Off the Beaten Path
Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it’s an engrossing hobby; for others it’s a critical contribution to conservation.
The wind pushes little whitecaps across the Columbia River in Washington about 130 miles east of Seattle. The morning is crisp, and 15 or more of us stand in a tight circle off the riverbank listening to Mark Elbroch, a top American wildlife tracker, explain the rules of the evaluation. For the next two days, for eight to ten hours a day, we’ll be identifying tracks and signs—paw prints, scat, bones—left by all manner of wildlife in a mix of habitats. The test takers, wilderness experts in their own right, are striving to earn Track and Sign Specialist certificates, among the top wildlife tracker credentials in the United States.
Elbroch finishes going over the rules for the field exam and gives a tug on his gray baseball cap. “The less attachment you have to your score, the better you’ll do,” he says before walking off into the shrub steppe with fellow evaluator Casey McFarland to choose the first questions.
The dozen test takers, mainly young men and a few women, know one another as teachers or colleagues through the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington, which began offering youth environmental education in 1983. David Moskowitz, the WAS’s tracking program coordinator, organized the evaluation. Like many here, he has taken the test multiple times; the previous year he had earned a Track and Signal Specialist certificate for a southern California ecosystem. Now he’s hoping to attain the same level of recognition in Washington State and in riparian habitats. The group clusters around Moskowitz, waiting for the field exam to begin, though nobody speaks much. Someone fiddles with a twig, others scan their field guides, and all watch intently from afar as the evaluators mark the exam questions.
Elbroch summons the test takers in pairs to large ovals drawn in the sand that cordon off animal tracks, each set flagged with a reed stuck next to it. One after another the candidates kneel down, their noses inches from the markings; some wander off, looking for other clues. When I examine the prints I see indistinguishable smudges and inch-long depressions in the dry, lumpy sand. As far as I can tell, the wind could have made any of the little dips and swells. When we gather around to review the characteristics of the first four tracks—a striped skunk, two coyotes, and a porcupine, as it turns out—Elbroch asks Barry Martin, a retired American Airlines pilot turned tracker from San Diego, to explain the porcupine print. Martin laughs, “I’ve never encountered a porcupine before.” He had thought the tracks were made by a deer, and went on to explain why. Others missed questions, too, and the group is full of dejected faces. A specialist certificate requires 100 percent accuracy, though it can also be achieved, even with two incorrect answers, if the person aces six bonus questions (they’re harder than the regular ones). The test is designed to be tough, and it is. To date only 16 people in the United States have earned specialist certificates, though hundreds of others have received lesser Level 1, 2, or 3 certificates for tallying scores between 70 percent and 99 percent.
A creek creeping down from the ragged hills toward the Columbia is the next test site. Amid the milkweed and cattail marsh, we are tested on river otter, black-billed magpie, and red-winged blackbird tracks. Then we scramble up a steep bluff and traverse a narrow path along its craggy reddish-gray face. We won’t find tracks in this rocky terrain, so we’re looking for signs. First there’s a drift of what looks like lightweight brown pebbles (what are they?). Then there’s a thick white line three inches long (what is it, and what’s its function?). Next is a dried piece of scat shaped like beads on a necklace (what animal made it?). Then, finally, there is a series of small mammal bones—a partial skull and two jaws—meal scraps left by raptors hunting from the nearby cliffs (what’s the prey species?).
While sitting on the windy bluff, I chat with Filip Tkaczyk, a 28-year-old who’s originally from southern California and is now a naturalist at Alderleaf Wilderness College, in Monroe, Washington. He started tracking as a hobby, “and now I can’t shut it off.” Tracking heightens awareness of sounds, visual clues, surroundings, and smells, says Tkaczyk—whether or not he’s in the field, which he is several times a month.
When we discuss the bluff questions, I learn that the dry brown “pebbles” (which I had plopped down on until someone called through the wind, “You’re seated in Question 15”) are porcupine dung. The prickly critters had probably been using this place as a den for years, hence the drifts of scat. Similarly, the white territorial marking had been made by countless generations of wood rats that had left behind their urine and feces, which accumulated in the arid environment. The entrance to a wood rat’s den—also a test question—is adorned with owl pellets and droppings, prompting Elbroch to explain that the industrious rodents move up to 200 items a night. For experts, each track and sign helps to reconstruct an incident in the day of an elusive animal. A hillside that at first looked dry and windswept has become animated with busy lives and ancient routines.
Today more than 115 wilderness schools in the United States offer anything from a single, several-hour class to lengthy apprenticeships. At least 200 books provide track- and sign-identification techniques—and 80 percent of them were published in the past 40 years. Tracking clubs exist in more than half of U.S. states, and adventure travel companies now offer wolf-trailing trips in Yellowstone or brown bear-tracking treks in Alaska. Tracking skills are also beginning to play an important role in wildlife research.