Observer Reliability in Wildlife Tracking and Natural Sign Surveys

IMG_5025The use of wildlife tracking methods has been a fundamental part of wildlife research since the inception of the field. However, modern studies testing the reliability of data collected via natural sign surveys have found widely varying degrees of accuracy depending on the type of sign, the specificity of the data required, and the skill of the observer. Poorly designed studies or unskilled observers have contributed to grossly inaccurate assessments of populations of rare and sensitive species. Conversely, skilled observers can collect highly reliable and unique data non-invasively in a time and cost effective manner. Evaluation of local experts and professional biologists has demonstrated that wildlife tracking proficiency in the field is often not associated with academic scientific training.

The perception of an inability to reliably identify tracks and signs in the field, in conjunction with increasing accessibility of DNA analysis from scat and hair samples, and possibly decreasing practical field skills in the general population of wildlife researchers, has led to a decreased reliance on wildlife tracking for data collection. Despite this, even were track and sign evidence is not the primary data collection method, tracking skills are often employed in the set up and execution of wildlife research. Interpretation of sign found in the field is often invaluable in background work for projects such as determining locations for camera or hair traps or finding and capturing wildlife in order to attach telemetry devices.

Recognition of the value of wildlife tracking as a fundamental field skill for wildlife research, discrete from other parts of scientific training, can help effectively employ such techniques in the field. Cybertracker Conservation International conducts field-based evaluations of wildlife tracking skills in order to recognize and certify individuals’ wildlife tracking skills. As in all data collection methods, creating standards for accepting tracking evidence as verified is crucial to the reliability of projects that use these methods. The certification of observers is one method to help create such standards.

David Moskowitz is an Evaluator for Cybertracker Conservation in North America as well as a consulting biologist, educator, and photographer. He is the author of two books, Wolves in the Land of Salmon and Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates.