By Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director, Hilary Eisen

This past March I found myself, along with 4 friends, shouldering the heaviest pack I’ve carried in years and clicking into skis on the frozen Gunii Gol (Gun River), about to embark on a month-long expedition to survey for wildlife in northwest Mongolia. After years of planning and fundraising, and over a week of travel just to get to this starting point, we were anxious to start skiing. Our anxiety was heightened by a distinct lack of snow on the surrounding steppe. The Gunii would be our path to the (hopefully) much snowier highlands of the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area.

Our expedition was part of a rapidly-expanding partnership between the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and The Wolverine Foundation. The link connecting these entities is a Bozeman-based conservationist, Rebecca Watters. In 2013, she was part of a team (along with Winter Wildlands ambassadors Jim Harris and Forrest McCarthy) that conducted the first-ever winter wildlife survey in the mountains surrounding Mongolia’s Darhad Valley. Three years later, as we were hiking up Bozeman’s popular “M trail”, Rebecca mentioned she was interested in repeating and expanding upon the 2013 survey. I eagerly volunteered to help organize the expedition. We recruited 3 other athlete-biologist friends – Jen Higgins, Sarah Olson, and Dylan Taylor – and with a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and product support from Altai Skis, Katadyn Outdoors (Alpine Aire Food and SteriPEN), Caramel Cookie Waffles, LÄRABAR, Big Agnes, Duckworth, Skida, Titan Straps, and Fast Wax Ski Wax, the 2019 Darhad Ski Expedition became reality.

Here we are at our starting point with the Protected Areas’ staff and rangers who drove us there. Where’s the snow?!

Back in the early 2000’s, the discovery of significant amounts of gold and jade in the mountains surrounding the Darhad Valley kicked off a mining boom that threatened wildlife, fish, forests, and pristine waters. Concerned about the health of the forest and its wildlife, clean water, and the safety of their families, the local people of the Darhad petitioned the government to protect nature and prohibit mining in the region. After many twists and turns, Tengis Shishged National Park and Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area were finally established in 2012. Combined with the existing Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area, the total amount of protected land in the Darhad totals over 3.7 million acres, all of which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and is managed by a staff of just five professionals and 34 rangers. Our plan was to traverse Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, Tengis Shishged National Park, and a multi-use zone in-between Tengis Shishged and Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area.

The goal of our expedition was to provide scientific support to the Protected Areas managers and test for the viability of periodic long-range ski trips as a non-invasive monitoring technique in places where traditional wildlife research methods (colloquially known in the research community as “collar and foller”) are not an option. The 2013 Darhad expedition focused on wolverine tracking and collected dozens of scat samples for genetic analysis. We hoped to find and collect additional wolverine scat to analyze and compare with the 2013 samples in order to increase understanding of wolverine populations in the Darhad. We would also be surveying for other wildlife, assisting the Protected Areas’ Administration to develop a baseline understanding of wildlife species presence and distribution across the region.

Although our plan was to follow the GPS track recorded by the 2013 expedition for part of our route, nobody had ever traversed Ulaan Taiga on modern skis (the 2013 expedition traversed Tengis Shishged), so we relied on Google Earth to chart an approximate course that followed river valleys connected with mountain passes that appeared to be passable. When we got to Mongolia we shared our intended route (on Google Earth), with the Protected Areas’ director, Tumursukh Jal, who has spent a lifetime in the mountains surrounding the Darhad. He confirmed that it was doable, at least in the summer. No one knew for sure if it was possible in winter, with potentially dangerous snow conditions or uncrossable rivers. There was only one way to find out.

