Looking for Patterns
ConservationNWAdmin / Feb 06, 2019 / I-90 Wildlife, Wildlife Monitoring
A day in the field with a Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project snow tracking team.
by Keiko betcher, communications and outreach associate
On most occasions, sitting in North Bend’s Safeway parking lot at 7:30 a.m. wouldn’t be a cause for excitement. But on a recent January morning, it was. I was going snow tracking.
Of course, the Safeway parking lot was only a meeting place. From there, our team of five—Laurel Baum, our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP) Coordinator, Kyle Schultheis, and Kelly Fine, both volunteers, Kurt Hansen, our CWMP intern, and myself—squeezed into one car and drove 20 minutes east to get to yet another parking lot, except this time, it was in the heart of Snoqualmie Pass.
Our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project is a major effort to document rare and recovering wildlife. Volunteers log hundreds of hours in the field, trekking through wilderness to install and monitor cameras in remote areas in the summer, and snowshoeing along transects to look for wildlife tracks in the winter. These transects are located near wildlife crossings under and over I-90, and they’re there for a reason.
“We want to understand how different species have been impacted by the freeway, and how they’re starting to respond to these improved and connected wildlife corridors that the crossings have created,” said Laurel.
Data collected through the CWMP is reviewed and shared with our partners, contributing to research, including analysis that determined the best locations for the wildlife crossings, based on patterns of wildlife movement.
I was hopeful that findings from this snow tracking excursion would play a part in that research, too. After we strapped on our snowshoes and began walking along the transect, we quickly found the snow conditions to be less-than ideal for tracking. It was a pretty warm day for January, but that seemed to be the new norm this season.
“I think a big take-away I have for this winter so far is the overly-warm temperatures and how little snow we actually have up at the pass,” Laurel said, who has been wildlife tracking with the CWMP both as a volunteer and the current Project Coordinator, for a total of six years.
This causes problems when you’re looking for wildlife tracks in the snow. When snow melts and falls off of trees, it creates little indents in the snow on the ground, making it hard to distinguish them from an animal’s tracks.
At first, every mark in the snow looked like a track to me. It wasn’t until Laurel found some squirrel tracks that I had a better idea of what to look for: a pattern. The shape of the tracks and the distance between them were relatively consistent.
Even still, I had little confidence in spotting a set of tracks, let alone identifying who they belonged to. It’s no wonder volunteers go through comprehensive training and are led by team leaders with sharp naturalist and tracking skills.
Kelli is one of those volunteers. She’s currently taking a wildlife tracking intensive course with our partners at the Wilderness Awareness School, and it’s her second season as a CWMP volunteer.
“When I was growing up, I wasn’t really aware that all the human lives around me were playing out in a much larger world filled with so many other living things. Most of the adults surrounding me hardly even knew they had wild neighbors,” Kelly said. “My life has grown so much richer since I started recognizing that humans are part of a much broader community.”
Snow tracking volunteers don’t document squirrels and snowshoe hares—they’re out looking for wildlife like elk, deer, bobcats and coyotes. One day, Laurel hopes to see evidence of rare species like wolverines using the connected Snoqualmie Pass corridor.
With so many marks on the ground, wildlife tracks weren’t hard to miss—and we almost did. Laurel called us back to some markings we had previously decided weren’t tracks. A few steps away from the transect, a low tree had preserved a few small, round tracks in the snow, each about two inches in diameter, underneath it.
“Based on the details you can see in these tracks, what do you think they are?” Laurel asked the group.
I kneeled beneath the tree and peered into one of the tracks to get a good look. I considered the details. Laurel had just described the difference between a feline and a canine track—in a canine’s track, you’ll typically see tiny claw marks, as opposed to felines, who often retract their claws when they walk, and whose paws have a broader width.
The tracks didn’t have claw marks, so they were definitely feline. Our group came to a consensus… a bobcat?
But wildlife tracking isn’t a guessing game. To be certain, rulers, notepads and books on wildlife tracking were pulled out and used to determine which animal these tracks belonged to. Sure enough, the measurements we took were consistent with the description of a bobcat’s tracks in the book.
“These details all make up pieces of the story that wildlife has left behind,” Laurel said. “Wildlife tracking is an extremely humbling experience—there is so much to learn about our ecosystems and the wildlife that live in them.”
I was eager for what we’d find next—but after the bobcat, we only identified the tracks of a snowshoe hare and a domestic dog. There were many instances where we examined what we believed were wildlife tracks, but they simply didn’t have enough detail for us to be certain.
While I didn’t get to see the tracks of elk and coyotes, who have been documented using the wildlife crossings, it was still a valuable experience to be out in the field with a team of dedicated volunteers and staff.
And besides, nothing beats spending a day out in the mountains in the name of wildlife conservation.
“It’s beautiful out here, crunching along on snowshoes, and your senses wake up,” Kelly said. “When a tree drops its snow inside your coat and you feel it melting down your back, you know you’re alive.”
Check out these wildlife-tracking tips from Laurel Baum, our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project Coordinator:
- Have a curiosity about the world around you, and ask questions that help you dive deeper into the subject, whether it be the habitat, species, individual animal, track or sign you are looking at.
- Use a guide book as a reference, and take the time to measure and sketch out what you see in a tracking journal. Get a lot of “dirt time” in.
- For beginners, going on a snowshoe hike or a sandy bank of a river is a great opportunity to check out tracks.
- Check out some of these great tracking opportunities offered by Wilderness Awareness School: Tracking Club, Wildlife Tracking Intensive, or study up on the basics and attend a Track and Sign Evaluation!