illustration by David Pohl
Tracking in the Wild, Learning from the Land
A keen eye to the ground helps guide conservation
by Joshua Brown
Phantoms roam the UVM Green. There—huffing through the snow in front of Ira Allen Chapel—tramps an invisible moose. To the south, in behind Wheeler House, a disembodied fox sniffs about. Ethereal rabbits dart under trees. Perfectly silent squirrels pass by the dozen. They’re all out of sight.
Unless you see their tracks.
“Right here, in the winter of 1999, I saw these big moose tracks crossing the road by the chapel,” says Mike Kessler, a UVM staff person who teaches a course on animal tracking. “I guess he was headed for the lake.”
A track is more than a mark in mud or snow that says a fox or flock of turkeys passed by. It’s a lens into a shadowed world of animal intentions. It’s a Proustian naturalist’s cake dipped in tea, the single strike of claw and toe pad summoning a vast ecological narrative for those with skill to read what’s there. “The track itself is a landscape. Everything on the landscape is there,” Kessler says, quoting his own tracking teacher, Tom Brown.
But to get to this elevated state requires a whole lot of what trackers call “dirt time.” Which is why, a few days after my meeting with Kessler on campus, Matt Kolan leaps like a giant wool-clad weasel along a snowy roadside in Cambridge, Vermont. “This is a lope,” he says to a group of graduate students in his course, Place-Based Landscape Analysis. He gets down on all fours, butt up and head down. He again charges forward through the snow, his boots deftly coming forward to land in the mark where his mittens just were. “A lope means that all its feet are on the ground only once per stride,” he says.
Kolan, who graduated from UVM’s Field Naturalist program, is a doctoral student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. He’s had a lot of dirt time. And now he’s trying to help his students understand who made a line of glinting gray depressions that run in staggered pairs across the pale blue snow.
It’s a fisher, he says, a solitary and energetic member of the weasel family. He points out the “strong leading foot,” and the way the footprints are filled with fresh snow. It’s a female, he decides, in a 2/2 lope—an easy-going stride where front feet hit and then the back directly follow.
“When you start to move yourself like an animal, your perspective changes,” he says, standing up. And trying to understand an animal’s perspective, Kolan believes, starts to carry the tracker beyond a checkbox mentality—Fisher Was Here—and into a story about how it lives. Perhaps there is no adequate narrative of an animal’s mind—what does a fisher think of itself?—but Kolan is sure that “different gaits tell us something about how an animal feels.”
The narrative of a track, like any good story, is intrinsically interesting. Backtrack a bobcat track for a day, as Kolan does, and see how the cat follows a contour, how it stops to look downhill for lunch that might be afoot. Stop to smell where it urinated on rocks to mark them. UVM’s eminent wildlife biologist Bernd Heinrich told me “when I was a kid, I’d take off and follow a skunk track or a raccoon track, just to see what it did.” But, also like many good stories, the superficial plot of where an animal goes reveals larger patterns.
Which is why White Earth Tribal and Community College in Minnesota contracted with Kurt Rinehart g’07 to help them integrate tracking into their curriculum. “Tracking is an engaging way to introduce ecology,” Rinehart says, “If you’ve been trailing a fisher, and it’s been moving in a straight line for a kilometer and then it starts to zigzag and circle back on itself: why has it changed? It’s hunting. And why did it start hunting? Oh, it left those big hardwoods and now it’s into brush, where cottontails hide.”
Rinehart studied statistical techniques for analyzing wildlife populations with professors David Hirth and Terri Donovan while at UVM. When he graduated last year, he put that experience and ample dirt time to work in a tracking consulting firm, Ichneumon Wildlife, which he formed with one of the world’s leading trackers, Mark Elbroch.
Among their projects, they’ve worked with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to track animals along twenty-six miles of US Route 2. They discovered that foxes and coyotes focus their movements along the road, forming a kind of shadow road next to the real one. They also found that moose concentrate their crossings around the intersection of the highway and New Hampshire Route 115—where, not surprisingly, many moose collisions have been reported. “The next trick is how that information is incorporated into highway planning,” Rinehart says. “Evidence is strong that smaller animals are willing to use underpasses and culverts to get across the road. But moose are difficult,” since they blithely walk where they will.
Where moose rush in, bobcats fear to tread. Mark Freeman ’00, has been studying these secretive felines throughout the Champlain Valley and into the Green Mountains as a graduate project. Drawing on a three-year internship with renowned Vermont tracker Susan Morse ’72, he used traditional tracking to catch thirty-three of the cats in traps. He then collared them with satellite receivers to follow their movements electronically. High mountain cliff dwellers? Not necessarily. They’ll den in rock piles in Champlain Valley farm fields and prowl not far from the shopping malls at Williston’s Taft Corners. “They’re adaptable,” Freeman says. But he also learned that the cats’ home ranges are often restricted by roads.
And with the United States road network at seven million miles and growing, “When does the land become impassable?” asks Laura Farrell, a biology graduate student working with UVM mammalogist Bill Kilpatrick. “Right now, the Northeast has a high percentage of forest, but it’s being cut into and developed rapidly,” she says. She’d like to see wildlife corridors that would allow wide-ranging species, like lynx and bobcats, to move and hunt and mate.
But to design these corridors—connected parcels of woodland, riverways, low-development zones—planners need to know what animals are where. Farrell studies a variety of methods for measuring species composition—trudging through deep snow to mount remote cameras, placing “hair rubs” to catch animal fur, setting baited track plates for capturing foot prints. She also employs traditional snow tracking, too. “It may be the best,” she says.
Or at least it can help get you what you need. Like a pile of dung. “Tracking within the last few years has begun to be integrated with DNA analysis of both hair and feces,” says Robert Long G’06 who, with Paula MacKay ’86, has co-edited a book being published this spring, Non-Invasive Survey Methods for Carnivores. “Backtrack to a scat. Backtrack to a daybed and find hair frozen into a form: this allows you to confirm a species. And it provides you with data about the animal’s sex, its relatedness to other animals, and can be used to identify specific animals,” Long says.
But if veteran trackers are right that a print in the snow reveals a whole landscape, then it’s also true that studying the whole landscape reveals what the track means.
“Tracking is a wonderful tool,” says Linda Hamilton, who chairs the Charlotte Conservation Commission,“but it’s not the last word.” In the 1990s, her commission was heavily relying on tracking for land-use decisions. Today, with help from UVM-trained naturalists including Matt Kolan as well as Alicia Daniel, Walter Poleman, and others, her commission follows a more holistic approach, taking into account factors like vegetation and geology as they consider purchasing land for conservation or designating natural areas. “We’re still interested in what current habitat animals use, but this bigger picture also gives us a sense of what habitat can be restored, what wildlife could return here even if we don’t find its tracks now.”