Track and Sign Certification in the Swan Valley, Montana with Northwest Connections

Northwest Connections is an innovative organization which runs a variety of biological monitoring, conservation, and educational programs all revolving around the unique and wild landscape of the Swan Valley in northwestern Montana where they are based. In April, I delivered a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event for them. A very talented group endured challenging field conditions (including about 5 inches of fresh snow Saturday night and Sunday!) and everyone in the group earned a Certificate. My friend and colleague Emily Gibson came along to take some photographs and I am grateful to her for sharing a number of the images for this post!

 We started the evaluation on the Northwest Connections campus on the Swan River. Here I am explaining how the evaluation process works at the start of the first day.

We started the evaluation on the Northwest Connections campus on the Swan River. Here I am explaining how the evaluation process works at the start of the first day.

 The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.

The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.

 Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died.

Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died.

 Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

 Heavy snow Saturday night and Sunday morning called for desperate measures. Here Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Coordinator for Northwest Connections, uses a broom to brush snow off of sign we had found during our scouting for the evaluation.

Heavy snow Saturday night and Sunday morning called for desperate measures. Here Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Coordinator for Northwest Connections, uses a broom to brush snow off of sign we had found during our scouting for the evaluation.

 The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

 Mike points out one of the questions on the evaluation about a mountain lion scat and scrape, created by a scent marking behavior of the large cat, found along the same game trail as the claw marks from the previous photo.

Mike points out one of the questions on the evaluation about a mountain lion scat and scrape, created by a scent marking behavior of the large cat, found along the same game trail as the claw marks from the previous photo.

 We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

 A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

 Every question on the evaluation is discussed thoroughly after all the participants have submitted their answers. Here we are discussing the sign left behind by an elk which used its incisors to peel bark on a small tree and then rub its head against the tree, a common scent marking behavior of elk.

Every question on the evaluation is discussed thoroughly after all the participants have submitted their answers. Here we are discussing the sign left behind by an elk which used its incisors to peel bark on a small tree and then rub its head against the tree, a common scent marking behavior of elk.

 The shredded bark has all been peeled upwards due to the fact that elk only have lower incisors. Numerous hairs from the elk got stuck in the ragged bark and sticky pitch of the tree.

The shredded bark has all been peeled upwards due to the fact that elk only have lower incisors. Numerous hairs from the elk got stuck in the ragged bark and sticky pitch of the tree.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

Level 2 Certificates Awarded: Jim Quinn, Trenton Harper, Scott Tomson, Andrea Stephens

Level 3 Certificates Awarded: Cassie March, Luke Lamar, Lara Arvidson, Mike Stevenson, Alissa Anderson, Rebekah Rafferty

For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit trackercertification.com

North Cascades National Park Wildlife Tracking Certification

 The right front foot of a mink (Neovison vison) in fine glacial silt found close to the mouth of Thunder Creek.

The right front foot of a mink (Neovison vison) in fine glacial silt found close to the mouth of Thunder Creek.

In mid-June North Cascades Institute hosted the first Wildlife Tracking Certification Event in North Cascades National Park. Besides a diversity of tracks and signs some challenging field conditions including some classic North Cascades rain and multi-element bushwacking/wading added to the experience for myself as the evaluator and for participants! Here are a few of the highlights from the Evaluation.

 These tracks of a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) were found just down the shore from the mink.

These tracks of a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) were found just down the shore from the mink.

 This unusual sign of a beaver (Castor canadensis) in the riparian forest along Thunder Creek stumped many.

This unusual sign of a beaver (Castor canadensis) in the riparian forest along Thunder Creek stumped many.

 Roger Bean, who earned a Level III Track and Sign Certification contemplates the beaver feeding sign during the evaluation.

Roger Bean, who earned a Level III Track and Sign Certification contemplates the beaver feeding sign during the evaluation.

 The weathered track of a black bear (Ursus americanus).

The weathered track of a black bear (Ursus americanus).

 Terry Kem, founder of Deerdance, earned a Level III Cerftication as well on the evaluation, seen here photographing a sign post tree well used by black bears along Thunder Creek.

Terry Kem, founder of Deerdance, earned a Level III Cerftication as well on the evaluation, seen here photographing a sign post tree well used by black bears along Thunder Creek.

 Moose (Alces alces) are rarely sighted in western portion of the North Cascades, but these pellets indicate one had passed by the Easy Pass Trailhead along the North Cascades Scenic Highway.

Moose (Alces alces) are rarely sighted in western portion of the North Cascades, but these pellets indicate one had passed by the Easy Pass Trailhead along the North Cascades Scenic Highway.

 Scat from a bushytailed woodrat (left, Neotoma cinerea) and a pika (Ochotona princeps) were both discovered in a large talus field.

Scat from a bushytailed woodrat (left, Neotoma cinerea) and a pika (Ochotona princeps) were both discovered in a large talus field.

 Susan Brown, a graduate student in the North Cascades Institutes Masters of Education program, assisted with the evaluation. Pictured here by a powerline pole that had been bitten and rubbed on by black bears.   

Susan Brown, a graduate student in the North Cascades Institutes Masters of Education program, assisted with the evaluation. Pictured here by a powerline pole that had been bitten and rubbed on by black bears.

 

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the Evaluation. Of 10 participants, 3 Level III , 3 Level II , and one Level I certificates were awarded. For a list of certified trackers in North America click here.

Do mink (Neovison vison) have webbed feet?

 Left front foot.

Left front foot.

While researching and writing my field guide I encountered various published accounts of the foot structure of mink (Neovison vison). Because of these discrepancies I sought out specimens to examine personally. I examined the feet of 3 recently deceased mink, all from western Washington as well as about a dozen museum skins at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. All of the green specimins I examined showed mesial webbing on both front and hind feet. Some of the museum skins did as well, while others where dried in such a way so as to make analysis of this impossible. None of the green specimins or museum skins were clearly lacking webbing between toes. The amount of webbing is slightly less than in their larger cousins, river otters (Lutra canadensis) but is none the less quite clear. As is typical with the tracks of most web-footed animals, webbing can be detected in footprints in deep substrates but is often not apparent where substrate is firmer.The photos of actual feet bellow are from a male mink which was killed by a vehicle in the Snoqualmie River Valley, King County, Washington in 2009.

 Left front foot with toes splayed showing mesial webbing between toes.

Left front foot with toes splayed showing mesial webbing between toes.

 Hind feet.

Hind feet.

 Toes splayed on hind foot revealing webbing.

Toes splayed on hind foot revealing webbing.

 Top view of a hind foot also showing webbing.

Top view of a hind foot also showing webbing.

 All four tracks of a mink in a typical loping pattern for the species. In this deep substrate the webbing between the toes has registered. Tracks from along the Snohomish River, Snohomish County, Washington.

All four tracks of a mink in a typical loping pattern for the species. In this deep substrate the webbing between the toes has registered. Tracks from along the Snohomish River, Snohomish County, Washington.

 Closer view of two tracks (left hind on top of left front) from the same set of tracks as above.

Closer view of two tracks (left hind on top of left front) from the same set of tracks as above.

 Tracks a small (likely female) mink from along the Yakima River in Kittatas County, Washington, also in a typical loping pattern. In this firmer substrate the mesial webbing has not registered.

Tracks a small (likely female) mink from along the Yakima River in Kittatas County, Washington, also in a typical loping pattern. In this firmer substrate the mesial webbing has not registered.