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.
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.