Trained to track

By Dick Mason, The Observer December 08, 2012 09:41 am

U.S. Forest Service Biologist Mark Penninger, center, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Russ Morgan, second from left, lead EOU students on a wildlife tracking field trip west of La Grande.
U.S. Forest Service Biologist Mark Penninger, center, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Russ Morgan, second from left, lead EOU students on a wildlife tracking field trip west of La Grande.

Biologists from the U.S. Forest Service and ODFW teach Eastern students how to record whereabouts of wolves, lynx, wolverines and other Northeast Oregon animals  

The U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife soon will have a new resource to help monitor the populations of rare or secretive animals in Northeast Oregon — the eyes and minds of about 15 Eastern Oregon University students.  

Students with the Eastern Outdoor program will assist the agencies with the tracking of wolves, lynx, American martens, cougars, wolverines or other rare or secretive animals. The students recently received tracking training from La Grande wildlife biologists Mark Penninger of the U.S. Forest Service and Russ Morgan of the ODFW. The students will report their findings to the Forest Service and the ODFW, said Jerry Isaak, director of the Eastern Oregon University Outdoor Program.

Morgan said he is looking forward to helping the students develop their tracking skills and having them share what they discover with him and Penninger.

“I’m excited to see this much interest in tracking. Tracking is a very satisfying skill, which is not practiced as much as it once was,’’ said Morgan, ODFW wolf coordinator.

Morgan said tracking is done less today because people are so focused on receiving the instant gratification they get from directly seeing or hearing wildlife. He said that is unfortunate, since it is such a valuable tool for monitoring wildlife.

“You can get incredible information by following a set of tracks,’’ Morgan said.

He noted that one can learn more about an animal by following tracks than by casually observing it crossing a road. Tracks can reveal the species of an animal, its size and sex, gait, the length of its stride and more. The gender can sometimes be revealed by looking at urination patterns. 

The Eastern Oregon University students participating in the program are being encouraged by Morgan and Penninger to take photos of the tracks they find, record their location and the date they were spotted. The students are also being urged to take photos of sets of tracks rather than just individual ones. Morgan and Penninger noted that a set of tracks tell a biologist much more than a single one can. 

Morgan said that relying on one track to identify an animal is not a good idea. It is much better to look at a series of tracks to get the proper context. He noted that the single track of a large dog can be mistaken for a wolf. A series of dog tracks, however, can’t be mistaken for a wolf because it reveals things like gait and stride length. 

Trackers are also urged to put something such as a ruler next to tracks when photographing them to provide a sense of scale. 

To illustrate how important this is, Morgan noted that the track of a small dog could be mistaken for that of a wolf in a photograph if there is nothing present to provide a sense of scale.

Nothing tops fresh snow as a medium for finding tracks. Penninger told the EOU students, though, that they should not go searching for tracks immediately after a snowfall. Instead, they should wait for one or two days until animals have a had a chance to walk on the snow. 

A trail of tracks is not always what it seems. A prime example are wolf tracks. Sometimes it will appear as if a lone wolf was walking when actually it was being followed by 15 members of its pack who were walking in the same tracks the lead animal was making.

”Wolves are famous for walking in each others’ tracks,’’ Morgan said.

Wolves sometimes do this in heavy snow to save energy and effort. It is more efficient when one wolf breaks trail for the others behind, Morgan said.

The biologist said that people can expect to see wolf tracks in a diversity of areas because they are such remarkable travelers.

“They can be anywhere in Northeast Oregon,’’ Morgan said.

Regardless of which species one is monitoring, tracking is a great tool because it requires little money and has no impact on wildlife. 

“It is the most cost effective, noninvasive way to detect rare species,’’ Morgan said. “You don’t risk the animal’s health.’’’ 

Next month the students involved in the new EOU Winter Wildlife Tracking Program will begin taking day trips organized by Isaak to track wildlife. Isaak said that one goal of the program is to help students develop working relationships with the ODFW and the U.S. Forest Service. In some cases, students will be able to earn EOU credits for their involvement in the program.