Off the Beaten Path
Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it's an engrossing hobby; for others it's a critical contribution to conservation.
Many credit Tom Brown Jr. with spawning the country's interest in wildlife tracking; many others criticize him for promoting an approach to tracking that lacks scientific rigor. Brown, who has published 16 books about the outdoors and his life, has become his own brand, and tens of thousands of people have taken the classes he offers, in primitive living, tracking, and wilderness spirituality, at his Tracker School in New Jersey. Today Brown is a lightning rod, to put it mildly, in tracking circles. His controversial techniques--reading "aura signatures" and minute "pressure releases" within tracks, a cryptic "coyote" teaching style that leaves many confused, and a culture that shuns questioning authority--have left some troubled and turned others into devout followers.
The 39-year-old Elbroch, who says he is deeply concerned by a culture he feels smothers discussion and fears error, decided to look elsewhere for guidance. He found a new mentor, Louis Liebenberg, a shy South African who in 1994, along with a Shangaan tracker named Wilson Masia, forged an evaluation system in South Africa that emphasizes learning through testing and peer review. The goal was to fairly rank all of South Africa's trackers--traditional Shangaans, Bushmen, Xhosa, white rangers, and women--and level a playing field still riddled with both racism and sexism. The system was meant to help the best trackers obtain the best jobs as safari guides, national park guards, and research technicians while further breaking down the barriers of traditional white and black roles. Today the Cyber-
Tracker Conservation Tracker Evaluation System, an independent certifier, is used by the South African government as well as by those in Namibia, Botswana, and a handful of European countries. Elbroch describes the frank evaluations he received from Liebenberg and other South African trackers as "the most freeing experience of my tracking career, and it made me a better tracker."
Elbroch brought the evaluation system to this country in 2004--since then 370 people in the United States and Canada have been certified--with a conviction that empirical evidence and evaluation are the cornerstone of tracking skills and can contribute to research. To that end he has written a 779-page tome on North American mammal tracks, widely considered a definitive source on the topic. He is also author of an equally hefty book on animal skulls in North America. When he completes his Ph.D. in ecology from the University of California-Davis, he'll be the first senior tracker with an advanced science degree. Over the Washington evaluation weekend, several people credited Elbroch with setting a new bar in tracking by providing photographs of prints rather than just line drawings. "Elbroch's books changed the field," says Jason Knight, cofounder of Alderleaf Wilderness College. He calls the tracking world before the books "the dark ages."
Even as tracking has captured the public's interest, there has been a decline in natural history courses offered at universities. Across the country, schools have eliminated classes in basic taxonomy, ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology--the list goes on--causing a flurry of journal papers expressing concern about the future of organismal science and the next generation. "It is not trendy, it doesn't bring in the big grants, or those kinds of subjects are considered to be old fashioned," says Reed Noss, an ecologist at the University of Central Florida and author of essays on the decline. (Today many conservation biology students devote themselves to statistical modeling and DNA analysis.) "So very few people are coming out of graduate school even trained and able to teach those kinds of courses."
"We lose a basic connection to nature when we don't immerse ourselves in natural history and only deal with mathematical abstractions and theory," says Noss, who laments changes in environmental education since the 1970s. "There was already a shift away from classification and toward experiential education where basically you played games with the kid. No one ever wanted to name anything because 'No, that'll turn kids off to nature if they make it hard work.' " The danger of these two extremes is that by "losing specialists equipped to identify organisms, we're not able to track the extinction crisis nearly as adequately as in the past."
A recent paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management documents this very decline in observer reliability and suggests that field data collected by uninformed technicians jeopardizes the validity of research. The paper looked at how reliably Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists could identify the tracks of northern river otters, a species they were responsible for counting as part of a 15-year research project. The biologists misidentified 37 percent of river otter tracks and incorrectly identified the tracks of other species as otter 26 percent of the time.
"Within wildlife biology a huge amount of research projects use some form of tracks or sign," says Jonah Evans, the paper's author and a Texas Parks and Wildlife diversity biologist. There's a danger then, Evans explains, that wildlife management decisions will be based on faulty data.
Evans had tracked wildlife for more than a decade. He became a track and sign evaluator through the CyberTracker system in January 2008, some four years after studying with Elbroch. He taught a few tracking workshops in East Texas that were enthusiastically received. "They went nuts," he says. "They were like, 'This is the coolest stuff ever. We've all wanted to know this stuff our whole lives, and there's never been a way to learn it.' " He has since evaluated nearly 140 Texas Parks biologists; recently Alaska Fish and Game expressed interest in working with him.