On the Right Track
Reading the daily dramas of Montana wildlife.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
The scene was Shakespearean, written with blood on snow rather than ink on paper. Or maybe it was more like a backwoods version of a TV detective program. Except the corpses and killers were four-legged. And it was fact, not fiction.
It was February. My wife, Karen, and I were skiing down a snowed-in road in northwestern Montana. The world was white, so the dead doe stood out. The carcass was minus a foreleg but so fresh it steamed, with no trace of rigor mortis. What had we stumbled across?
When Montanans are in the mood to brag, they make claim to the best fishing, the best hunting, and the best wildlife watching in the United States. Maybe they’re right. I would also wager that Big Sky Country offers the best wildlife tracking anywhere. We have a combination of abundant and diverse wildlife unparalleled in the Lower 48 states and plentiful snow. Whether you hike armed with a rifle or simply a healthy curiosity, Montana is a library of mystery and drama, writ large over the landscape. The stories are both ancient and new, refreshed by each snowfall and rainstorm.
Trailcraft is the ancient skill of interpreting animal sign to tell the
stories of nature. “It’s like being a detective,” says Brian Giddings,
who coordinates the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Furbearer Program. “You
have to look at all the clues: track size, trail pattern, stride length,
and scat [animal droppings].” The sum total is part data, part imagination.
The reward comes when the puzzle pieces click into place and the picture
takes form. Because it reveals so much about wildlife we rarely see, tracking
adds an exciting dimension to any nature outing.
By tracking, we enter secret worlds where humans rarely venture. I have briefly glimpsed only two lynx and two wolverines during my 39 years, but I have followed the tracks of several for miles at a time. I have actually seen only one live northern flying squirrel, but I have often found their flat tails and other remains under owl roosts. The pugmark of a bobcat adds interest to an empty dirt road, and it’s thrilling to see the territorial claw marks that male grizzlies scratch into the boles of lodgepole pines.
Though some of my best tracking has been in wilderness areas, I don’t need to venture far from home to locate animal sign. My family and I live not far from downtown Kalispell. In the past year, I have followed split valentine tracks left by fawns devouring our flower beds, the foot path of a skunk leading under the boat shed, and mud-smeared paw prints on the front sidewalk that led to a ruined bird feeder surrounded by bear scat loaded with chokecherry pits.
Toes and claws
Part of tracking’s appeal is that clues are rarely complete, leaving much to the imagination. What looks like a large dog print could be a wolf’s. You’ve heard that wolves are now living in the area; was this one of them? Are you the first to see its tracks? Another track trail indicates an animal loping through the snow. Is it a wolverine? A fisher? What was it doing here? If you follow the track, will you actually see it?
Tracking also has practical applications. For hunters, a track is often the shortest route between a game animal and a full freezer. For biologists and naturalists, every track is a piece of data adding to the body of knowledge used to understand and manage wildlife.
FWP wildlife managers rely on track surveys to help them understand how various wildlife populations are faring from year to year. Giddings oversees 29 track survey routes in the forested, deep-snow mountains of Montana. Each year, 18 biologists stationed across western Montana cover routes from 9 to 36 miles long, usually three times each winter as snowpack allows. The surveyors count the track trails of snowshoe hares, pine squirrels, and other prey species, as well as furbearers such as bobcats and American martens. The biologists conduct all the surveys on snowmobiles except for one inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, which they do on skis.
“It’s hard to get information on live fishers and wolverines,” Giddings says. “You can’t count them from the air, like with deer and elk, because most furbearers tend to be nocturnal and solitary. Snow track surveys are one of the few tools we have to monitor these populations.”
How to track
Good trailcraft comes from developing the habit of looking for and identifying sign, and then puzzling it out. Truly observant trackers learn to maintain an uncanny balance between looking underfoot for sign while looking around for the animals themselves.
Obtaining such skills takes time, but it’s something anyone can learn. Getting started in tracking is as easy as buying a secondhand field guide and heading into the woods. If you happen to know an experienced tracker who might be willing to teach you firsthand, cultivate that friendship.
Tracks are easiest to find and follow in snow or mud. The best conditions are an inch or two of fresh snow over a firm base. Tracking is usually ideal roughly three days after a snowfall, when animals have had plenty of time to move about, but not so long that the snow melts or the tracks become buried under wind-blown snow. Once, in the Cabinet Mountains under ideal snow conditions, I followed the trails of seven large mammals—elk, mule and white-tailed deer, moose, black bear, mountain lion, and wolf—in a single November day. (Is it any wonder I consider Montana the nation’s top tracking state?)
