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A husband-and-wife team in Montana studies the elusive wolverine

Steve Gehman and Betsy Robinson brave frostbite, avalanches, and bears to track the imperiled animal in the northern Rockies.

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2008

On the trail: Betsy Robinson and Steve Gehman are two of the foremost researchers on the wolverine.

Jeff Copeland/The Missoulian/AP

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Bozeman, Mont.

Betsy Robinson and her husband, Steve Gehman, hunch over a zagging line of paw prints. On this bracing morning in the northern Rockies, the couple raced at first light to the end of a dirt road near Bozeman, Mont., strapped on snowshoes, and went sleuthing for a set of animal tracks supposedly spotted by a cross-country skier the day before.

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Now windblown and contorted, the prints twist though a clot of underbrush and ascend up a steep slope. The identity of the animal is difficult to discern from the tracks. Huffing for miles in pursuit, Ms. Robinson and Mr. Gehman finally conclude they were not blazed by a wolverine – their desired suspect – but by a wandering mountain lion. “There are worse ways of being disappointed,” Gehman says, flashing a smile. “Trailing a cougar instead of a wolverine is still a pretty good reason to get outdoors.”

As two of the nation’s foremost independent researchers on one of the animal kingdom’s most elusive creatures, Robinson and Gehman often spend days like this – making a quick expedition into the woods to check out tips that end up either being real or fanciful.

Their method of research is old-fashioned. No radio collars. No tracking the animals from the air. The duo simply do it with boot leather and remote-camera clicks. It is certainly not your typical cubicle job. In their quest to study the wolverine, the pair has dodged avalanches, camped out in 30-degrees-below-zero weather, been surrounded at night by grizzlies and wolves, and gotten lost in whiteout conditions.

Through it all, they have helped amass what little information there is on such species as the endangered Canada lynx, the fisher, and the pine marten but most notably on the imperiled wolverine – an often misunderstood animal that ignites debate across the West about how much it should be protected.

“If Betsy and Steve weren’t out there, we would know far less about these species,” says Marion Cherry, a senior wildlife biologist with the Gallatin National Forest. “As it is, our understanding of them is pretty limited because historically we haven’t devoted a lot of attention to them.”

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With his long beard, Gehman looks as if he could be a member of the band ZZ Top. But the garb that he and Robinson wear – classic Patagonia fleece and lycra – let you know that they’re not playing electric guitars. They spend much of their time in the Gallatin National Forest on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park. It is part of a rugged belt of federal and state lands along the borders of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington that represents the last major stronghold of wolverines in the Lower 48.

Through their private nonprofit research firm, Wild Things Unlimited, Robinson and Gehman run one of only four wolverine research projects in the country. To support their work, they occasionally take “citizen scientists” who want to experience research firsthand on guided adventures.

They stretch their shoestring budget by using a network of remote-controlled cameras that have chronicled some remarkable wildlife sightings. The cameras, fitted with motion sensors, are mounted discreetly on trees near carcasses and automatically take pictures when animals lope through the area.

Gehman and Robinson prefer to use techniques that don’t harass the animal, eschewing, for instance, sedatives to capture wolverines. Instead, they employ a device that snares animal hair without the predators knowing it. The samples are sent in for DNA analysis.

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