The Darhad, which is north of 50 degrees’ latitude, is notoriously cold, with the average temperature staying below zero from November through March. Frostbite, bitter cold, and super deep snow were among the challenges the 2013 expedition faced. Knowing this, and having tracked the temperatures in the region all winter, our packs were loaded with -20 degree sleeping bags, extra-puffy jackets, overboots for cold feet, and more. However, upon arriving in Mongolia we learned that it had been an unusually low snow winter in the Darhad, and we’d arrived at the start of an unseasonably warm spring. As we drove to our starting point on the edge of Ulaan Taiga, the landscape was overwhelmingly brown. Thankfully the rivers remained frozen and were holding snow – essential for wildlife tracking.

Backpacks loaded to the max! Jen Higgins photo.

Within minutes of clicking into our skis on the first day we came across wolverine tracks. When I first saw the tracks I thought to myself “naw…it can’t be” and then heard Rebecca exclaim “Gulo!” (Gulo gulo is the scientific name for wolverine). We followed the tracks upriver, carefully examining every willow or larch tree that might be hiding a scat. Snow tracking gives you a very different perspective on your surroundings than simply skiing. It’s an opportunity to view the world through another species’ perspective and to imagine what they’ve experienced along the same route. Before long, our wolverine had started following, or perhaps was being followed by, several wolves. Wolf tracks and wolverine tracks intertwined and wove in and out of willows in the braided river channel. We followed the tracks until the wolverine left the river and set off across the steppe where, because there was no snow, our tracking ended. We continued skiing upriver, searching for more tracks.

Following wolverine tracks. Jen Higgins photo.

We quickly settled into a rhythm – ski, eat, rest, repeat. Day after day. Our general pattern was to follow a river to its source, ascend a pass, ski down the next drainage until intersecting our next upstream river, and repeat. Wolverine and other wildlife tracks were numerous but the snow was, in a word, terrible. Although it became more abundant after we gained elevation on our first day, it never improved in quality. Sugar, facets, breakable crust, glop, ice – Mongolia’s cold and ultra-dry climate makes for difficult snow conditions. At lower elevations, we were restricted to river corridors as the frozen river was the only skiable surface and place where tracks were evident. Beyond the river we “skied” over rocks, willows, tussocks, mosses, and grass, or opted to put our skis on packs and walk.

Access to Mongolia’s Strictly Protected Areas is restricted to scientific purposes only and our expedition would not have been possible without permission, support, and guidance from the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration. The administrative staff in the town of Ulaan Uul and the Darhad rangers who met us at three separate points along our route to resupply us with food, fuel and fresh socks were as much a part of the expedition team as the five of us on skis. In planning the expedition, we knew our resupplies would be critical, but what we hadn’t anticipated was how enjoyable they would be. Each resupply was an opportunity to spend time with and, learn from, the Mongolians who are dedicated to protecting and caring for the mountains we were traveling through. Although none of the Mongolians we met in the Darhad speak English, and Dylan’s, Sarah’s, and my Mongolian is limited to “hello”, “thank you”, “goodbye” “wolverine” and – my favorite – a children’s rhyme where you chant “shade shade go away, come here sun!”, Jen and Rebecca both speak Mongolian. Rebecca, in particular, is fluent and graciously provided translation for everybody.

Sarah, Jen, Hilary, and Rebecca with Boldbaatar and Ganhuyag – the rangers (and their horses) who met us deep in the backcountry with our first resupply. Dylan Taylor photo.

Despite the language barrier, our experiences in a shared landscape, and our skis, provided connection. Skiing has a long history in the Darhad, especially among the Tsataan, nomadic reindeer herders who traditionally used skis to hunt during the winter, but it is a dying tradition. We had great fun helping our new Mongolian friends into our boots (well, mostly Dylan’s boots) and watching them try out our skis. One of the rangers who met us for our first resupply, Boldbaatar, was especially keen to ski. I pulled on my boots to join him, thinking I would be providing ski instruction, and he took off like a rocket! I hurried to catch up, and soon realized that what I thought was a ski lesson was actually a ski race! As it turns out, Boldbaatar had skied when he was in school! When we finally came to a stop, he laughed and said riding a horse was a much easier way to travel! Horse travel is limited by deep snow, however, and after observing how skis allowed us to travel deep into the mountains, and trying them out for themselves, all the rangers we met excitedly talked about how skis would help them in their work patrolling the backcountry.

