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. But Wilmot’s pup was sounding the alarm about a curious wolverine that had wandered over to investigate the campers along the talus slope.
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 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.”
This single meeting with the largest member of the weasel family launched Watters into a new obsession. Since she was a child growing up near Boston, she’d been fascinated by wild animals and wild places.
“When I was 3, I became obscenely obsessed with whales,” she confessed.
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.
“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.
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 sightings of wolverines, 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.
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.
“But they were, in a way, my mountains,” she wrote in her blog. “I’d traveled around in them in bits and pieces over the course of 12 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 Dharhad, too.
“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.”
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.
The trip crossed into the recently protected Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area and Tengis Shishged National Park. The regions were set aside as the country tries to offset 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.
This year, 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. 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.