Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TWIN Track-A-Thon

Eastern Grey Wolf
Although I've been tracking animals for as long as I can remember, it's usually been as a side interest to whatever other outdoor excursion I'm on- hunting, cross country skiing, mountain biking or snowshoeing. Grooming ski trails late at night always offers great opportunities as well and sometimes the hours last a little longer if I'm distracted by minutes old fresh animal sign. If anything, those days now feel like the minor leagues-I knew tracks pretty well, but after completing tracking certification and becoming a Volunteer DNR tracker earlier this year, it's more like I graduated to the big show. Now, I need to be very precise, I need to verify, look for evidence and confirm what I'm seeing in the snow and keep detailed records....yeah, this is a new ball game.

This past weekend TWIN (Timber Wolf Education Network) held their annual “Track-A-Thon” in the central forest region of Wisconsin-the southern end of wolf territory in the state. Headquartering out of the Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock, TWIN members meet, were given assignments on tracking areas, discussed recent sign and headed out to spend a day surveying their blocks. TWIN focuses on science-based wolf education and provides outreach through wolf ecology workshops each winter. Most members are also involved with the Wisconsin DNR volunteer carnivore tracking program and results from the Track-A-Thon were forwarded to that effort.

The WDNR runs the most extensive tracking surveys in the country, starting in 1977 for fur bearing animals. Wolf tracking began formally in 1979 and the current volunteer program of conducting wolf and carnivore surveys started in 1995. The intention of the study, in addition to determining numbers and territories of wolves, is also to keep tabs on other medium to large carnivores and determine if rare species like Canada lynx, wolverine or cougar also exist in the state.

Bob Cat
Participants are asked to complete a track training course, attend a wolf ecology class sponsored by the DNR, Timber Wolf Alliance or TWIN, complete a mammal test and conduct a minimum of three surveys submitting their results per guidelines to the DNR.

Being new to the group, I was eager to meet and learn as much as possible during this day long event. Sandhill is about 30 miles east of my usual tracking area, so I decided to start my survey on some unexplored forest roads nearer that side of my block. I'd been tutored on using some high tech gear-an external GPS unit, which blue tooth connects to my ipad loaded with various off-line maps. The DNR tracking surveys follow specific protocol and one needs to carefully record the survey route and milage. I found the technology on the dash of the truck advantageous, and if needed, I could flip through different charts on the ipad, looking at everything from topo maps to satellite imagery. Track locations could be added with waypoints and details typed in on the fly. That said, there is also room for the old school methods. Hand written notes on every track observed were scribbled with pencil in a notebook and old fashioned folding wood rulers did the measuring. I do carry a digital camera as well and police evidence scales (rulers) to grab images of particularly interesting tracks or sign.

The track-a-thon was lucky enough to fall about 36 hours after the last snowfall-prime time to get good tracks. Windy conditions the previous day also helped in aging-aiding trackers in determining how recently animals passed by. If roads hadn't been plowed, then it's a much easier task to spot sign. More traveled routes, require an even slower survey speed. My average pace was under 8 mph for the five and half hours in the field. All larger carnivores are recorded-every coyote, bobcat, fisher and wolf track is noted, located on a map and direction of travel indicated.

Coyotes are ever more present and jumping in and out of the truck to check their prints and document them is quite a task. It's when there is something different about a track, the size, the gait pattern, how the snow is scuffed, that makes tracking exciting and I'm quick to exit the warm cab. Deer prints are pretty easy to spot and dismiss-they wander, have a wide straddle and leave a collar of snow around their steps.

Bob Cat
My first 2 miles seemed to take forever-frequent coyotes criss-crossing the road and plenty of deer sign kept the pace slow. Hitting a forest road with all fresh snow and no other vehicle traffic was divine for surveying. Within another mile, a tell-tale large, consistent and widely spaced imprint suggested a wolf. Excitedly jumping out of the truck, my thoughts were confirmed-perfect 4.5” canid track-an Eastern Grey Wolf. Although we are recording all carnivores, wolves are what we most want to keep tabs on, so this was a great find so early in my survey. Following the trail into the woods off road, there was good reason why “he” was here-whitetails had the whole area tore up feeding on acorns-good habitat for both animals. The wolf continued for some distance, seemingly having places to get to south of my position, so I continued checking roads and dead end flowage trails for more sign.

