Couple enlists citizens in wildlife mapping effort

By REBECCA MARSTON/Montana State News

Sporting an oversized beard and worn-in outdoor clothing, Steve Gehman looks like the iconic Montana mountain man – someone who could start a fire with sticks or catch a fish with his bare hands. However, this Pennsylvania-born college graduate came to the western wilderness to pursue biology, specifically, wildlife tracking.

“There’s a feeling here when you’re in the backcountry, that you don’t get in other places – places that don’t have grizzly bears, or don’t have wolverines, or don’t have wolves,” Gehman said. “That wildness I’ve really connected with and value as a part of my experiences here.”

For the past two decades, Gehman and his wife, Betsy Robinson, have been studying elusive carnivorous species in the Northern Rockies, primarily wolverines, lynx and fishers.

“I’ve always loved wildlife, and being able to both study it and share it with people is a combination I really enjoy,” Gehman said, sipping coffee out of a sturdy travel mug.

During their work in the Northern Rockies, Gehman and Robinson realized that the Forest Service – which manages the majority of national wilderness areas in the state – lacks the resources to invest in certain types of research. No methods existed to track and study the rare predators that roam the region. This spurred the pair to found their non-profit organization Wild Things Unlimited.

“We decided to give it a try, with a lot of help from friends we got the legal part of it done and the paperwork part of it and we were on our way,” Gehman said.

While finding cost-effective ways to conduct their research with Wild Things Unlimited, the husband-and-wife team adopted only methods that fit their philosophy of handling animals non-invasively, minimizing intrusion into the lives of the wildlife they study.

“Just the act of capturing the animal is extremely traumatic, as you can imagine. They’re basically fighting for their life every time you chase them down or put them in a trap, and injuries occur,” Gehman said.

Instead of capturing animals and fitting them with radio collars, Gehman and Robinson instead rely on their own tracking prowess in the field. Once they discover an interesting set of prints they follow them, hoping to find an abandoned feed site, bedding or scat.

“As technology has come along there’s great new methods, like DNA sampling. Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t even possible, but now if we can collect hairs and scats we can identify individuals,” Gehman said.

The pair made the unprecedented discovery that wolverines – once thought to be strictly solitary animals – sometimes travel together. Distinguishing individual wolverines from one another is essential to count how many of them are living in the same area and to observe if they interact with one another.

That’s where the technology comes in. In addition to DNA sampling, Gehman and Robinson use the latest GPS software to watch how and where these mysterious animals move. This also enables them to avoid the use of expensive radio collars and tedious airplane surveillance.

Last year, Gehman encouraged the public to join him and his colleagues on guided hikes to learn more about wildlife tracking and the conservation of animals in the Northern Rockies. The event was a success, and was later dubbed “citizen science.”

“It wasn’t really our initiative, but we got pulled into it willingly and have since embraced it,” Gehman said. “For me, it’s about helping people connect with nature, make their own connections and helping them to move along their personal journeys of discovery, more than anything else. But it’s also a potential to help with data collection, and that part of it has come a little bit slower over time.”

Gehman said that citizen science helps to enhance public appreciation of public lands and is also a great tool for crowdsourcing data collection in the wild that assists in the conservation of wolverines and other similar animals.

By alerting Gehman and his colleagues to locations of the animals over time, citizen science members help to map out the state of forest ecosystems. With more trained eyes on the ground, Gehman said he has a better idea of what animals are out there and how many, which factors into important environmental policy decisions for the state.

“That’s something I really like to stress to people right here in Bozeman: the fact that we have these animals right here in our backyards. I try to get people to realize that that’s really unique and really special, and we need to take some responsibility and try to make sure that they persist through time,” Gehman said.

When he isn’t busy tracking lynx or wolverines, Gehman still can be found outdoors hiking, backcountry skiing, canoeing with his dogs and taking advantage of everything vast Montana wilderness has to offer.

 – Edited by Kaylee Walden

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