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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Expert tracker James Halfpenny measures the stride of a track at a workshop for DNr wildlife staff. © Robert Queen

February 2001

The herd that tracks the packs

A network of volunteers track wolves in Wisconsin's Northwoods each winter. You can join them.

Adrian P. Wydeven


Expert tracker James Halfpenny measures the stride of a track at a workshop for DNr wildlife staff.

© Robert Queen
Basic training | Start with a plan
Take your time and look closely | Look for other clues
The track pack keeps growing | To walk the walk
I got hooked on tracking | Saving the impression under foot

I was sitting in the Northwoods of Wisconsin in summer 1995 doing a bird survey for the State Breeding Bird Atlas. It occurred to me that the Atlas model was a terrific way to engage a large number of interested volunteers to assist in a wildlife survey. For the Atlas, volunteer birders are trained to periodically travel set territories and record breeding, nesting and field notes. The composite information will form a statewide record of the distribution and range of birds that breed here. I wondered if the same might be possible for mammals, particularly the gray wolf whose range is spreading in northern and central Wisconsin.

I was interested in building a cadre of trained trackers who might search for wolves and other forest carnivores during winter in northern and central Wisconsin, then file reports on their spreading range.

Winter is an ideal time for this work. Tracking within a day or so of a moderate snowfall provides a fresh record of animal movements and activities. Since 1977, Wisconsin wildlife managers have surveyed rural forested roads after fresh snowfalls to assess the abundance of furbearing mammals. These snow track surveys have been very helpful in judging animal range and health. Tracking surveys are impractical in warmer months when animals leave fewer signs. Also, radio-collared animals are much easier to track and see in winter after leaves have fallen and their bodies stand out more against the white snowy ground.

Wolf populations have been formally monitored in Wisconsin since 1979 when DNR started tracking their movements, trapping animals, attaching radio collars and conducting aerial telemetry surveys to estimate wolf numbers and movement. Dick Thiel and Bob Welch as volunteers did these first surveys, before Dick became the first DNR wolf biologist. Track surveys on American (pine) marten began by DNR in 1981. Similar surveys also record signs of other medium and large carnivores like fishers and bobcats that are readily detected through snowtracking.

We knew that a great trainer was available to coach the volunteers. Since 1994, world-renowned animal tracker James Halfpenny has come to Wisconsin every other year to train DNR staff and members of the general public in seeing and interpreting animal signs in winter. Halfpenny has written six books on mammal tracking, and his courses are very popular.

So in fall 1995, members of our state wolf team – Sarah Boles, Ron Schultz, Bekee Megown and I – designed a volunteer carnivore-tracking program modeled after the Breeding Bird Atlas survey. Though we emphasized wolves, we also wanted to train trackers to report signs of rare carnivores such as cougar, Canada lynx and wolverine as well as collecting additional information on other large and medium carnivores including coyote, fox (red and gray), free-roaming dogs, fisher, otter, badger, skunk, raccoon, bear, bobcat and free-roaming cats.

Walk the walk
Distinguishing animal tracks takes keen observation and experience. Like any field of study, tracking has its own terminology. Here are three key concepts used to describe and distinguish tracks.

A stride is the length measurement of one movement of one foot. The stride measurement of a walking, four-legged mammal, is approximately the length of its trunk from hip to shoulder. The stride is therefore very useful in obtaining size estimates of animals, as well as determining the relative speed of its movements.

A straddle is the width of the trail left by an animal. It is measured from the right edge of the right track to the left edge of the left track. Straddles are useful for determining the width of an animal.

A gait is the pattern of animal movements and includes walks, trots, gallops and bounds. Often gait patterns are important clues to identify animals and provide hints of the animal's behavior.

We thought that more trained eyes would lead to more accurate reporting of the growing wolf population. Currently we estimate Wisconsin has about 250 wolves spread among 66 packs. Lynx are extremely rare in Wisconsin, and there are probably no more than a few individuals in the state at any time. Cougars are reported year-round in the state, yet we have no verification of a wild cougar population; many of the reports are probably mistaken identity, and some may be of escaped pet cougars. We occasionally receive reports of wolverines, but we believe that in most of these accounts observers saw large fisher or perhaps dark-colored raccoons. A core group of trained trackers would certainly help assess if these carnivores are returning to the state.

