Veteran Tracker Reads the Signs Nature Leaves Behind
BY LISA BARIL
A writer friend once told me stories are everywhere if you know how to look for them. He was referring to the human story, but as a biologist I am pulled toward the stories nature writes. A dozen ravens swirling above the remains of a cow elk killed by wolves the day before. A pair of bald eagles perched on a nearby rock having eaten their fill, and a trail of coyote tracks crisscrossed in the snow, turned pink with blood. If I was better at reading the landscape, I might know how many coyotes and which other scavengers visited the elk remains. I might even know something about their age and sex. But to tell this tale fully I need the skills of Jim Halfpenny, expert wildlife tracker and president of A Naturalist’s World, an ecological education company based in Gardiner, Montana.
Jim Halfpenny has been reading the stories wildlife has to tell through their footprints, scat, hair, and other signs of their presence for more than 50 years. He has written numerous books on track identification and the science of tracking.
And it is a science.
“Tracking is forensics for wildlife,” Halfpenny says, as he shows me around his classroom full of cougar and wolf prints cast in plaster, numerous bear skulls, and a library of identification guides.
I ask to see his toolkit for gathering clues and he pulls out a weathered navy blue sack. In it are several rulers, a pencil, a notebook with footprint characteristics, calipers, and wires for measuring tracks in snow. It’s a simple toolkit. The real tools are decades of knowledge and experience mixed with curiosity and skepticism.
People from all over the world send Halfpenny tracks for identification, and while it pays the bills, the real fun, says Halfpenny, is tracking wildlife in the field. Last October he tracked a grizzly bear on a 16-day foraging
expedition through Gardiner. Few actually saw the bear, but based on signs like a broken branch beneath a crabapple tree, footprints, and claw marks on the trunks of trees, he created a map detailing the grizzly’s jaunt through the backyards of Gardiner residents.
Long Distance Tracking
It’s one thing to track an animal through Gardiner, Montana, but it’s something else entirely to track a wild animal across the northern United States over two years. It began with the image of a cougar caught by a Wisconsin trail camera in 2009. It was one of the first confirmed cougars in the state since the early 1900s.
As cougars are increasingly (though rarely) spotted east of the Mississippi, the need for correctly identifying their sign is growing. Halfpenny says he began training observers in 1991 for what would become geographically the biggest large carnivore survey in the world. Each year over 300 trackers survey Wisconsin for the presence of cougars and to verify claims of cougar sign and observations. Most observations are cases of mistaken identity or even hoaxes, but Halfpenny says that twice his trackers have followed cougars across the state.
One cougar wound up in Chicago where it was killed by police, but the other—the one caught on the trail camera in 2009—was followed all the way to Connecticut. Halfpenny and his trained trackers kept tabs on the cougar through a trail of DNA evidence that eventually told the story of a young male cougar journeying 1,600 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota, into North Dakota, then east to Minnesota and Wisconsin. From there, Halfpenny says the cougar probably went north over the Great Lakes and then into New York and finally Connecticut, where it was hit and killed by a car in 2011. It was the first record of a cougar in densely populated Connecticut in over 100 years.
Tracking Endangered Lynx
But tracking is not just an exercise in storytelling. These stories have real management implications. During the late 1970s, there was a proposal to expand Vail Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado and develop a new ski area in the East Fork of the San Juan, also in Colorado. Halfpenny was called upon to investigate habitat use by Canada lynx in these two areas—a state endangered species at the time. Today lynx are considered threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Through tracking efforts Halfpenny confirmed lynx in both areas, ultimately preventing the two proposals from going forward. The state then garnered tax monies that funded Halfpenny’s work to search for lynx and wolverines in other parts of Colorado. Over the next four years Halfpenny skied and snowmobiled thousands of miles searching for rare carnivores. Out of this work came the definitive text on how to tell the difference between rare species like lynx, wolverine, and fisher, as well as how to collect casts of these species’ footprints that will hold up in court cases like the one to expand Vail’s ski area.
Boots on the Ground vs Technology
That was the 1970s. I ask Halfpenny how modern technology has changed the need for tracking, where now a biologist can follow a collared animal with a laptop computer from anywhere in the world. Can’t you just trap it, tag it, then let it go and wait for the data to pour in while you pour yourself a Mai Tai on a beach in Thailand?
