Animal tracks in Glacier National Park – you want me to smell what?

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Yesterday Team Mago spent the day learning about how to identify animal tracks in the snow. This adventure began when we saw a news release from the Glacier Institute advertising “North Fork Animal Tracking and Sign Interpretation” with Brian Baxter, a wildlife researcher and forester who has spent a number of winters studying animals such as the wolverine, lynx, fisher, marten and instructing outdoor educational programs in Glacier Park. We had been tromping around the North Fork for years in both summer and winter and had often seen tracks/scats, wondering if the animal was canine or cat.  That’s pretty pitiful.  So when this course was announced, we jumped at the chance.

2015-01-10-154439_p1220684-9053120We drove the 10 miles south to the Polebridge Mercantile where we were met by the charming and enthusiastic Justin Barth, Glacier Institute’s Director of Education. Pretty soon our fellow trackers began arriving, 13 intrepid souls, some from as far away as Missoula.  We were also glad to see our friends Angie and Shawn Agnew, owners of Home Ranch Bottoms who are spending their first winter on the North Fork. The Merc’s staff brought out fresh huckleberry bear claws and hot coffee, so most folks were well-fed and caffeined up. The women who thought about the 12F weather outside, the planned four-hour trek outdoors, and remembered that “what goes in must come out” skipped the coffee, however.

During the hour-long lecture at the Merc, Brian Baxter explained the tracking terminology (such as stride, straddle, trough, gait) that we needed to know in order to interpret the tracks we were about to see. Visual aids were a little limited (the Merc has a small space and limited generator power, not to mention an outhouse), so Brian gamely used what was available to demonstrate the concepts – condiments on the table became tracks, the large refrigerator in the back became a forest boundary, while Brian listened, sniffed, and trotted like a wolf or elk on the old hardwood floor. Not only was this an interesting introduction to tracking, it was also good theater.

Throughout the lecture, though, everyone kept glancing out through the century old window of the Merc and wondering whether the light snowfall was going to hide the tracks.  Hummmm.

Once we had the basics down, everyone jumped in their vehicles and drove the short distance to the entrance of Glacier National Park at Polebridge. Because there was well over a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature was brisk, we spent time donning warm jackets, hats, waterproof boots, gaiters, snowshoes, and mittens/gloves. We all gathered for Ellen to take a group picture then we were off, eager to see our first track.

Here’s a map of roughly were we snowshoed.  The starting point (at the bottom) is the ranger’s station at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park. Hey, Google, where’s all the snow?

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So now a brief explanation about recent weather events.  Four days ago we got about a foot of fresh new snow that ended with a short bout of freezing rain.  The result, a crust of ice on top of the snow.  And then we had another inch or so of light snow on top of that crust. And it continued to snow the entire time we were out. The result, as we were about to find out, was very poor conditions for tracks.

Brian never hesitated, however.  In the absence of abundant tracks, he stopped to explain the surrounding habitat where the tracks should be: here the ungulates have nibbled away the vegetation, over there the flickers have left their mark on the trees, those are blobs from snow falling out of the trees and not snow shoe hare tracks.  Brian also found a 8-9′ pine that had been killed by an ungulate rubbing up against it and produced a small patch of white tail deer hair to prove it. And while Brian was off trail looking for something to show, Justin kept our interest by explaining the difference between pine and fir trees.

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After finding only a faint trail from a red-backed vole and a single, very old ungulate print, Brian and Justin led us down the bank and proposed that we cross through several creeks to get to the North Fork river bank where we were sure to find some tracks.  We all looked over the side of the steep bank towards the running water of the creeks and at least one of us wondered if we were up to the task.  Justin was certain that we were.  Over the bank we went and through the creeks.

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Angie was concerned that her boots weren’t water proof enough, so at one point got a piggy-back-ride from Shawn.  Unfortunately, I was too busy navigating the creek to whip out my camera to get a shot of this extraordinary sight.  As we neared the river, it seemed that all that hard work was about to pay off, though.  Shawn had found… scat.

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And not only one kind of scat, but two different kinds right next to each other. Everyone rushed over and gathered around while Brian lead us through the process of identifying what kind of animals we were dealing with.

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First, he carefully picked up the dark blob and attempted to cut the scat open for a better look.  Unfortunately, it was frozen solid and there was not a surface on which to make a decent cut.  Never mind.  He passed it around and suggested that everyone take a good long sniff.  There was just a moment of hesitation, then most people (Morgan being one of the exceptions), took a whiff and were surprised to discover that the smell wasn’t unpleasant at all. Small in size and musty with bits of hair, this pile of poo must have been from a mustelidae (that’s the weasel family).

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Right next to that was a hole in the snow with a different kind of scat that turned out to be grouse.  As many grouse as we’ve shot and eaten (see
Montucky’s Juicy Sprucies – the Hunt, Field Dressing, the Prep, the Feast), I had never seen the scat.  Very interesting.  But no tracks.

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After lunch, though, we finally hit pay dirt at the river.  Brian went along the river bank and found a 9 inch animal trough heading away from the river.  Several trackers got involved, checking the trail to see where it led, while Brian investigated the trough itself.  Given that the animal had broken through the ice crust, it had to be large.  Although the new snow had obliterated any tracks, it was clear from where the trough diverged at points that there were at least two animals.  Brian had us put together the clues regarding terrain (near the water) and behavior (moving from one water source to another) along with the dimensions of the trough to conclude that these animals were probably otters.  We searched for scat, but no luck there. Darn, I was looking forward to sniffing otter poop.

We had been snowshoeing for hours and had bagged a pair of otters, it was time to make our way back across the creeks and head home.  No matter how hard Brian tried, no more tracks were to be found.

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We made it back to the parking area safely and gratefully pulled off our gear.  Even though the weather conspired to obscure a lot of tracks, it was a fun day.  Based on our first experience with a Glacier Institute course, we would highly recommend that you consider giving one a try if you’re going to be in the Glacier National Park area.

The Glacier Institute

Since 1983, The Glacier Institute, a private nonprofit organization, has been providing hands-on, field-based educational adventures to people from all over the world in nature’s wildest places, Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest, located within the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.  They offer education courses summer and winter.  Examples of upcoming courses near Glacier include Birds of Prey, Glacier’s Harlequins, and Spring Wildflowers.  And we wanted to say a special thanks to Justin, Brian, and Ellen for making it a fun and enlightening experience.

 

 

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