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Tracks are clues to elusive animals

Tom Wiesen
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Animal tracks surround us in the winter and residents can learn to notice the different patterns from the chairlift, the car and while walking.

Fresh snow is a perfect medium for tracks, because animals leave their footprints every time they move. With each fresh snowfall, the slate starts clean and you can tell that the tracks are fresh.

Interpreting animal tracks is rewarding, because you can enjoy the presence of wild animals even when you don’t see them.

Naturalist tools

Tracks are “hard evidence” left by the animals surrounding us. Even though we may rarely catch glimpses of the secretive critters, remember that they are active mostly at night, sunrise and sunset.

Some wild animals are stealthy and are difficult to view, such as mountain lions, but with some new “naturalist tools” to work with, you’ll have the opportunity enjoy the presence of wildlife more than ever.

Interpreting tracks is like playing detective, carefully analyzing clues left behind. The clues are collectively known as ‘animal sign,’ which includes tracks, droppings, claw marks, chew marks and scenting, among other indicators. These signs are tangible evidence that animals were here.

Walking, hopping and trotting

Tracks are not entirely mysterious. Once you have a repertoire of track patterns, you too can learn to recognize a track quickly, even from the car or chairlift.

All animals choose the mode of propulsion which is most efficient for their body type. For instance, walking is great for conserving energy. Without stopping to rest, many of us can walk much farther than we can run.

Humans are a fine example of walkers: walking is our primary mode of travel while out on the trail. Why don’t we hop, trot or skip instead? Because it takes less energy to walk to a destination. It comes down to efficiency.

Out in the wild, where efficiency is essential, animals travel in three main modes: walking, hopping and trotting.

Foot formula

Walkers include coyotes, bobcats, elk, deer, porcupines and beavers. Steady alternating left-right, left-right, tells us it’s a walking gait.

We’ll call this tip the three print principle: take a series of three of the footprints in the walking track and make a line at #1 and #3. The distance between the lines tells us the length of the animal from hip to shoulder. In other words, the length of the animal without the head and tail – and this tells you a lot.

You certainly know the relative lengths of a porcupine, a coyote, and an elk. The three-print principal applies only to walkers.

Look further at several of the individual footprints. Do you notice hoof prints or do the prints consist of feet with individual toes and pads?

If you see hooves, look at the toes. Are they fat, rounded toes in a robust print? If so, then it’s possibly an elk, mountain goat or moose. If the toes pointed, in a petite, dainty track then it’s probably a deer. If the toes are splayed outward, you may be looking at the track of a bighorn sheep.

Heel-toe

If you see footprints with pads in a medium sized walker, coyote, bobcat, or mountain lion are good choices. You can tell coyote footprints by carefully looking for remnant claw marks in the front of the prints.

Canines, such as coyotes, show claw marks with footprints that are longer than they are wide. On the other hand, cats such as bobcats or mountain lions have retractile claws, so the claws rarely show.

Cat feet are completely round – that is, they are as wide as they are long. Bobcat tracks are dainty while mountain lions are heavy and their tracks are as large as a human fist. If you see curious prints that look similar to human hands and feet, it’s quite possibly a bear. Bears, like humans, walk heel-toe, heel-toe.

Predators prowl

Hoppers include squirrels, snowshoe hares, cottontail rabbits and mice. For these animals, it is simply more efficient to propel themselves by leaping forward, up and out of the snow, landing and then jumping again.

The width of the track tells us the width of the animal’s hips. We can all judge the relative distance across the hips when comparing a 1-inch wide mouse, a 3-inch wide squirrel, and a 6-inch wide snowshoe hare.

Snowshoe hare and pine squirrels are found in pine, spruce and fir forests. Also, keep an eye out for tracks of their predators, bobcats and pine martens, who also frequent these forests.

Hopping tracks differ from walking tracks in that there are not obvious lefts and rights. Instead, the tracks appear in a straight line. Each set of prints contains all four feet – two fronts and two rears.

The front feet appear in the rear of the print, because when a hopping animal is in motion, the front feet land and are overstepped by the rears. The animal then propels itself forward using its powerful hind legs. This observation also helps us establish the animal’s direction of travel.

Hunting patterns

Trotters differ from walkers and hoppers. Left and right prints are not obvious, and the depressions in the snow appear in a straight line. In each depression, however, there are a diagonal set of two footprints – a set of two, a set of two, etc.

Red foxes are the most common trotters, but pine marten, although technically jumpers, leave a trot-like pattern as well.

It is especially helpful if the animal slows and walks for a few steps, because if you apply the three print principle, we can tell the much longer fox from a pine marten.

Tracks from an ermine, a.k.a. weasel, form a dumbbell pattern with a depression on each end connected by a drag mark: short hop, long hop – alternating. Ermine tracks often disappear through a hole in the snow, where it goes to hunt mice down near ground level.

Track tests

Consider also the weight of the animal making the track. Push your pole into the snow to estimate its weight by mimicking the depth of the track. If it’s light and barely sinks in snow it’s probably a mouse, weasel or squirrel. If its medium weight, and floats on the crust level just below the fresh layer, it’s likely a coyote, bobcat or porcupine.

And if its heavy, and breaks through all the layers to the ground, the tracks were likely made by an elk, deer or bear. Assessing the animal’s weight helps to narrow down the possible choices.

Look at the track in its entirety to give yourself the most information. For instance, a coyote may break into a trot for 10 feet, but then return to its normal walking gait. A fox or pine marten may walk for a few steps giving you valuable information on the animal’s size.

Also, often times your best interpretation may include one or more animals as strong possibilities. Try to keep your options open, and glean more information as you continue to follow a track.

Tom and Tanya Wiesen are the owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding, and wildlife watching tours. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363


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