Our skis (Altai Skis’ Koms) and traditional Mongolian skis made of spruce and horse hide. Sarah Olson photo.

On the 12th night of the expedition we camped on the banks of the Ikh Jams river. From this point forward we followed the same route (although in the opposite direction) as the 2013 expedition. It was a relief to know that others had skied, and ground-truthed, the route. Our first 12 days had included detours around surprise waterfalls, tiptoeing through avalanche terrain, and the general sense of adventure that comes from really not knowing what’s around the corner. The second half of our traverse was marked more by challenges with gloppy, or non-existent, snow than terrain or route-finding difficulties.

In planning this expedition, we aimed to hit the sweet spot between long days and adequate snow, so we started skiing right after spring equinox. Of course, we hadn’t planned on an unseasonably warm spring. As the days grew longer and temperatures continued to rise, it became more and more of a struggle to find skiable surfaces, much less wolverine tracks. Rivers were our main travel arteries both because they are generally the path of least resistance (ie. least willows) down a valley, and because frozen rivers provide a wonderfully skiable surface. Until they start to melt. Although the rivers rarely melted to the point of being impassable (except for short stretches), we encountered increasing amounts of slushly overflow, which built up in an aggravating layer of glop on the bottoms of our skis. We also had to be aware of deep pockets of water sandwiched between slush and the frozen river below, and occasionally had to quickly change course to avoid filling our boots with water. Towards the end of the expedition we often found ourselves walking in our ski boots up dry riverbeds, through willow-choked riparian areas, or across snow-free meadows, but we generally managed to find another section of snow or ice without having to walk too far.

Hilary Eisen photo

We had our doubts about whether the snow would hold out. Our last few days of skiing were a bit contrived as we hopscotched our way along from one skiable surface to the next, but we made it to our final destination at Jiglig Pass, a major nomadic migration route connecting the Darhad Valley to Khövsgöl lake. Twenty-nine days and 340 miles after first shouldering our packs on the Gunii, we had completed a human-powered winter traverse through some of the most remote country on earth. By the time we took our boots off for the last time, we’d documented 45 sets of wolverine tracks, collected over a dozen scat samples, and filled 12 pages of data sheets with track locations of other wildlife species including moose, wolf, elk, boar, roe deer, sable, lynx, and marten. We did not find any sign of snow leopard.

Throughout our time in the Darhad everybody we talked with mentioned that spring was a month ahead of schedule – the rivers were breaking up early and the snow was melting faster than they’d seen before. While the early spring was a bit of a headache for our ski expedition, it’s indicative of a much larger concern. Climate change is dramatically impacting Mongolia. While the effects climate change is having on Mongolia’s human population are of grave concern, less is known about how it’s impacting the country’s wildlife.

Wolverines are closely linked with persistent spring snow cover and scientists are concerned about the species’ ability to persist in a warming, less snowy, world. Government designations have protected this unique place from mining and development, but boundaries and designations won’t stop climate change and its impacts on species across the globe. The Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration staff are incredibly dedicated to protecting their unique corner of the world for future generations. This expedition was one small contribution to their efforts and to advancing wildlife conservation in Mongolia. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this larger effort to address climate change and the impacts it has on our wild snowscapes.

Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the extent of a journey when you’re in the middle of it. When we were skiing we were often just focused on our goal for the day, the number of hours since our last snack break, or the wolverine tracks we were following. Up one river and down the next, trudging through deep snow, and effortlessly gliding down river ice, we kept moving forward. After days of moving, it was anticlimactic when we took of our ski boots at the end to wait on the side of a road for our ride back to the Protected Areas’ headquarters in Ulaan Uul. But, when we were driving through the Darhad Valley the following morning we saw the vast panorama of mountains we had just traversed for the first time. Our jaws dropped open as we piled out of the van to take in the view. Suddenly we had some perspective on where we’d been and how far we’d traveled over the past month, as well as the enormity of the challenge faced by the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration to care for and manage such a vast landscape.

