Friday, November 25, 2011

In the snow, animals tell their stories

Winter is an excellent time for tracking wildlife

Express Staff Writer

Animal tracks dot the snow in the woods north of Ketchum. Photo by Mountain Express

What are those strange trails in the snow that can be seen when snowshoeing or cross-country skiing? Usually, they are animal tracks, as animals make their mark in the snow all winter,

"The snow is kind of like a blank page, and stories get told upon it," said Lisa Huttinger, education director for the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum. "We can learn stories of who lives in an area, how they spend their time—where do they sleep, where do they eat dinner, and who do they find for dinner?"

Huttinger is no stranger to animal tracking, having studied animal tracks and headed up tracking workshops at the ERC for years. She works with expert animal tracker Ann Christensen to teach community members how to identify the animals leaving hieroglyphic-like signs of winter wildlife.

Christensen said in an interview last year that reading tracks can be easy if the observer gets a tracking book and studies the track patterns included in it.

"You need to get the patterns in your brain," she said. "Size is really important, and pattern is really important."

Huttinger and Christensen both recommend James C. Halfpenny's "Scats and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains," a pocket-sized reference that includes most animals that Wood River Valley recreationists are likely to stumble upon.

Last year, voles, field mice and snowshoe hares were some of the most common tracks, Huttinger said, but weasels were also more prolific than usual.

"Weasel tracks like that are always interesting to find," she said. "You're looking at these paired tracks, and then all of a sudden you see this burrow."

Weasels, like some common rodents, will dive under the snow to escape predators. Aspiring trackers can remove snow from the tops of the burrows and try to follow the animal's path, Huttinger said.

A good rule of thumb for identifying tracks is by using size and toe count, she said in an interview last year. Wolverines and weasels have five toes on each foot, while coyotes and foxes have four each. Ungulates such as moose, deer and elk leave hoof tracks, limiting the usefulness of this trick.

Huttinger said one of her most useful tools is to use her hand as a point of reference for track size. Five fingers clustered together are roughly the size of a deer track, while elk tracks are roughly 3 inches long, the size of a human fist. Moose leave hoof prints the size of a fully spread human hand, roughly 7 inches across. The same rule applies to fox, dog and wolf tracks, she said.

The ERC will conduct two snowshoeing workshops this winter, one of which will be led by Christensen and will focus on tracking techniques. This workshop will be held Jan. 14, while a course called "Storytelling in the Snow," a class geared toward children and families, will be held Feb. 4.

Huttinger said the storytelling class is new this year, spurred by the Science Time programs that the ERC participates in at the Community Library in Ketchum. Winter tracking courses in the past have not always been accessible for younger aspiring scientists, she said.

"We really wanted to appeal to families with younger children," Huttinger added. "They're always fascinated by animals."

Katherine Wutz:

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