Track and Sign: A Different Perspective

My experience tracking animals previous to a Wilderness and Civilization trip with a world-renowned tracker consisted of spending time outside, seeing tracks and signs, and thinking little of them. From what I learned, track and sign has a lot to do with paying attention to what you see and using biological knowledge to interpret this “data”. As a science-minded person, this process of guess-and-check hypothesis development is particularly appealing to me. Tracking animals requires some knowledge of their life histories and biology, but a lot can be learned from simply observing patterns and guessing their significance. For a beginner tracker with good critical thinking skills, this process is appealing to me.

The November morning  we went out was cold and foggy, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to be a buck hunkered down in his bed at this time. In my down coat and hard shell, I was still cold in this record warm year. Yet, herds of elk and deer, coyotes, river otters, beavers, and magpies had been about in the last few days, their tracks remembered in the sand and the dirt during the warmer parts of the day. As the sun came out and we emerged onto the sandbar, I warmed up, and we examined the record of these species upon the sand. We were asked a series of questions about different tracks and signs. We were given time to develop hypothesis about each scenario, and then we discussed them as a group.

Often, I was not aware of the biological phenomenon or specific morphological feature of an animal that created the tracks or signs we examined; however, I found that I could more times than not hypothesize the correct cause of each phenomena. In many ways, this process mirrors the scientific method. Scientists create hypothesis that that explain the phenomena they observe without knowing their cause (or, in some cases, even being able to directly measure them). Trackers do the same.

Putting oneself into another’s perspective can be an important exercise. To track an animal, you must think from its perspective to understand how and why it did what it did, to interpret track and sign, and to create a narrative of its movement through the landscape. If we repeated this exercise by putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, considering the “how” and “why” of their movement through the landscape—literal or figurative—we might better understand each other. Increased awareness is always good, whether it cues us in on the actions of another animal or another human.

 

Blackfoot Challenge

I worked for the summer on a plant ecology project in the Blackfoot Valley. We had ten field sites throughout the valley, some on the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, some on land managed for waterfowl production, some on the UM-owned Bandy Ranch, and some on private land. These different sites were under different management regimes, and it was very interesting to me to observe the differences in plant biodiversity among sites. I enjoyed living in the Blackfoot for the summer, but I was unaware of the invaluable work being done by the Blackfoot Challenge and its partners in the area. Traveling to Ovando for a Wilderness and Civilization field trip, I learned a lot about the place I called home for the summer and was inspired by the effective collaborative work being done.

As a future scientist (in some capacity), I think often about how scientists can take a more active role in implementing management and policy changes. Often, regardless of science, the largest challenge in solving ecological issues is getting land owners and land managers—private and public—to change behavior and policy in order to improve management. In many cases, it doesn’t matter how much data there is supporting a certain solution. Without changes in how we manage and interact with the landscape, effective progress will not happen. Blackfoot Challenge is a great example of how a community has come together to make meaningful behavioral and management changes to conserve land and water resources.

Over 80% of the Blackfoot Valley is currently under some sort of conservation easement or other type of protection, which is unheard of. Worldwide, only a very small fraction of all land is protected in any way. Image the impact if this ratio were applied worldwide! To me, one of the most important factors here is that land in the Blackfoot Valley is under protection, but it is still able to be used by the people who live there to make a livelihood. Jim Stone is a big proponent of conservation, but he is still able to make a living ranching on his land. His process of improving grazing is largely trail-and-error, but he is taking steps to improve his grazing practices to improve plant diversity and wildlife habitat.

I think a lot about how we can change our interactions with the landscape in the interfaces through which we effect it the most—ranching, farming, and extractive industries—in order to improve ecosystem health. Of course, protecting land is important, but the large amount of land that still must be under use by humans in order to support our populations cannot be sacrificed. I appreciate how the Blackfoot Challenge has implemented many types of solutions—creating conservation easements, managing invasive weeds, restoring tributaries of the Blackfoot River, providing educational opportunities, etc. Together, these different methods achieve a much more comprehensive effect than relying on one strategy to improve ecosystem function.

The Rock Cult

The capstone of the Wilderness and Civilization program, in a way, occurs in its first ten days, which are spent backpacking through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On a trip of this length, you’re bound to find out a lot about yourself, the people you’re hiking with, and the place you’re traveling through. Perhaps a little more than you want to know…

The trip began in the last week of August, still summer, though temperatures at higher altitude where we would be backpacking had already fallen. It rained eight out of the ten days, and we spent many hours with wet boots and clothes slogging through mud. The scenery was beautiful, of course, and there were thimbleberries along the trail to be had, but after a few days of cold and wetness that we weren’t ready for in August, our morale was low.

On the third day, our group leader came across a large rock (at least 10 lbs) with a hole right through it. He’d tied it to a string and forced himself to carry it around his neck as punishment for leaving his trekking pole behind miles before when we had stopped to pick huckleberries. Here begun the rock cult. The rock was to be called Lenny and the purpose of the cult was to convince others to carry Lenny the very heavy rock for no reason at all. Good luck, I thought.

By that night, Lenny had already been smashed due to foul play, so I figured the Rock Cult was over. Turns out, we found another nearly identical heavy rock with a hole through it just down the trail, and the cult was revived. Even the sound of the water squashing around my shoes couldn’t down out the sound of the cult members chanting what sounded like “E-R-S-2 Lenny-day. E-R-S-2 Rock-we-day”. Whatever that means, I thought. Couldn’t they find something more interesting to talk about? Wasn’t this supposed to be an educational experience?

By the end of the trip, we had gone through three Lennys (Lenny, Lemmy, and Lenora), all equally lovely large rocks with holes through them. There had been a Judas-style betrayal in the cult, recorded in our trip journal, the betrayer had been re-baptized into the cult using the water from a stream, and Lenny had thrice been murdered in some way (however you might murder a rock, that is). While at the time my mood had often been clouded by grumpiness generated by being wet, cold, and a bit hungry, I look back on this trip and the Rock Cult fondly.

As children, we freely make believe, changing the world we are experiencing before our eyes. When it’s snowing in August and you’ve been hiking in wet boots for six miles, who wants to talk about the current state of the world? What’s the point of laboring over evolutionary theory, or contemplating strategies of wilderness management? Part of physically removing yourself from society by getting out into the wilderness is mentally freeing yourself from its constructs. Why not, for that matter, create a new society where a heavy rock is King and you are to do his bidding?