Wolf tracks on ice. Jen Higgins photo.

Flikr photo by Michiel van Nimwegen

Skiers, snowmobilers, conservationists and other winter recreation stakeholders come together to help protect and find ways to co-exist with the iconic mountain carnivore

Known for its ability to cover distance quicker than a Nordie with perfectly waxed skis, and to cruise up and over mountains faster than the gnarliest ski-mo racer, the wolverine is among the most iconic of winter wildlife species. Skiers, snowmobilers, and others who love spending time in snowy places feel a special affinity with and appreciation for wolverines. Like wolverines, we’re snow-dependent critters who are facing a serious threat because of climate change. Unlike wolverines, we can handle a crowd — even if we’d prefer not to.

Winter recreation stakeholders and conservationists working together to find common ground and develop recommendations for the Forest Service.

Winter Wildlands Alliance has been working with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies to reach out to the backcountry Snowsports community with information about wolverines, how our activities impact the species, and how we might mitigate that impact.

Unfortunately for all concerned, new research shows that backcountry winter recreation — snowmobiling and backcountry skiing alike — impacts wolverines. With help from skiers and snowmobilers using GPS units to track their own movement in the backcountry, scientists discovered that wolverines strongly avoid areas with lots of human activity, whether we’re snowmobiling, skiing, or just tromping through the woods on snowshoes.

Wolverines may use areas adjacent to popular winter recreation areas, and they may pass through areas with heavy recreation pressure, but they’re not sticking around in places where there are lots of people. In short, wolverines don’t den, rest, or eat in places that get a lot of backcountry ski or snowmobile use — even if those places are part of a larger wolverine home range. This is called “functional habitat loss,” and it poses a real concern for wolverine survival.

Wolverine and ski tracks, Moose Basin, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Forrest McCarthy

The conservation concern here is two-fold. First, wildlife biology 101 tells us that an animal’s home range is the minimum amount of space that an individual requires to live and reproduce. If backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are effectively eliminating portions of a wolverine’s home range, it’s likely we’re having a negative effect on that wolverine’s ability to make a living and reproduce. And since wolverines are pretty rare, impacts to even a few individuals could have population-level impacts.

Second, because of climate change, there are (and will continue to be) fewer and fewer places for all of us — skiers, snowmobilers, and wolverines — to find snow. Pair this loss of snow with a growing interest in backcountry snowsports and new tools and toys that help us travel deeper into the backcountry than ever before, and wolverines may have a tough time finding snowy places that aren’t overly impacted by humans.

The good news is that with some self-imposed restraint we — the backcountry snowsports community — can help reduce our impact on these tough but vulnerable animals, without greatly impacting our own opportunities for fun and exploration in winter.

We’re all familiar with the concept of suburban sprawl. Now think about your favorite backcountry area and how recreation use can sprawl across the landscape as people seek out the next untracked peak or meadow. By limiting that sprawl, we can limit the functional habitat loss that wolverines are experiencing.

As tempting as it is to explore deeper and further into the backcountry, by sticking within established and agreed-upon recreation areas when skiing and snowmobiling in wolverine habitat, you can help reduce your personal impact on the species. And, if we all limit our personal impact, together we can make a big difference in wolverine survival.

For more information, check out the following brochure that we recently produced in partnership with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies.

Wolverine Final Brochure

SnowBall Ladies and Gentlemen in ski flare costume danced the night away to the music of Woodbelly (in Boulder CO) and Curtis/Sutton and the Scavengers (Boise ID).

