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Searching for Wolverines by Running Through the Woods

A citizen science project in Utah is engaging the adventure sport community in conservation.

Watch ultrarunners help scientists track elusive wolverines.

Wolverines are notoriously elusive and ill-tempered, so they aren't easy to count and study. But after one was photographed in the rugged Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah last year, the U.S. Forest Service decided to launch a search for more.

Funding was limited, so the agency teamed up with a nonprofit to enlist volunteer citizen scientists to set and check camera traps high in the mountains. The Bozeman, Montana-based group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) recruited 30 volunteers for the tough task, which involved running or hiking loops of roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) in the wilderness over six weekends.

Trained by scientists and ASC staff, the volunteers set out camera traps at 34 stations, starting in May and monitoring them through September. Each time they visited, they changed memory cards and batteries and freshened the bait.

The volunteers were recruited from the trail running community and included several professional ultrarunners, who run very long distances. Most hailed from the Salt Lake City area, which is a few hours from the study sites.

The project was funded by ASC and a matching grant from the National Forest Foundation. ASC was founded in 2011 by Gregg Treinish, who is also a National Geographic explorer. The group's mission is engaging outdoor and adventure enthusiasts in citizen science projects that provide social and environmental benefits.

We spoke with Mike Kautz, who oversees the Utah wolverine project as a program director with ASC. 

Why did you need ultrarunners?                   

After the wolverine was spotted in the area last year, the Forest Service was interested in trying to find out how many there are. Camera trapping is a great model for this kind of science, because wolverines are really solitary and live in remote places. So the cameras needed to be set deep into wilderness areas. We thought ultrarunners would be able to cover the distances needed better than, say, day hikers.    

What kind of bait did you use?

We set out three types of nonfood rewards to attract wolverines. We used a tuna can that is cracked open, but not enough so animals can get any food out of it. They can only smell it. We also used a piece of carpet that is sprayed with perfume—which has been shown to attract animals—and a hollowed out beef bone that is coated with skunk scent, since wolverines consider dead skunks a prey item.

What did the camera traps reveal?

We collected over 3,000 nights worth of footage from the cameras. We did not get any photos of wolverines or of the Canada lynx, which the Forest Service was also interested in. We think that shows how elusive these animals are. We also got useful baseline information that could be compared against future studies, to see how things change.

We also got tons of footage of other species, like mountain lions, black bears, and elk. The abundance of wildlife was fascinating.                                                                                                             

Learn more about adventure and conservation.

Do you think this project could be replicated elsewhere?

Absolutely! At first, we wondered if people would be willing to put in such long days over weekends, over a number of months. But we had a great response. It shows that there is a lot of interest on the part of outdoors people to give back. 

People enjoyed being outside, connecting to their public land, and observing the changes on the land over the course of the project, as the seasons changed. 

This interview has been edited.

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