Steve Meurett, Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com contributor
Although I’ve been tracking animals for as long as I can remember, it’s usually been as a side interest to whatever other outdoor excursion I’m on – hunting, cross country skiing, mountain biking or snowshoeing. Grooming ski trails late at night always offers great opportunities as well and sometimes the hours last a little longer if I’m distracted by minutes-old fresh animal sign.
If anything, those days now feel like the minor leagues. I knew tracks pretty well, but after completing tracking certification and becoming a volunteer DNR tracker earlier this year, it’s more like I graduated to the big show. Now, I need to be very precise, I need to verify, look for evidence and confirm what I’m seeing in the snow and keep detailed records … yeah, this is a new ball game.
Last weekend TWIN (Timber Wolf Education Network) held their annual ‘Track-A-Thon’ in the central forest region of Wisconsin-the southern end of wolf territory in the state. Headquartering out of the Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock, TWIN members met, were given assignments on tracking areas, discussed recent signs and headed out to spend a day surveying their blocks. TWIN focuses on science-based wolf education and provides outreach through wolf ecology workshops each winter. Most members are also involved with theDNR volunteer carnivore tracking program and results from the Track-A-Thon were forwarded to that effort.
The DNR runs the most extensive tracking surveys in the country, starting in 1977 for fur bearing animals. Wolf tracking began formally in 1979 and the current volunteer program of conducting wolf and carnivore surveys started in 1995. The intention of the study, in addition to determining numbers and territories of wolves, is also to keep tabs on other medium to large carnivores and determine if rare species like Canada lynx, wolverine or cougar also exist in the state.
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Participants are asked to complete a track training course, attend a wolf ecology class sponsored by the DNR, Timber Wolf Alliance or TWIN, complete a mammal test and conduct a minimum of three surveys submitting their results per guidelines to the DNR.
New to the group, I was eager to meet and learn as much as possible during this one day event. Sandhill is about 30 miles east of my usual tracking area, so I decided to start my survey on some unexplored forest roads nearer that side of my block. I’d been tutored on using some high tech gear, namely an external GPS unit, which blue tooth connects to my ipad loaded with various off-line maps.
The DNR tracking surveys follow specific protocol and one needs to carefully record the survey route and milage. I found the technology on the dash of the truck advantageous, and if needed, I could flip through different charts on the iPad, looking at everything from topographic maps to satellite imagery. Track locations could be added with waypoints and details typed in on the fly.
That said, there is also room for the old school methods. Hand written notes on every track observed were scribbled with pencil in a notebook and old fashioned folding wood rulers did the measuring. I do carry a digital camera as well and police evidence scales (rulers) to grab images of particularly interesting tracks or sign.
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The track-a-thon was lucky enough to fall about 36 hours after the last snowfall-prime time to get good tracks. Windy conditions the previous day also helped in aging-aiding trackers in determining how recently animals passed by. If roads hadn’t been plowed, then it’s a much easier task to spot sign. More traveled routes, require an even slower survey speed. My average pace was under 8 mph for the five and half hours in the field. All larger carnivores are recorded-every coyote, bobcat, fisher and wolf track is noted, located on a map and direction of travel indicated.
Coyotes are ever more present and jumping in and out of the truck to check their prints and document them is quite a task. It’s when there is something different about a track, the size, the gait pattern, how the snow is scuffed, that makes tracking exciting and I’m quick to exit the warm cab. Deer prints are pretty easy to spot and dismiss. They wander, have a wide straddle and leave a collar of snow around their steps.
My first two miles seemed to take forever. Frequent coyotes criss-crossing the road and plenty of deer sign kept the pace slow. Hitting a forest road with all fresh snow and no other vehicle traffic was divine for surveying. Within another mile, a tell-tale large, consistent and widely spaced imprint suggested a wolf. Excitedly jumping out of the truck, my thoughts were confirmed-perfect 4.5 inch canid track, an Eastern Grey Wolf.
Although we are recording all carnivores, wolves are what we most want to keep tabs on, so this was a great find so early in my survey. Following the trail into the woods off road, there was good reason why ‘he’ was here. Whitetails had the whole area tore up feeding on acorns, so it was good habitat for both animals. The wolf continued for some distance, seemingly having places to get to south of my position, so I continued checking roads and dead end flowage trails for more sign.
Another hour passed and I hit the trackers mother lode (well, we do get excited about finding different species). A wolf, also traveling south, a large bobcat and just a 1/4 mile down the same lane, a fisher, bounding down the road before veering off to bop from tree to tree. It’s interesting that the snow covered roads can be a blank slate for miles and, all of a sudden, you collect a bunch of tracks all at once.
Slow miles continued for another hour on pristine drifted roads until I spotted a day old track. The wolf had followed a logging road and I back tracked it for a mile to the point it entered from a large marsh. Another fresh track had crossed this, so I had plenty of information to record and GPS.
Soon, things became crazy.
Several sets of tracks crossed the road different directions and I needed to investigate further into the woods to figure out where they came from. One group of three seemed to have found something interesting under a brush pile-the tracks had the ground pounded smooth, but there was no other sign. A bit further, a pair of tracks traversed the lane in an opposite direction and left behind a RLU (raised leg urination), a good indicator there was an alpha animal in the pack. Scribbling notes and drawing arrows on maps, all the sign seemed to point at just a few animals that were going back and forth in a small area. In any regard, it was fun and challenging to decipher all clues left on this short section of road.
Sometimes it’s a matter of feast or famine. As interesting as that flurry was, the next two hours passed with only a couple coyote prints, a ton of deer sign and another bobcat trail to keep me busy. My truck slithered down more narrow rutted paths, but for the most part, the snow was undisturbed for the final two hours.
Volunteer trackers are asked to travel 20 to 30 miles each outing, so with 26.5 recorded and completing a loop in the state and county forest, I ended the survey. From here it was a long drive back to Sandhill where we would tabulate results and do a post survey debriefing, along with just visiting and finding out what the other participants discovered. Most of the TWIN members have many years experience under their belts and had a good handle on what we’d find.
On the wolf tally, some individuals and packs were located where expected, while others seem to have disappeared, fueling discussion within the group for possible causes.
Later in the evening, retired wolf biologist Dick Thiel and Ray Leonard, TWIN chairperson, lead a discussion on the recent re-listing of the eastern grey wolf to the endangered species list. The day was a great opportunity to make connections with other TWIN members, practice the craft of tracking and spend a day outdoors in the winter, always a good thing and something I’ll look forward to again.