As part of our annual SnowSchool Support Week WWA threw two SnowBall benefit concerts in Boulder CO and Boise ID in Feburary.  These winter themed galas included bluegrass music, dancing, libations, ski-flare costumes, Arctic Theater Royale, and many awesome raffle/auction items!  Not only did these fundraisers support our work of getting thousands of underserved kids across the country outside on public lands in the winter, but they also served as a gathering place for hundreds of supporters to hear testimonials from SnowSchool participants and volunteers.  At time when the future of public lands, science, education and winter itself are threatened, it was both energizing and affirming to witness broad community support for the SnowSchool program. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to all of the attendees, sponsors, volunteers and SnowSchool supporters (including SnowBall inventor Hal Hallstein) who made these events possible, we are already looking forward to next year!

Funds raised through the 2018 SnowBall events will be used to:

  • Reach thousands of underserved students through SnowSchool.

    Snow scientists HP Marshall and Charlie Luce talk shop at the Boise SnowBall

    We believe that all kids should have the opportunity to experience our nation’s public wildlands. Working with local schools and SnowSchool sites across the country we work hard to bring this experience to the kids who need it the most.

  • Establish new SnowSchool sites: We work with non-profits, the US Forest Service and other local organizations to bring our proven program to new communities across the country. Since establishing the program in 2005 we’ve added 3-6 new SnowSchool sites every winter!
  • Enhance kids’ SnowSchool experience: We improve SnowSchool every winter by designing new learning experiences for diverse students. WWA’s new web-based Snowpack Prediction Contest connects students and teachers with local mountain weather/snowpack stations once they are back in their classroom. The result of this activity expands learning at SnowSchool from a 1-day outing into a 4-month snow and climate science exploration!

-Kerry McClay, National SnowSchool Director

To learn more about SnowSchool visit www.snowschool.org

 

Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for backcountry skiers, splitboarders or cross-country skiers to help collect data for an important trailhead snowdepth study to inform upcoming winter recreation planning on public lands in the Sierra Nevada.

Snow depth measurements recorded by citizen science volunteers can be integrated into snowpack models to improve the accuracy of the models and to better evaluate how snow is distributed on the mountain landscape. When these measurements are collected at trailheads used for winter recreation activities over time, we can develop a relationship between long-term measurements observed at remote weather and snowpack stations (such as SNOTELs) and conditions at the trailhead. These relationships can help inform whether a trailhead can be opened for snowmobile use in order to prevent damages to the underlying soil and vegetation. Reducing the likelihood of such damage will greatly aid maintaining access to winter recreation opportunities.

In the Sierra Nevada of California and Nevada, we are particularly interested in the timing of sufficient snow depth for winter recreation and how this varies by elevation and location. A major goal is to evaluate how sufficient snow depth timing has varied historically and how this may change in the future. In the last 10 years, we have observed a rise in winter snow levels during storms.

This implies that lower elevation trailheads are seeing an increase in rain and decrease in snow, which means we have to wait longer for enough snow to accumulate to recreate in these places and that our window of time to enjoy places accessed from these trailheads is getting smaller. Developing relationships between trailhead snow depths and remote snow sensors will help us identify trailheads that are most resilient to continued changes in the mountain environment and assess how these changes may play out in the future.

By incorporating field snow depth observations from citizen scientists into snow models, all groups interested in mountain recreation and science will benefit. This information will improve our capabilities to accurately simulate snow cover and snow depth in the mountains. It will also enhance the quality of daily avalanche forecasts during big storms and runoff predictions (think flooding) during storms with high snow levels.

Ongoing work by researchers near Valdez, Alaska has shown very encouraging results. We hope to apply similar techniques throughout the Sierra Nevada during the winters of 2017/18 and 2018/19. Your contributions of snow depth measurements from along your ski tour or when you are staging your snowmobile will be instrumental in helping this project succeed.

Interested? The Community Snow Observations group has put together this tutorial on how to record your depth measurements using the MountainHub App. Also, if you sign up below we will be in touch with information about training opportunities and other project updates.

Sign up here to volunteer!