Another hour passed and I hit the trackers mother-load (well, we do get excited about finding different species!)- A wolf, also traveling south, a large bobcat and just a ¼ mile down the same lane, a Fisher, bounding down the road before veering off to bop from tree to tree. It's interesting that the snow covered roads can be a blank slate for miles and all of a sudden, you collect a bunch of tracks all at once.

Slow miles continued for another hour on pristine drifted roads until spotting a day old track. The wolf had followed a logging road and I back tracked it for a mile to the point it entered from a large marsh. Another fresh track had crossed this, so I had plenty of information to record and GPS. Soon, things became crazy-several sets of tracks crossed the road different directions and I needed to investigate further into the woods to figure out where they came from. One group of three seemed to have found something interesting under a brush pile-the tracks had the ground pounded smooth, but there was no other sign. A bit further, a pair of tracks traversed the lane in an opposite direction and left behind a RLU (raised leg urination)-a good indication this was a alpha animal in the pack. Scribbling notes and drawing arrows on maps, all the sign seemed to point at just a few animals that were going back and forth in a small area. In any regard, it was fun and challenging to decipher all clues left on this short section of road.

Wiley E. Coyote
Sometimes it's a matter of feast or famine. As interesting as that flurry was, the next 2 hours passed with only a couple coyote prints, a ton of deer sign and another bobcat trail to keep me busy. My truck slithered down more narrow rutted paths, but for the most part, the snow was undisturbed for the final two hours.

Volunteer trackers are asked to travel 20-30 miles each outing, so with 26.5 recorded and completing a loop in the state and county forest, I ended the survey. From here it was a long drive back to Sandhill where we would tabulate results and do a post survey debriefing, along with just visiting and finding out what the other participants discovered. Most of the TWIN members have many years experience under their belts and had a good handle on what we'd find. On the wolf tally, some individuals and packs were located where expected, while others seem to have disappeared, fueling discussion within the group for possible causes.

Later in the evening Retired wolf biologist Dick Thiel and Ray Leonard, TWIN chairperson, lead a discussion on the recent re-listing of the eastern grey wolf to the endangered species list. The day was a great opportunity to make connections with other TWIN members, practice the craft of tracking and spend a day outdoors in the winter, always a good thing and something I'll look forward to again.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Re-Listing of the Eastern Grey Wolf

On Friday Dec. 19th U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell put the wolf back on the endangered species list in the Great Lakes region. Howell in Washington, D.C., ruled that the (previous) removal was "arbitrary and capricious" and violated the federal Endangered Species Act.

Is the federal ruling, returning the Eastern Grey Wolf to protected status a matter of be careful for what you wish for in wolf advocate circles? Already the social media is strife with extreme comments on how wolf detractors will “take matters into their own hands.”

Ed **** I'll shoot every damn one I see regardless of some windbag yuppie federal judge”
Mike ***** Just keep gut shooting them fellas.
Brett ******** Gut shot them bastards!
Mark ******* Wolf permit in every box of shells
Daniel ****** Poison works best
Mike '********** Well, poaching season is officially open.
Matthew *****Let Ted Nugent come to Wisconsin with his AR and a helicopter and kill all the wolves!
Scott ******Does not effect me.. If they are seen they are shot. And the same goes with many people I know.
Travis ******F#%@ this they wouldn't of had to worry about it if they didn't bring them back in the first place we killed them off once for a good reason need to do it again(sic)

ad nauseam....

Just as zealous anti-hunters can go overboard from the general public's opinion on the controversial subject, it appears the “kill them all” faction won't (and hasn't) done themselves any favors either with such fodder. Openly defying federal law (and previously state laws) won't win any points with citizens of the state who generally favor having wolves on the Wisconsin landscape.

Placing the wolf under federal protection takes control away from the states in the upper Midwest in managing their wolf populations-something that appears to create a backlash-at least behind the safety and anonymity of online comments.

Ron ******* Guys that see wolves and have not pulled the trigger because they have a chance to take a legal one, now have no reason to not drop the hammer. Just saying - this could backfire in a bad way.