Trackers are assigned to one or more of 126 survey blocks across northern and central Wisconsin. Each heavily forested block covers about 200 square miles, and trackers are asked to conduct at least three quality surveys of their parcels each winter. A good survey consists of checking 20 to 30 miles of snow-covered roads in the survey block when good tracking snow is present. Most of the survey consists of slowly driving snow-covered forest roads with frequent stops to get out, examine and measure tracks. Canids such as wolves, coyotes or foxes, often travel along snow-covered roads, and leave scent marks on the road shoulders. Members of the weasel family (mustelids including fishers and martens) often crisscross roads during their foraging activity. Wild cats such at the bobcat, cross roads least, but are occasionally detected crossing roads as they pass through their large territories.

During our first winter of tracking (1995-1996) we assigned 48 survey blocks to the volunteers. Last year we had enough help to assign 89 of 126 survey blocks. Generally we receive completed surveys for about 65 percent of the assigned blocks. We hope to eventually have all 126 blocks assigned and receive surveys from most blocks.

We started by assigning those blocks that we believed had the best potential for wolves and other rare carnivores. Although we are not surveying all blocks yet, we believe those blocks we are missing constitute more marginal habitat for rare carnivores.

Basic training

This year once again, James Halfpenny provided his comprehensive two-day program to teach volunteers how to identify tracks, gait patterns, scats, and interpret the story the animals tell through their other signs. The course involved both indoor lectures and outdoor practical experiences. In the odd years between Dr. Halfpenny's course, trained DNR trackers present one-day workshops to update volunteer trackers on the status of the research, as well as provide fresh lectures, view recent slides, examine track casts and review tracking fundamentals. Trackers are also taught to use field forms and encouraged to get group practice to consistently judge animal tracks. We also shared strategies for conducting surveys. Starting in 1998, a practical test was developed to hone volunteers' abilities to detect 25 Wisconsin mammals by their tracks and gait patterns. All trackers in 1998 and 1999 were reminded how to identify tracks.

Start with a plan

How does one start a search for wolf signs in a 200-square-mile area? We recommend starting with knowledgeable people. Budding trackers learn to interview fellow trackers and recreationists to learn where wolves have been reported before. First, plot these reports on detailed maps of the survey area.

I got hooked on tracking
In 1990, when I became involved with The Timber Wolf Alliance, I was content just knowing that a small population of wolves lived in Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I can still recall the feeling when I saw my first wolf track, staring in awe at its size. I envisioned the animal walking down the road and felt its presence. I was drawn to learn more about this elusive animal.

I attended several seminars that addressed wolf biology and the wolf's contributions to the ecosystem. It was a natural progression of my studies to attend the tracking workshop and become a member of the Wisconsin Volunteer Tracking Program.

I learned it wasn't as simple as I expected and how little I really knew. Gait patterns, straddle and stride were terms unfamiliar to me. But, I soon discovered their importance in identifying the animal that left the tracks. Because many tracks are similar, I had to consider other important clues such as habitant, weather conditions and temperature. I learned to observe each set of tracks for the story it told.

As I enter my sixth season of volunteer tracking, I look forward with enthusiasm to a fresh coating of snow. I see it as an opportunity to explore forest trails and uncover the many stories of the prior night. Each time I see the tracks of a deer spooked by a predator, or an otter that playfully slid down an embankment, where a wolf marked his territory, a coyote investigated the wolf or a bobcat stalked a grouse, I learn a little more about the animal and myself.

Tracking has enriched my life by increasing my awareness of my surroundings. I pay more attention to sounds, movements, indentations in the snow and disturbances in the brush, and have learned to better appreciate the beauty and serenity of winter.

– Nancy Warren, Ironwood, MI

Next, sit down with maps at your kitchen table. The DeLorme Wisconsin Atlas is a great tool for starters and national forest, state forest, and county highway maps are also useful for assessing the landscape. Topographic maps, at scales of 1:100,000 and 1:24,000, are available at map stores and the Wisconsin Geological Survey. Both topo maps provide useful information about the lay of the land, but the 1:24,000 map is almost too detailed for wolf surveys and they are not practical field maps – you'd need several maps to cover a survey block, because each map covers only a 54-square-mile area.

