Monday, November 24, 2014

Tracking: The Odyssey by Simon Dykstra and Luke Santore

Casey Teaching
Its safe to say that none of us knew what to expect when we learned that we were going on a wildlife tracking field trip. Even more confusion was caused upon learning that our first stop was Walmart. 

We spent the first hour of the day perusing the wrong Walmart for any sign of our teacher. Unfortunately we had not yet learned how to track, so we resorted to direct communication. Once we arrived at the right Walmart (who knew there was two??) our teacher quickly grasped our attention. He lead us past the neighborhood pawn shop and pointed out some stray beer cans. "Signs of the local denizens! We may wake someone up." In classic Wilderness and Civ style, we proceeded to tromp through the underbrush until we reached our destination- the underpass under Reserve. With a four lane highway roaring overhead, we studied the ground at our feet. Most of us had never tracked anything before. Raccoon prints were baby hands and cranes were clear evidence of Big Bird. We never expected to find a major wildlife corridor under a heavily trafficked bridge. By mornings end however, Casey had given us a wealth of tracking knowledge. Enough to go make educated guesses at the MPG Ranch. 

Corey Knoweldging
We pulled up next to an excavator and a half built mini-shed and wandered down into the floodplain that borders Highway 12 and the Bitterroot river. Over the next seven hours, we hiked about a mile and a half and had a great time doing it. Every aspen grove and field was filled with adventure and knowledge. We learned the story of the field mouse a.k.a the vole. Its a tiny thing with big impact. Casey revealed its corridors within the grass. Barely noticeable to the untrained eye. He told us that they are in fact ecosystem engineers on par with beavers (wow!). In the winter they nibble on baby trees just budding out of the ground, effectively stalling forest succession. The effect is a more open and varied habitat more suitable to the likes of Elk and other wildlife. This is but one example of how much Casey had to say about every track or sign we passed. Each one held a bit of history in it. They could tell us how and when an animal moved through. Tracks and signs could also tell us the way in which an animal moves through the forest. This simple bit of info seemed to, as Casey said, develop a more direct and personal, even intimate, relationship with wildlife. It was plain to see that plenty of animals lived inside of Casey considering how he emulated the cambium-gnawing Elk with such precision. 

Beautiful sunset while waiting for certificates

Tracking is often called natural literacy. Not being able to read and write is as much of a hindrance as not being able to read the sign in the landscape around you. We all found a new value in the outdoors that we never knew had existed. Tracking wildlife gives you a unique perspective into their world and behaviors, making them more than just animals who live in the woods. Each sign we observed told a story of the intentions and intelligence of the creature making it. Wether or not we earned certificates in tracking, the knowledge we gained was invaluable. We all walked away with a new appreciation for the life of ecosystems, an impressive feat considering our background in the outdoors. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Varied Landscape by Aaron Adamski and Christian Lipscomb

“Here we go again” was the thought that crossed my mind as I met at the UMT Motor Pool with my fellow sleep deprived and greasy Wilderness & Civilization students.  There was no chance to relive the Trixie’s bar experience on this field trip, for we were headed towards the strange lands of Idaho. 
Our instructor, Natalie Dawson, turned onto highway 12 outside of Lolo, MT.  A vehicle full of caffeine fueled college students pleaded our case to make a “quick” stop at Jerry Johnson hot springs.  With a lead foot on the gas and a sarcastic chuckle the Judge simply replied with, “no”.  Accepting the Judge’s decision we turned on the jams and took in the multitude of fall hues that streamed passed the windows like water colors.

A quick stop at Lolo Pass visitor center, and we were soon on our way again.  About 10 miles down the road we made our first stop.  The Devoto Red Cedar Grove is a pocket of old growth forest tucked away in the Clearwater National Forest.  The trees reach maturity around 500 years, while some can grow to be 3000 years old.  The gnarled bark stretches upwards far enough to make your neck ache.  The sunlight struggles to break through the thick canopy while the undergrowth remorselessly competes for it.  This area collects about 90 inches of annual precipitation, which is why this type of vegetation grows this far inland.  The orographic effect of the Bitterroot Mountains from the westerly weather patterns creates a situation that releases the moisture from the saturated clouds as they move farther east.

After collecting all of our observation data for the Devoto Grove, we packed up and hit the road.  We headed back up in elevation to the pass. Lodgepole pines were spread across the landscape at Lolo Pass.  None of them were extremely tall, and there were old scars on the land from clear cutting.  The strong orographic effect cuts the precipitation levels almost in half in a very short distance. This large drop in precipitation changed the vegetation in the area from red cedars to lodgepole pines.  After solving that mystery the Wild & Civ gang was off.

Our next area of inspection was Fort Fizzle.  On the way we drove to the Lolo complex fire and the Judge explained that this area was a cold pocket where the temperatures often drop below freezing because of the low lying area surrounded by mountains.  The majority of the vegetation in the area is ponderosa pines and cottonwoods.  The amount of precipitation at Fort Fizzle is greatly reduced, because the stingy pass wrings out the clouds and leaves no rain for the lower east side of the mountains.  The annual precipitation is 26 inches.  Ponderosa pines grow here because they prefer dry climates and have evolutionarily adapted to fire.  This low lying area that is adjacent to Lolo Creek is a prime habitat for the moisture hungry cottonwoods.  The trees were spread fairly far apart making it easy for the undergrowth to grab sunlight.  Concluding our observations we headed back to the semi-arid Missoula climate. 

Blue Mountain is a large recreation area for the local community.  Miles and miles of trails cut through the grasslands that grow into forested mountain tops.  The lack of trees makes this area a prime recreation area.  The grasses are the major vegetation in the area with a few lonely ponderosa pines scattered throughout.  The precipitation is extremely low at an average of only 16 inches, making it very difficult for larger vegetation to grow.  Thinking back to the Red Cedar Grove it is surreal to see the large change in environment over the small distance of 70 miles. 

Returning to the Motor Pool the Judge released us on parole and another eye opening field trip was in the books.