Will the wolf's change in status by the ESA ruling really reverse perceived diminished poaching behavior? Some claim that instating a hunting season for wolves reduced incidents of poaching in the state, a fact that is difficult at best to verify and by some experts, highly debatable. In a letter this past fall to the USF&W service by The UW's Dr. Adrian Treves and others, the assertion was made that the state has under estimated wolf mortality figures. Not only did they question the underreporting of poaching in state studies, but also addressed the “new threat “-hound hunting and unrestricted unmonitored year round hound-training on wolves. At that time, previous to Wisconsin's wolf hunt beginning in October, they recommended emergency re-listing by the Secretary of the Interior as provided by the ESA.

Principal reasoning for this recommendation, besides the unprecedented hound issue and poaching concerns were Wisconsin's “unorthodox methods for analyzing wolf mortality data, which run counter to decades of scientific practice...” And which “conflicts with the use of best available science.”

It appears that counter to some claims that a “liberal out east judge” made the re-listing decision out of ignorance of the species' recovery in the great lakes region, there were and are sound scientific concerns.

The ESA requires at least a five year monitoring period after de-listing. The final rule to remove wolves from ESA protection was published December 28th 2011 and went into effect 30 days later. In Wisconsin, by April 2nd 2012, political moves fast tracked a wolf hunting bill (act 169), which Gov. Scott Walker quickly signed into law detailing provisions for hunting, trapping and controversial hound hunting of wolves. Unlike a slow, measured and scientific approach to a possible hunting season predicted by then State wolf ecologist Adrian Wydeven, outside interests hastily and some claim recklessly, pushed through an ill-conceived hunt law.

Perhaps wolf hunt enthusiasts shot themselves in the foot by rushing to an immediate and perhaps too liberal of a hunting season?

Nathan Vine, Stevens Point Journal Media journalist recently interviewed Melissa Smith, organizer of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf, who was as surprised as most at the reversal by Judge Howell. She wondered if the judge's ruling wasn't influenced in part on Wisconsin's allowing the use of dogs and passing a wolf hunt law immediately after de-listing. (though Howell didn't specifically mention that in the ruling) "Wisconsin was originally supposed to have a five-year moratorium on hunting after the delisting, but that obviously went out the window in favor of politics," Smith said. "We don't want a wolf population that is just enough to keep it off the endangered list, and I don't think public opinion supports that either."

Her last statement is upheld by a survey released this past fall of Wisconsin residents both in and outside of state wolf range. A majority of survey respondents supported maintaining at least the number of wolves currently in the state-around 660. This opinion runs counter to a 1999 plan to keep a threshold of 350 animals. It's been demonstrated and generally agreed on by biologists, that the 350 number was based on old science and the state does have a higher carrying capacity.

One pro-wolf hunter from Stevens Point chimed in, "The judge is not an expert, and her decision had nothing to do with sound biology. We had experts who came up with an educated response to control these wolves, and it was working,"

The question remains who were “we” and who are these “experts?”

In a letter by retired WDNR wildlife biologist Dick Thiel to the Natural Resource Board a few short months after Act 169, he questioned that very issue. “In my opinion Act 169 is an example of legislation based upon twisted misinformation controlled by special self-interests.“ Two of the bills authors, Reps. Suder and Rivard repeatedly testified at public hearings they “consulted with Department “experts.” However, It's clear from Thiel's letter, no prominent national wolf expert, nor even any within the WDNR scrutinized the law. Instead, a staff lawyer and department administrator were left to answer questions about a “species that was considered federally endangered a mere 5 days earlier – to a hunted species.”

There was further frustration by Thiel at the department administration ignoring the latest published work by noted wildlife experts Dr. Timothy Van Deelen and Adrian Wydeven. To sum, the DNR’s Wolf Management Plan lacks crucial updates in both habitat parameter projections and population management profiles published in the 2009 book and made available since that time. Clearly the Department of Natural Resources is using outdated information from an antiquated plan to guide wolf harvesting in a state with no previous experience doing so.”

So one has to wonder just how scientifically sound were the hunting seasons implemented by great lakes states and perhaps one consideration in affording ESA protection again? In Wisconsin at least, there is evidence there were concerns. “In order for science to drive wolf management decisions members of the Wolf Technical Science Committee constantly had to counter misinformation regarding wolves. This task is made more arduous when having to confront disinformation that vocal individuals and Stakeholder groups banter about in public arenas. In my opinion Act 169 is an example of legislation based upon twisted misinformation controlled by special self-interests.” Testified Thiel. That's a pretty damning statement by an internationally renown expert.