Once you have an impression of the lay of the land, think like an animal. Forest carnivores are going to prefer areas with extensive tree cover and few roads. Plan a survey route that allows you to travel unpaved roads and traverse across major portions of the block. We also advise trackers to communicate their plans thoroughly to other people so they can track you down, if need be. Make sure you share the details of your route. Tell people when you are leaving and when you expect to be back. That way, if you have a mishap on your journey, help can find you more quickly. For your own safety, also determine if cell phones or other communications equipment can keep you in touch while you are on your route.

Generally tracking is best about 24 hours after a fresh one- to three-inch snowfall, but up to two or three days after a fresh snowfall is suitable. The more days since the last snow, the greater the risk that animals may have followed the same road more than once, and could be over-counted. Also, more tire tracks will accumulate on the road making it harder to see good carnivore tracks.

Take your time and look closely

A wolf track looks like a very large dog track. The track includes four toe pads, with claws usually showing, and triangular shaped heel pad (interdigital pad). The overall shape of wolf tracks tends to be more rectangular or oval while dog tracks appear rounder in shape. You will learn to recognize these subtle differences. Wolf tracks without the claws are usually at least 3.5 inches on the front feet, but hind feet are slightly smaller to 3.2 inches. Tracks are usually about 3 to 3.5 inches wide. Claw length will add about one-half inch more to the footprint size. Therefore overall length would be four inches or more for front feet. Wolf feet also differ from dogs in that all 4 toes on wolves are pointed forword and appear parallel to each other while the outer toes of dogs tend to spread out more.

Wolves and dogs have different walking patterns too. When wolves walk or slowly trot at a steady pace, their hind feet step into the print of the front foot. This method, called direct registration, is also typical of other wild canids including coyotes and foxes. Paw prints seen in the wild are often a combination of front and hind prints. On the other hand, dogs have broader chests and tend to walk in a pattern where hind feet step to the side of the front prints.

Coyote tracks are much smaller than wolf tracks and narrower than most dog tracks. The coyote's front feet are usually less than 2.75 inches long and only about 2 inches wide.

Look for other clues

Other clues can help distinguish wolf tracks from dog tracks. When wolves defecate, their scat seen along with the tracks are long, cylindrical, full of hair and have tapered ends. Dog scat have little hair, are full of cereal material and do not have tapered ends. The animal's direction of travel may also be a clue; dog tracks may lead toward human residences, or may suddenly disappear where human tracks and a vehicle were parked. In the past, the presence of human tracks along with large canid tracks generally indicated one was tracking a dog, but currently as more people follow wolves, this clue needs to be treated with more caution.

Wolves sniffing for signs of prey or following a track from the pack. © Monty Sloan
Wolves sniffing for signs of prey or following a track from the pack.

© Monty Sloan

Often no one clue will completely distinguish wolf tracks from dog tracks; as an observer, you need to piece together a combination of clues. When in doubt, take a good photo of the track with a ruler laid next to it, and take some careful measurements. Tracks can also be "captured" by pouring a plaster cast, or tracing the track with a grease pencil on small pieces of Plexiglas. Document new tracks carefully in areas where wolf tracks have not been previously recorded.

Once wolf tracks have been identified and verified, the next step is determining the number of wolves. You might think this is relatively easy; just count all the tracks heading in one direct, right? Well, it's not usually that easy. Tracks need to be carefully examined to make sure a wolf isn't simply going back and forth. You also want to make sure that wandering animals are not counted more than once. Often vehicle tracks will obliterate some of the paw prints, and getting an accurate account of the pack size becomes a bit like trying to put a puzzle together with pieces missing. In deep snow, wolves often travel single file, making it difficult to get a good count. Even in shallow snow , wolves will sometimes walk single file. Getting accurate wolf counts from their tracks requires some careful forest detective work.

Along with learning about wolves, volunteer trackers are taught to identify tracks of coyotes, dogs, fox, badger, fisher, otter, skunk, bear, raccoon, bobcat, cat, cougar, lynx and other carnivores. Though the surveys are not intended to search for prey species that wolves eat, the trackers often learn to recognize deer tracks, snowshoe hare, moose, elk, porcupine and other mammals as well. This leads to better interpretations in field notes and adds to the enjoyment of animal tracking.

