we should be aware of the fact that that’s only one way to look at things. The perceived opposition between humans and nature, between profit and protection, is contextual."  —Watters
Mountain Journal: Is there a difference in thinking about conservation among locals there and what you’ve found back in the States? What do you think MoJo readers absolutely, positively need to know?

Watters:  I’ve addressed a lot of this, but I think there are two other points to be made. First, people’s perspectives on conservation are different when they come from a place where they never did the stupid things that European colonizers did to North America. We committed genocide against indigenous cultures, ignoring anything those cultures had to say about how to relate to the land. 

We wiped out almost all of the native wildlife, destroyed entire ecosystems, and polluted the place pretty badly. That creates a sense of urgency around certain issues, because we know what extinction or near-extinction means, we know what it’s like to have waterways that are too toxic to drink from or fish in, and so on. Whereas in Mongolia, that history isn’t there, and you don’t have groups of people who see conservation standing in the way of their profits, on the one hand, or who see it as some kind of duty to protect a purportedly fragile “nature” on the other. 

Mountain Journal: Please riff a little more on that.

Watters: Our own definitions of conservation come out of our colonizing history and we should be aware of the fact that that’s only one way to look at things. The perceived opposition between humans and nature, between profit and protection, is contextual.
A young Mongolian goat herder tends to the flock of goats. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project (www.vcproject.org)
A young Mongolian goat herder tends to the flock of goats. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project (www.vcproject.org)
Mountain Journal: What other advantages does indigeneity bring in terms of an age-old culture that still maintains its unbroken connection?

Watters: Broadly speaking, Mongolians embrace a set of values that support conservation holistically. The idea of reciprocity exists between humans and the natural world, but it also exists between human neighbors. Looking out for others is important. Education is highly valued. Healthcare is seen as a right. Caring about the well-being of children and elders is intrinsic to society. Women and men are on par in terms of education and participation in business and leadership. All of these things support a sense of value and care and participation in all aspects of life and society, for everyone. Here in the US, you often hear people rank environmental concerns below concerns for people, and it’s frustrating that we have to think about it like that, hierarchically, instead of seeing these things as interconnected. We need an overarching ethic of care and responsibility and reciprocity. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can help support Rebecca Watters' conservation efforts on behalf of wolverines in North America and Asia by clicking on this link and making a contribution to The Wolverine Foundation. For more on wolverines, watch this short video, below.

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