Off the Beaten Path
The wind pushes little whitecaps across the Columbia River in Washington about 130 miles east of Seattle. The morning is crisp, and 15 or more of us stand in a tight circle off the riverbank listening to Mark Elbroch, a top American wildlife tracker, explain the rules of the evaluation. For the next two days, for eight to ten hours a day, we’ll be identifying tracks and signs—paw prints, scat, bones—left by all manner of wildlife in a mix of habitats. The test takers, wilderness experts in their own right, are striving to earn Track and Sign Specialist certificates, among the top wildlife tracker credentials in the United States.
Elbroch finishes going over the rules for the field exam and gives a tug on his gray baseball cap. “The less attachment you have to your score, the better you’ll do,” he says before walking off into the shrub steppe with fellow evaluator Casey McFarland to choose the first questions.
The dozen test takers, mainly young men and a few women, know one another as teachers or colleagues through the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington, which began offering youth environmental education in 1983. David Moskowitz, the WAS’s tracking program coordinator, organized the evaluation. Like many here, he has taken the test multiple times; the previous year he had earned a Track and Signal Specialist certificate for a southern California ecosystem. Now he’s hoping to attain the same level of recognition in Washington State and in riparian habitats. The group clusters around Moskowitz, waiting for the field exam to begin, though nobody speaks much. Someone fiddles with a twig, others scan their field guides, and all watch intently from afar as the evaluators mark the exam questions.
Elbroch summons the test takers in pairs to large ovals drawn in the sand that cordon off animal tracks, each set flagged with a reed stuck next to it. One after another the candidates kneel down, their noses inches from the markings; some wander off, looking for other clues. When I examine the prints I see indistinguishable smudges and inch-long depressions in the dry, lumpy sand. As far as I can tell, the wind could have made any of the little dips and swells. When we gather around to review the characteristics of the first four tracks—a striped skunk, two coyotes, and a porcupine, as it turns out—Elbroch asks Barry Martin, a retired American Airlines pilot turned tracker from San Diego, to explain the porcupine print. Martin laughs, “I’ve never encountered a porcupine before.” He had thought the tracks were made by a deer, and went on to explain why. Others missed questions, too, and the group is full of dejected faces. A specialist certificate requires 100 percent accuracy, though it can also be achieved, even with two incorrect answers, if the person aces six bonus questions (they’re harder than the regular ones). The test is designed to be tough, and it is. To date only 16 people in the United States have earned specialist certificates, though hundreds of others have received lesser Level 1, 2, or 3 certificates for tallying scores between 70 percent and 99 percent.
A creek creeping down from the ragged hills toward the Columbia is the next test site. Amid the milkweed and cattail marsh, we are tested on river otter, black-billed magpie, and red-winged blackbird tracks. Then we scramble up a steep bluff and traverse a narrow path along its craggy reddish-gray face. We won’t find tracks in this rocky terrain, so we’re looking for signs. First there’s a drift of what looks like lightweight brown pebbles (what are they?). Then there’s a thick white line three inches long (what is it, and what’s its function?). Next is a dried piece of scat shaped like beads on a necklace (what animal made it?). Then, finally, there is a series of small mammal bones—a partial skull and two jaws—meal scraps left by raptors hunting from the nearby cliffs (what’s the prey species?).
While sitting on the windy bluff, I chat with Filip Tkaczyk, a 28-year-old who’s originally from southern California and is now a naturalist at Alderleaf Wilderness College, in Monroe, Washington. He started tracking as a hobby, “and now I can’t shut it off.” Tracking heightens awareness of sounds, visual clues, surroundings, and smells, says Tkaczyk—whether or not he’s in the field, which he is several times a month.
