Greg: The wolverine is like the coolest animal on earth. They are the ultimate mountaineers, they are the ultimate back-country livers and they can go anywhere and do anything. And wolverines are from the weasel family, would be that same thing.
Mr. Treinish is leading a specialized trek in Montana’s rugged Helena National forest teaching people to look for evidence of these incredibly rare creatures. This one was photographed in captivity. Fewer than five hundred wolverines are believed to live in the lower 48 states. This weekend the crew is lucky to have found a set of fresh tracks in the snow to follow.
Greg: So we got a real clear grouping of four right here. So I’ve drawn some lines around it from the front of the front one to the back of the back one that’s gonna be the body length.
The trekkers on this expedition aren’t biologists or forest service employees. They’re volunteers who are donating a weekend of their time to Mr. Treinish group, “adventurers and scientists for conservation”.
Greg: We’re an organization that asks people who are outside everyday be the world’s greatest adventure athletes or your everyday hiker to collect scientific data while they’re out there.
Working with scientists through Mr. Treinish’s group, mountaineers have discovered the highest altitude plant life on Mount Everest. And a team of rowers will take samples of from the artic ocean this summer for marine researchers. The volunteers here in Montana are helping biologist Steve Gehman gather data on wolverines and lynx, which also use this area.
Gehman: We got a coyote here, lynx, wolverine. That’s what we’ve been trying to develop through this program is give them the tools that they need to go out And snow track and help them develop their own connection. Their own connection to nature and especially to these rare carnivores.
The volunteers are students, a building contractor and a teacher but they all share a love of the outdoors.
Parker: For sure when I go back to Highlight and go ice-climbing I’ll be looking for wolverine tracks because there are wolverines there.
Would you have been able to look for wolverines before this?
Parker: No, I would have had no idea, cause I’m not a biologist or anything so I don’t know anything about tracks really until I started doing this.
Gehman: It really takes a special kind of person to come out here in the winter and tromp around in the snow all day. First of all you have to know how to survive in the winter, secondly you need to be really physically strong. You can’t do just pull anyone off the street and expect them to help you out.
Rivers: They’re kind of mystical creatures to me. I mean, I’ve never seen one in the wild. I’ve spent a lot of time outside and I’ve never seen one, just the thought that they’re actually out there is pretty cool, pretty cool thing.
Researchers rarely see the animals in the field but hidden cameras have captured images and video of wolverine activities here. The largest members of the weasel family are renowned for their ability to eek out an existence from the rough rock and ice of the northern Rockies.
On today’s expedition there’s other evidence that the volunteer researchers are learning to spot and to collect, hair from rabbit holes. Places where the animals bedded down for the night. And then there’s scat.
Erika Nunlist: I love collecting scat. You wouldn’t have heard me say that when I had to do that for our dog around the house.
The scat and hair will be analyzed for DNA by the forest service. That data, along with the tracking notes, helps scientists better understand the habitat range of the wolverine.
We’re showing that wolverines might be a little more flexible adaptable and not necessarily just pidgin-holed to that pure wilderness type habitat. And one of my hopes is that that will translate to management that managers wills start to realize that they need to be paying attention to other types of habitat.
Despite its low population numbers, wolverines have not been added to the Federal endangered species list, in part because so little is known about them. Funding for research on the elusive animal remains scant, making trips like this and the efforts of educated volunteers all the more important, says Mr. Treinish.
Treinish: If anyone’s seen wolverine tracks out there, we need to know about it, we need to know where they are, we need to know about their habits.
Jennifer Christy: The knowledge I’ve learned I fully plan on tracking wolverines, I can’t wait for next weekend. You know, I have my plans, I’m thinking of a couple girlfriends, I’m going to get my own crew and my goal now is to actually see a wolverine. I mean, I am now obsessed.
Song: see that mile high crevice? Yeah climb up that. Takes me half an hour….