The track pack keeps growing

More than 300 people have taken the training courses, and from 50 to 130 volunteers conduct track surveys annually. Eventually, we hope all 126 blocks of the northern and central forests will be annually surveyed by these trained trackers broadening our understanding of the changing wolf population, verifying populations of other carnivores and providing warning signs if steps need to be taken to conserve these species. Of course, we also hope these keen observations give more people another reason to journey outside and enjoy watching wildlife in Wisconsin's winter forests.

Adrian P. Wydeven is the DNR's wolf biologist stationed in Park Falls.

Saving the impression underfoot
Whether you are trailing wolves or just want to have fun with children, casting animal tracks is neat way to keep a record of what you saw afield. This technique is easy to do and it works whether the prints are in snow or mud.

Since you're so keen on tracking, try hunting down these supplies around the house or borrow them from your artful friends: a small amount of spray shellac or spray plastic, a canteen with a few cups of water, plaster of Paris, a few one-pound tin cans to mix ingredients, cardboard strips two inches wide and about 10 inches long, spray bottles filled with water, a stirring stick and a jackknife.

  1. Look for a good track in heavier soil or fairly heavy snow.

  2. Carefully clean away loose particles of soil, twigs, leaves or other litter without disturbing the track.

  3. Prepare and harden the track a bit by gently spraying it with shellac or plastic. If the weather is well below freezing, you can substitute a fine mist of water and wait for it to harden for at least five to ten minutes.

  4. Prepare a circular collar from the cardboard strips and fasten them with paper clips. If the tracks are close and small, consider casting several tracks at once. Place the cardboard collar on edge and gently tap it into the soil or snow. When casting in snow, the temperature should be well below freezing because the plaster mix will give off a little heat. Press the collar into the ground to give it support. Make sure that at least an inch of the collar extends above the ground to form and edge for the plaster mold.

  5. Mix about two cups of plaster of Paris with a scant cup of cold water in the tin can or plastic cup. You want a slurry that is about seven parts plaster to four parts water. Mix with a stirring stick. You may need to sprinkle a bit more plaster into the mix until it is about as thick as pancake batter or pudding. If you are casting a large track and think it may take a lot of time to pour in the casting mix, then add a few drops of vinegar to the mixture just before pouring it to slow the hardening time. On the other hand, a pinch of salt will speed up the set time if you are casting in snow.

  6. Pour the plaster gently into the collar filling the track first. If you are crafting a holiday ornament, just fill the track itself. If you are making a paperweight, fill the collar to about -inch thickness. Tap the collar gently to force up air bubbles and settle the plaster into small areas of the track. As the plaster begins to set, a paper clip can be inserted at an angle into the edge of the wet plaster to serve as a hangar, or place small screw eyes near opposite edges of the cast as the mixture starts to set up. The track cast should dry in about 20-30 minutes, perhaps as long as an hour or longer in really cold weather or on really damp soil.

  7. When the plaster has hardened, loosen the soil or snow around the collar before removing the cast. When the cast is completely cured, lift it out carefully and brush off any excess soil. Later, clean the cast by scraping it gently with a knife blade and washing it with a damp cloth.

  8. Now you have what is referred to as a "negative" – a raised likeness – of the track. Take the next few steps only if you want to create a likeness of the actual sunken track.

  9. Apply a thin coat of petroleum jelly to the surface of the track and surrounding face of the mold. Place the cast on newspaper on a flat surface and surround the casting with a two-inch strip of cardboard that is stapled or taped on the outside with duct tape. Make sure that the top surface of the casting is smooth and level with the mold.

  10. Mix plaster of Paris and pour into the mold. If you plan on using the casting as a wall plaque, place small screw eyes in the back of the casting while the plaster is hardening but is still soft. Allow at least two hours for the plaster to harden.

  11. Carefully remove the mold when the plaster is dry. Separate the two layers and wipe the excess petroleum jelly from the face of the cast and track. Scrape away any rough spots with a knife blade, or use fine sandpaper to smooth the surface. Wash the completed cast in a small stream of running water.

  12. When your creations are thoroughly dry, you can coat them with a thin layer of shellac or clear liquid plastic to protect and preserve the print.

Happy trails and good tracking!