Snow School

It was my last week here at Swan Valley Connections. A bittersweet end to such an amazing time. I spent my last week primarily in the field, exploring new areas and working on my track identification. Badger, bobcat, wolf and lynx were just of the few species we were able to track, but my last day was spent a little bit differently than the rest. I was fortunate to help instruct 20 students from Potomac in a day of Snow School. Our primary objective for the day was to get kids out on snow shoes and to teach them about winter ecology, including plant and animal adaptation as well as some basic snow science. We built snow pits and measured the temperate as well as took snow water equivalent measurements. We built homes for our “animals” (cups of hot water) to teach the students about the insulating properties of snow. The students loved caring for their animals and were all pleased to find that each individual made it through our winter. The game the students loved the most though was a game of camouflage. Similar to hide and seek although the seeker isn’t allowed to move. The students had to earn their food to survive the winter and some even adapted by being given white sheets. We went on color hunts and did memorization scavenger hunts. Over all the students had an amazing day, and I walked away with a renewed sense of wonder and the possibility of discovery fresh in my mind.

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.


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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An Old Path, A New Direction

As I read through past blog posts I find a unique, eloquent, voice that radiates through each passage. Individuals that have traveled to different countries, experiencing new cultures, and are faced with adjusting to a new way of life. I am confronted with a much different experience.

I was raised in the Swan Valley, which is located in Montana’s Crown of the Continent. I moved to Missoula in 2006 and although I had returned to the valley over the years I didn’t feel connected to the place like I had as a young child. In the fall of 2014 I returned to the Valley to participate in Northwest Connection’s field semester- Landscape and Livelihood. Prior to this program I had lost the appreciation for the unique culture and beauty that has been bestowed upon this small town. It re-kindled that sense of belonging- the pride and responsibility that develops around a place that you love and care for.

I kept in contact with Connections over the past year and looked for an opportunity to return and work with the organization. My wish was granted when a position as a field technician on their winter Rare Carnivore Monitoring Project opened up. I was elated to have the opportunity to join the crew and be a part of on the ground monitoring efforts that will help to inform management decisions and conservation strategies in the area as well as gather invaluable information on the distribution and abundance of three target species: Canada lynx, Wolverine and Fisher.

When I looked for a Beyond the Classroom Experience, I wanted to do something unique, something that would connect me to my theme and allow me to explore the concept of sustainable “rural” growth and development through education. The Rare Carnivore Project did just that, and I look forward to the coming weeks and the opportunity this internship presents.

I included a video below that was taken from Northwest Connection’s website on the field work we are doing. The second link is on the project itself.