Tracks, Scat, and Snowmobiles

Although I have been fortunate enough to travel and work abroad, there is something very unique about intimately learning about the place you are from. I think place-based, experiential education is key to the success of students, and now more than ever I hold that to be true.

We spent our first week of the project going through an in-depth training, where we traveled to Seeley to coordinate with the Forest Service who are our partners on this project. We covered the basics- the purpose of the project as well as the history and data that has been collected over the past four years. We learned the protocol for bait station set-ups, the importance of winter-tracking, snow-mobile mechanics, avalanche safety and first-aid as well as our emergency response procedure.

The content of our first week was extremely important, but the anticipation to get in the field was building, and I couldn’t wait to get on our sleds and head into the field. We had long days ahead of us, but the payoff is big.

We set out on Monday, and although we usually head out in groups of two, we went out as a group of four to make sure everyone was on the same page. Immediately the trails were inundated with tracks, and we had our GPS units out marking waypoints for wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions (below is a picture of us taking measurements on a track to identify the species).

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We made it about 5 miles in before we broke for lunch; over-looking the Swan Valley where we enjoyed the views and were greeted by two soaring golden eagles (lunch spot is pictured below).

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We continued on, where we would set up our first official bait station. I included a link in my last post but I will post the map here of our grid system, 5×5 mile cell units that draw on research from Squires that states in an 8×8 mile grid cell if lynx are present you will detect tracks in that cell. The reason the cell unit is smaller is to account for the distribution of Fisher, whose home range is smaller.

Southwestern-Crown-Carnivore-Monitoring-Project-Bait-Stations-2014

The bait stations we set up use a combination of bait and lure to draw in our target species, we have gun brushes positioned on the tree to grab any fur from suspected species (this is an extremely non-intrusive DNA extraction technique). Pictured below are two field-techs setting up our bait station.

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The following day we split into our designated groups and set out into the field in pairs. After snowmobiling into our unit we soon found lynx tracks, we hopped off our snowmobiles to take some measurements- a female lynx was suspected. We set off on snowshoes to backtrack and attempt to find DNA samples (either urine, feces, or even vomit). We were surprised to find multiple individuals- we had discovered a mother lynx with two yearlings! We spent the next three hours backtracking through wetlands, up mountainsides, across the road and back through the woods, collecting 9 genetic samples.

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We returned home later than anticipated but elated with our findings. We headed into the field the next morning where we set up three more bait stations, and a few game cameras. The game cameras help us to confirm our track surveys and genetic samples, and can help guide the lab to detect individuals.

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We returned home after we were hit with an intense snow that left us soaking wet and tired after digging out the sleds. Although we still were referencing our maps through it all.

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