Personal tools
You are here: Home News Scat! Our blog Tracks tell tales under the highway
Document Actions
  • Email this page
  • Print this
  • Bookmark and Share

Tracks tell tales under the highway

Posted by bchristensen at Feb 21, 2012 06:36 PM |

Last month, we shared some great news on how a coyote brought success to our efforts to include wildlife crossings on the I-90 expansion through the Cascades. Today, we're happy share the inside scoop on what that day of tracking told us...from the volunteer himself. It's good timing, as right now your online actions are needed today to keep the funding moving for the next phase of the highway expansion, which will include Washington's first wildlife bridge.

Tracks tell tales under the highway

Washington's first wildlife bridge, shown here in an artist's visualization, will help wildlife move safely through vital Cascades wildlife habitat. Please use our online action system to help wildlife cross I-90 safely in the future! Photo: WADoT

Last month, we shared some great news on how a coyote brought success to our efforts to include wildlife crossings on the I-90 expansion through the Cascades. Today, we're happy share the inside scoop on what that day of tracking told us...from the volunteer tracker, Brian Booth.

It's good timing, as right now your online actions are needed today to keep the funding moving for the next phase of the highway expansion, which will include Washington's first wildlife bridge.

Live in Washington? Please enjoy Brian's tale, below, then ask your leaders to move forward for I-90 wildlife and drivers!

Update from trail and tracks by Brian Booth.

In January, we were surveying the Gold Creek area as part of Conservation Northwest's Wildlife Monitoring Project.  It was an exciting time to visit, as construction on the first two I-90 wildlife underpasses had begun six months previously.

The two wildlife underpasses were half-complete: the eastbound lanes were done, but not the westbound lanes.  This meant wildlife had two new places to get to the other side of the interstate by crossing two lanes instead of four.

As we neared the end of our survey in late afternoon, we encountered some tracks that were approximately two days old, and were largely obscured by about an inch of snow.  At that point, with no details in the footprints, we could not tell what kind of animal it was, or even whether it had been traveling eastbound or westbound, but from the diagonal walk gait we could tell it was a wild mammal such as a coyote, bobcat or mule deer.

We followed the tracks across the willow thickets upstream of Lake Keechelus, encountering signs of beaver chews and deer scat, along the way but still could not identify the first animal.

As we approached a frozen pond near the end of our transect, we got a break - the animal changed gaits as it stepped onto the ice.  The ice was way too soft for us to safely venture onto it, but even from a distance I could tell the animal was a coyote, as it had accelerated into a side trot, a gait that is unique to canines.

We followed the coyote's trail around the perimeter of the pond, and saw that as it neared the interstate, it veered off the ice and uphill towards the wildlife underpass. One team member was scouting ahead, and I yelled to her, "See if it went into the underpass!"

The report was shouted back that yes indeed, the coyote had entered the underpass.  This was getting very interesting. Back where I stood, I bent down, bringing my head was low to the ground like a coyote. The coyote had accelerated before the underpass had come into its view.  Something about the underpass had energized the coyote.  What was it?

As I entered the underpass, team members were marking footprints in the mud underneath the underpass.  They were perfect tracks - a tracker's dream, confirming with certainty that it was a coyote.  On the other side of the underpass was a temporary earth berm against the portion of the roadway that was, for one last season, still being used for the westbound lanes of the interstate.  The coyote had continued at a gallop up the earth berm, directly towards the westbound lanes.  Had it crossed the highway?

We carefully ascended the berm to see if we could reach a safe viewpoint to ascertain whether the coyote had crossed.  Fortunately, there was a safe spot, and from there it was clear that the coyote had continued uninterrupted and entered the roadway at a full gallop.  At this point, it became clear why the coyote had build up such a burst of speed - the opposite side of the roadway was bordered by tall New Jersey barriers, a significant leap for a coyote.

A coyote's day

We retraced the coyote's trail backwards, to record it for the project's archives. As we did so, I pieced the bits of information together in my mind, to decipher the story that the tracks told.  The coyote was hunting in the willow flats - for snowshoe hares, mice, or whatever - but had come up empty.  As it reached the end of its hunting ground it decided it would prefer to try its luck on the other side of the highway, and crossing the flat frozen surface of the pond was the easiest path.

Complete with hunting for the moment, it accelerated into a side trot - the gait coyotes use when they want to "get somewhere" efficiently.  It followed the edge of the pond directly towards the interstate.  But instead of proceeding directly across (a spot where four lanes of traffic must be crossed), it turned left to parallel and hug the interstate, towards the wildlife underpass - a spot where only two lanes of traffic needed to be crossed.  Before the underpass was in sight, it accelerated into a gallop, and maintained that gallop all the way through the underpass, up and across the berm, and jumped into the roadway.

This was not random behavior. The coyote intentionally diverted its path to use the underpass.  Additionally, the coyote knew it needed a big burst of speed to ascend the berm and have enough momentum remaining to gallop across the westbound lanes and leap over the NJ barriers.  The story became clear - this coyote had used the underpass before, and was now choosing it as a preferred means of travel.

A satisfying discovery

This was satisfying, not only in seeing the wildlife underpass getting used and recording some important data for the project, but also in seeing an animal that was highly familiar with the underpass from multiple uses.  It wasn't possible to read the coyote's mind simply by analyzing its tracks, but it certainly appeared to me that the coyote understood that using the eastbound-lane underpass lessened the risk, or effort, or at least made for a more comfortable interstate crossing.

The viewpoint of the coyote's crossing, with the cars zipping by at 60 mph, had also provided visceral insight into the high level of risk the animals take when they cross the Interstate.  To me,it validated the I-90 Wildlife Bridges initiative. This was an early view into its success. What a benefit to wildlife this construction project will provide once the multiple underpasses and overpasses are complete!

As the sun sunk low, we headed back to the car, and an alpenglow radiated from the spire of Chikamin Peak. It had taken a great deal of effort to complete the day's survey, but everyone was satisfied with the results.

[Visualize of the wildlife passages on I-90]  [Take action for the next coyote!]

Document Actions
powered by Plone | site by Groundwire Consulting and served with clean energy