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Learning to identify animal tracks up on Mount Hood

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Animal trackers from Cascadia Wild inspect a scrape on a trail that they believe to be either a bobcat or cougar in the Mount Hood Nartional Forest.Movies make animal tracking look so easy.

In reality, it’s a difficult skill and takes a long time to learn, but the rewards are tremendous, says Teri Lysak, director of Cascadia Wild’s Wolverine Tracking Project.

People get to connect with nature, learn a new skill and add to a scientific knowledge base at the same time, she says.

Cascadia Wild is a nonprofit based in Northeast Portland, with a mission to inspire personal connections to nature and communities by teaching animal tracking, wild edible-plant identification and wilderness survival skills.

The main focus of the tracking project is to verify the existence of the elusive American wolverine in the Mount Hood area, but trackers also keep an eye out for other carnivores, like the montagne red fox and porcupines. All three creatures are endangered because of climate change and other factors, and scientifically verifying their presence will help put them on the endangered species list to protect them, Lysak says.

The group will offer classroom training sessions starting in January, followed by field trips to Oxbow Park near Troutdale. Once participants have taken both sessions, they’re eligible to attend survey trips on Mount Hood, which take place nearly every weekend through March. Cascadia Wild provides some of the winter gear, such as snowshoes.

Elusive forest animals

The tracking project gets people out to Mount Hood, tracking and surveying for rare carnivores, Lysak says. It’s made possible by classroom and Cascadia Wild membership fees and by a grant from the National Forest Foundation.

Wolverines are particularly hard to detect, she says, since they have “a huge home range of 400 square miles.”

After the required classroom and field-trip sessions, participants go to Mount Hood in a group of 10, accompanied by two trip leaders. They look for animal tracks in the snow and mud, and also collect animal feces, known as scat, and collect urine and hair samples.

You cannot take tracks back to researchers, Lysak notes, so scat and other items collected in a glass tube provide scientists with genetic material to verify the animals’ presence in the area. Photos of the tracks are helpful, and participants also draw the tracks in their journals. But the scat provides much more concrete evidence.

“What I really like about this project is the combination of getting people out into the forest, learning how the natural world works, and collecting useful data. Cascadia Wild is about teaching and helping people understand we need to protect what we enjoy,” Lysak says.

Telling stories

Milwaukie resident Kelly Hogan is nearly finished with her training to become a trip leader for Cascadia Wild. She’s a preschool teacher with Mother Earth School, based at Jean’s Farm in Southeast Portland, and at the Tryon Life Community Farm in Southwest Portland.

“We are outside all the time, and everywhere we go is connected with what is around us. When the little ones find an animal print in the mud, they know one of our friends walked by,” Hogan says.

Animal tracking fits well with her teaching style and curriculum.

“One aspect of my school is survival skills, and I weave in a lot of storytelling. Tracks tell a story, and if you can read it, you can create place-based stories,” she says.

Hogan first met Lysak on a plant walk, learning about edible plants. Lysak encouraged her to take the tracking class, and then Hogan decided to continue to become a trip leader.

She remembers her first Oxbow Park field trip, when the trip leader pointed out where a coyote had gone into the creek, concluding that the coyote then came out, shook itself off and walked away.

At first Hogan thought it wasn’t possible to glean all that information from one set of paw prints, but the leader walked her through the prints, and “everything came to life,” she says. “It was really exciting to be part of the environment. Sometimes humans just see the environment as scenery.”

The tracking work is “about connecting to something greater than myself,” Hogan says. “We are collecting important scientific data, we are connecting people with the outdoors and with like-minded people, and this connects us with other creatures and the fact that we all live on the land.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that Milwaukie was a wilderness, Hogan says.

“The city has encroached on that, and now people don’t see the forest unless they have a reason to go beyond daily life. This experience allows them to reclaim their connection to the land.”

Cascadia Wild trips are better than a hike, Hogan says. They’re exciting adventures, she says because “nature is not predictable.”


For more information about Cacadia Wild's training sessions, visit: cascadiawild.org/wolverine-trackingproject.html.