“Everything you talked about is not going to find you a lynx in Yellowstone,” he said. “You need to get out on the ground and track it.”
And that is what he did during the winters of 2001 to 2004 along with several colleagues and 49 hearty souls willing to brave winter in Yellowstone’s backcountry. The miles the volunteers logged were brutal. Aside from the freezing temperatures, the skiing wasn’t as much skiing as it was pushing their way through thick coniferous forests deep within Yellowstone’s backcountry.
Despite more than 1,000 miles covered no one ever saw a lynx during these surveys. They didn’t expect to. Instead, volunteers scoured the landscape for their sign. Tracks in freshly fallen snow, tufts of gray-brown fur caught on carefully planted snares, or scat left behind after consuming their favorite prey—snowshoe hares. After three years they found seven lynx. This is how you determine the population of a rare and elusive species.
As a biologist there is relief in knowing that although technology has allowed for greater knowledge of wildlife movements there is no replacement for a human being gathering these stories written on the landscape.
Halfpenny passes on the skills he’s learned by teaching classes through A Naturalist’s World. Halfpenny’s classes range from basic tracking to advanced tracking and various ecology classes, including trips to Greenland and Canada to view polar bears and learn about cold-weather ecology.
The B Word
One class caught my attention. It’s titled Forensic Analysis of Biped and Quadruped Footprints: Bigfoot to Cougars, Wolves, and Grizzlies.
So, of course, I had to ask about—Bigfoot?
Halfpenny is quick to point out that the class is not about whether Bigfoot exists, but the technology involved in tracking, including Photoshop analysis, laser detection of tracks, and three-dimensional construction of tracks. He teaches the class with Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University, a professor of anatomy and anthropology and the reigning authority on Bigfoot.
I ask Halfpenny if he has any anomalous tracks (my way of asking about Bigfoot without actually having to say it). He says, “Well, I have Bigfoot tracks,” and he walks me over to a table with five or six casts of large human-like footprints, but obviously too big to be human—alleged Bigfoot tracks. They are copies of tracks that have been accepted in the Bigfoot community as real, says Halfpenny.
“I used to get ‘Bigfoot’ specimens every other week, but now about every few months I’ll get something that someone thinks is Bigfoot,” says Halfpenny. “We provide an exclusionary service which means that we try to exclude every other possibility. We have five criteria which we use to prove a fake. If it passes the test, then it goes to Meldrum.”
I ask Halfpenny if he is a believer. He pauses then says, “I am a scientist and it’s a hypothesis that hasn’t been disproven. I’ve never seen anything that has convinced me of its existence.”
Curious to learn more, I give Meldrum a call. He tells me about his work researching the morphology and gaits of early hominids, and, of course, how he became interested in the existence of an as yet undiscovered hominid. He said that Halfpenny is skeptical, but has an open mind and is willing to come to the scene of potential Bigfoot tracks Meldrum might find in the forest. Halfpenny is still waiting for that call.
We’re lucky to live in an area where many wild animals are fairly visible (Bigfoot excluded). On most days visitors can view wolves in Lamar Valley or a grizzly bear (except in winter) in Hayden Valley, but for the most part we may not see many of the animals that surround us, especially the rare ones like lynx, wolverines, and fishers. I’ve often wondered on how many occasions cougars have watched my passing from a rocky ledge without my knowledge. I’m willing to bet more than a few.
Those With Eyes to See
Halfpenny would argue that we don’t need to see the animal to know the animal, but we do need to know how to read the landscape. It is a skill one develops over a lifetime of inquisitiveness and attention to detail, but even just having basic identification skills can add to our experience in nature.
This last summer I was backpacking with friends and co-workers. As a birder by trade I listened intently to bird calls, identifying each chip and song while tracking flicks of feathers through the canopy. The bear biologist among us, on the other hand, counted hundreds of torn up logs, diggings, scratches on trees, and hair snagged in bark that I would have missed had I not been hiking with him. We tend to see only what we are used to seeing, but if we expand our search image, to include all the signs of nature, we can learn so much more. Nature always has something to say, if we are paying attention and have a ruler on hand.