During a snowfall, you might not see as many tracks (because falling snow can cover tracks even a few minutes old), but those you do see will certainly be fresh. Snow that’s slightly wet but not melting clearly records details of the print, such as the number of toes. Powdery snow shows trail patterns but often hides footprint details.
Occasionally, tracking conditions are so good you don’t even have to look at the ground. One of my most enjoyable elk hunts was through a lodgepole pine forest cloaked in heavy hoarfrost. The herd I was pursuing had knocked all the frost off the lower boughs as it passed, so I simply followed a tunnel of green through an otherwise white forest. I could even tell where the herd bull had passed, because his tall antlers had knocked frost off higher branches.
Hunters attempt to follow a track to its maker. Scientists, often more interested in learning an animal’s behavior than actually seeing the critter, usually backtrack. That’s because a pursued animal may try to avoid detection by fleeing as quickly and directly as possible. By following a backtrack, you get a more accurate picture of the animal’s natural behavior. Either way, the trail will probably take you far and deep, well off the trails and roads most people prefer.
“Most important in becoming a nature detective is for you to learn to think like an animal—more specifically like a wild animal,” writes tracking expert and University of Colorado wildlife research associate James Halfpenny in A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. “Once you know the natural history of the animals you are working with, the easier it is to think like them.”
As you begin to track, you’ll soon learn that nature can be brutal.
Rabbit or mouse tracks frequently disappear under the sweeping brush strokes
of a raptor’s wings. Blood or a dragging limb may indicate the animal
was injured by a predator or in an accident. Once, I followed a set of coyote
tracks up a frozen creek until I found the carcass of a deer that had broken
through the ice and died. Below the ice, the deer was frozen in perfect condition;
above the ice, coyotes had gnawed the skull and neck vertebrae clean to the
The poop on scatology
Scatology, the study of animal droppings, is another type of tracking, though not one for the squeamish. It’s easy to get started: My two-year old rides on my shoulders in the woods, and whenever we see dark pellets on the ground, he points and shouts, “Moose poop!” He’s often right.
Studying scat often requires poking into the droppings. Kick apart a pile of bear scat and you’ll most likely see huckleberries and cow parsnip—and occasionally the crunched bones and hooves of some creature the bear devoured. Coyote scat is often laced with hair from carcass scavenging, while domestic dog poop rarely contains hair. If deer and elk were recently in the area, any pellets you find will be soft, dark, and even warm.
Sometimes you’ll find scat and tracks together in a single sighting. One spring day along the North Fork of the Flathead River, I found the track of a wolf, pressed perfectly into a pile of grizzly dung. Another time, on the northern range of Yellowstone National Park, I stepped over a fresh bison flop and noticed the even fresher print of a grizzly bear, squished perfectly into the brown matrix.
Seeing scat may be the best way to know grizzlies are present. Missoula-based bear expert Chuck Jonkel urges folks to “put on their bear glasses” when in grizzly country, keeping an eye peeled for signals the Great Bear is nearby. Except in winter, scat is much more common than tracks, as are overturned rocks and busted logs that show where bears have hunted ants. Grizzlies act like furry rototillers in alpine areas, uprooting the sod to nibble roots of glacier lilies and other plants. Train your eye to identify likely rubbing trees and signposts that bears use as backscratchers. Look closely, and some will be bristling with silver-tipped hairs.
One time at a campground, I noticed a trashcan next to my tent site with its lid ajar and a muddy smear on the side. I followed a trail of chicken bones, napkins, and an empty plastic bucket that culminated in a pile of bear dung. Black or grizzly, I’m not sure, but even without a track, those clues convinced me to sleep in the car that night.
And what of that freshly killed white-tailed doe in the snow my wife and I found while skiing? The list of suspects was long, because Montana forests are full of deer eaters. We quickly narrowed it down, however, when we spied the large, round, four-toed tracks. The adult female cougar had ambushed the doe from under a fir, leapt twice before landing on the deer’s back, and broke her neck so the doe crumpled with nary a kick.
How do I know the cat was a female? Further investigation under the fir tree showed where two kittens had waited and watched while their mother caught dinner.
Karen and I weren’t the only ones getting a lesson that day.
Tracking field guides are indispensable to beginners and experts alike. The venerable Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murie is a classic, and James Halfpenny’s A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America takes lessons further, with notes and diagrams of trail patterns and even a photo key of scat. FalconGuide publishes a handy guide called Scats and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains (also written by Halfpenny) as well as the comprehensive The Tracker’s Field Guide, by James C. Lowrey. Also try Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch, and Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbrock with Eleanor Marks.
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