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Wildlife Tracking Course – Class Notes

Last week Fiera Biological held a Wildlife Snow-tracking Course in Saskatoon. The two-day course offered is roughly a 50/50 mix of classroom and field-based instruction covering very basic elements of track identification such as deductive reasoning and where/how to look to see tracks and trail patterns, and quickly expands into more technical and advanced concepts and techniques such as foot and footprint morphology, biomechanics, forensic preservation of tracks, and a suite of discriminative criteria. The first day was classroom-based on campus at the University of Saskatchewan in a large, well equipped and comfortable classroom. The all-day instructional lecture drew on nearly 400 PowerPoint slides to convey an immense amount of information.

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Keeners take their seats at a snow-tracking course while waiting for stragglers to get back from a brief coffee break

The Wildlife Tracking Course is Designed with Wildlife Managers in Mind

The fourteen students participating in the course were comprised of wildlife and habitat professionals from Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Nature Conservancy of Canada, consultants from Woods Group and SNC Lavalin, students and faculty from the University of Saskatchewan, and non-professionals with a keen interest.

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Experience, Practice, and a Variety of Teaching Aids and Techniques Make the Learning Come Easy

Instructor and expert tracker, Joseph Litke from Fiera Biological has been tracking professionally for over 20 years, and broke up the lecture with anecdotes from his experiences, by crawling around on the floor to demonstrate wildlife gaits and movement patterns, and by providing ceramic and plaster casts of real wildlife footprints to give students up-close tactile, real-life encounters with animal prints right in the classroom. For instructional purposes he provided a series of life-sized prints or images of wildlife footprints of a wide range of species, on which students were invited to make notes of discriminative features as the lecture progressed, and which they could each keep for future reference.

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River otter prints

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Wolverine print in plaster

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Mountain caribou print

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Mountain lion print in clay

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Variety of wildlife prints in clay

Progressing from the Classroom to the Field Provides Clarity and builds Student Confidence

On the second day, the class met at a local natural area, donned parkas and snowshoes and waded out into a deep snowy wilderness on a crisp blue day. It had snowed the night before, so fresh tracks were few and far between.

A snowshoe through the wilderness on a cold day to find and identify as many tracks as possible

A snowshoe through the wilderness on a cold day to find and identify as many tracks as possible.

Even with a few centimeters of fresh snow covering most of the tracks, students, guided by their instructor, were able to identify things like red squirrel, deer, and red fox by understanding concepts of preferred gait, relative weights, and relating stride length to mechanical size. There were some fresh tracks to see, including the “too-cute” bounding trail of deer mice, the varying patterns made by snowshoe hare, the tortuous trails of weasel, and grouse tracks and coveys, and the repeated meanders of red fox.

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Deer mouse tracks – using a deductive approach and some key discriminative criteria the class learns to tell mouse from vole.

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An especially detailed snowshoe hare track.

By the End of the Field Day Students are Ready to Test Their Wildlife Tracking Skills

As a final exercise, the instructor headed out ahead of the students and marked with flagged pins the tracks he wanted the students to identify. The students followed along in pairs at their own speed. When everyone had had a chance to identify the tracks unaided by the instructor, the group turned back the way they came to revisit each pinned track, retrieve the pins, and review where required.

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Not For the Faint of Heart – Wildlife Tracking From Snowshoes Takes Some Physical Fitness 

At the end of it all, the group had snowshoed 9.1 km, and gained a lot of new skills and confidence in wildlife tracking. While it may be true that some of them called in to work sick the next day to rest their snowshoe legs, others probably took leave to go for a walk in the woods and practice their new skills.

If you are interested in attending one of our Wildlife Tracking Courses, check out our Outreach page to “track” future events. If you are interested in having us come to your area to run a course, get in touch to make arrangements.

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Wildlife Snow-tracking instructor, Joseph Litke points out key discriminative criteria that can be assessed even through several cm of snow, to determine that these can only be the tracks of red squirrel.


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