When we discuss the bluff questions, I learn that the dry brown “pebbles” (which I had plopped down on until someone called through the wind, “You’re seated in Question 15”) are porcupine dung. The prickly critters had probably been using this place as a den for years, hence the drifts of scat. Similarly, the white territorial marking had been made by countless generations of wood rats that had left behind their urine and feces, which accumulated in the arid environment. The entrance to a wood rat’s den—also a test question—is adorned with owl pellets and droppings, prompting Elbroch to explain that the industrious rodents move up to 200 items a night. For experts, each track and sign helps to reconstruct an incident in the day of an elusive animal. A hillside that at first looked dry and windswept has become animated with busy lives and ancient routines.
Today more than 115 wilderness schools in the United States offer anything from a single, several-hour class to lengthy apprenticeships. At least 200 books provide track- and sign-identification techniques—and 80 percent of them were published in the past 40 years. Tracking clubs exist in more than half of U.S. states, and adventure travel companies now offer wolf-trailing trips in Yellowstone or brown bear-tracking treks in Alaska. Tracking skills are also beginning to play an important role in wildlife research.
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.
The next morning we meet northeast of Seattle at the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve, a wet, verdant riparian valley with towering maples and willows. Moss dangles from their thick limbs, and fog hangs over a large pond. Along a muddy footpath several tracks have been circled, and everyone’s pant legs and knees are slick with mud. When we review the answers, Moskowitz argues strongly with McFarland over whether a vole or rat had made the print until the rest of the group, exasperated, moves on. It is Moskowitz’s first wrong answer.
Brian McConnell, a third evaluator, explains the next set of muddy tracks, pointing to four small paw prints. One of only two certified “trailing” evaluators in the country, McConnell grew up in Arkansas hardwood forests and speaks with a southern twang. His mother used to toss him out of the house on Saturday mornings with no invitation to return until evening, so he learned to hunt and fish and quietly follow animals for the fun of it. He explains that trailers—whose goal it is to find an animal—use track and sign skills to help them. “A really good [trailer] looks like they’re taking a walk through the woods, and they use the tracks just to confirm where they already think they should go.”
McConnell describes how the deep mud makes it challenging to accurately identify the Douglas squirrel prints’ typical features—long, slender toes, a significant distance between the metacarpal pads and toes, and two front tracks that are usually paired close together. We are all peering at the marks when Moskowitz interjects, “No, it’s an eastern gray,” and begins to defend his answer.
“Could we have somebody else talk for a little bit,” someone asks, and the group erupts in nervous giggles. Tkaczyk argues that the front tracks don’t turn in like those of a Douglas squirrel, until Moskowitz breaks in, stating that the width between the tracks suggests a gray squirrel. McConnell and McFarland concede the question was difficult and that maybe they would throw it out, but just then Elbroch returns from a walk and crouches down to examine the evidence. “To me it’s very simple. Just look at the picture. Look how big that is,” he says, pulling out a field guide with life-size gray squirrel tracks. Holding the picture next to the actual ones, he says, “It’s friggin’ huge.”
The tense back-and-forth continues for a good 15 minutes. But it strikes me as progress, and just the sort Louis Liebenberg and Wilson Masia sought: watching a hunter, an environmental educator, and an emerging scientist passionately debate the measurements of a Douglas squirrel track.
Several test stations later, the evaluation concludes beneath a highway underpass where the fine dirt is littered with tracks from an opossum and an American robin and the difficult-to-identify trails of a salamander, a Western jumping mouse, and a shrew mole. Some of those being assessed work on wilderness corridor projects trying to locate the routes animals use to traverse urban development, and in many cases they choose the clear areas under highways.
In the end, of the 12 test takers, only Moskowitz earns the specialist certification. Dave Scott, a former guard at Guantanamo Bay, missed it by half a point. He stares at the ground, hands in his pockets, looking shocked and sad. He had studied hard. Now an environmental educator who is coauthoring a book on feather identification with McFarland, he just can’t believe his near miss. But less than five minutes later he’s grinning and seems to have the right perspective. “I’m a better tracker today than I was yesterday morning,” he says.
The same holds true for Tkaczyk, Knight, and Martin. All four earned their Track and Sign Specialist certificates this past spring.