And the comments continue:
Gray wolves are vermin that need to be slaughtered for the greater good.”
Ed **** “I'll shoot every damn one I see regardless of some windbag yuppie federal judge”
Doug **** “Lets do our own wolf hunt! If we get caught, whats the worse that could happen? A fine and hunting privledges (sic) taken away? Big whoop! “

While wildlife advocates like Smith have expressed a desire to work with scientists toward a biologic and socially acceptable wolf population level, one is left to wonder if comments like these by the anti-wolf sect is just digging themselves in a deeper hole? By openly defying federal law it seems to dismiss immediately any and all opinions they may have for better or worse. Alarmingly yet for ethical hunters, there is a danger of being lumped into that faction by the non-hunting public-a place most of us don't relish or deserve to be.

As of now, the ruling puts a stop to the entire wolf season...just not the cantankerous issues. The end result being (hopefully) a more deliberate and considered approach to managing one of our most (undeservingly ) controversial species.
“Killing everything that we don’t like shows an utter lack of respect for not only life, but for the intricate web of life that we are a part of.”-Greta Hyland

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 in Pix

Big feet
It has become a yearly "thing" I guess.  For photographers, it's not uncommon.  We look back and try and pick out our best work- "the best of two thousand...whatever."  That's never worked quite right for me.  I mean, one is supposed to find the very best work I've done...all year.  But, by what standard?  What is technically great?  A perfect composition?  Subject?  Yeah-that's supposed to be how it works but sometimes I can't pass by a picture that I just plain like.  So I try to live by another slightly different credo: "I take pictures of things I like and I like these pictures. I hope the viewer likes these."  If not, that's okay...they're published here for lots of reasons.  I'm asked from time to time what I photograph.  "Hmmm, people, places, things." That covers pretty much everything I guess and no apologies for that.

So these are kinda chronological-some months maybe just one, others, like April, seemed to be flooded with photos I liked.  The intro one was and an early excursion after hip surgery-something that would define this year, or at least the first part of it.  It's just a flooded ditch, the result of a frozen collapsed culvert at the end of the driveway. It would end up costing over a grand later in the year to fix.  Glad I didn't know that at the time and was content to march around on the ice in snowshoes.

Two Thousand Fourteen in pictures:

Frosty Molly

Molly is pretty photogenic.  Her pure joy at bombing thru the snow (which we had plenty of in February) is unbounded and every once and a while, she'd plow through the snow back to me just to be sure I was following along.


What follows are a series of photos taken one wet snowy morning.  School was called off-the dumping making bus delivery of students a bit touch and go.  I love those days (of course). First thing I do is hop in the truck and go somewhere.  These are mostly from the Town of Hewett where the truck finds it's self driving around the most.  I know these roads well.  They can be dry and dusty, wet and sloppy or snow covered and beautiful.  I know-that's a matter of opinion but it's rural life.
Sydney Road

Maple Road

South Mound Road
Ermine and Fatbike Tracks
The fatbike has changed how I spend winter-for better or worse.  I consider(d) myself a diehard XC skiier, and enjoyed the change of sport seasons.  But... fatbikes are too damn fun.  They get me places I can't ski and opens the door to more exploring.  This pic represents two things I love to do-riding and tracking-trying to decipher what the animal is telling me in the sentiences of their steps.


Immature Eagle
A neighbor had up to 15 eagles in a field this spring-an event I couldn't pass up.  Camo tent was hidden and early morning before work excursions were taken to try to get some decent shots.  I think I fired 300 or 400 at least.  Of all, this was my favorite.  The birch and the moddled feathers seem to work well.


Arndt Road Cranes
Pairs of Sandhill cranes seem to always pick the 'hood here and try and take up a home.  Some succeed-others lose their precious colts to mother nature-she always holds the trump cards.  In any regard, I love their return and try to keep tabs on which pairs stay in the land nearby.  These two were not successful in raising any young, but hopefully they'll return next spring and try again.


Gander over frog Pond
Spring brings back waterfowl-even to lowly Clark County-not exactly the hotbed of duck habitat.  Down the road is a small waterfowl scrape and any ducks who spy it, seem to make it a home for at least a day or two.  The woodies stay longer and usually one pair of geese raise goslings there, so they provide some opportunities for a few fun shots. This is a bit "artsy" but it works for me.

Capt. Kris and John
So this falls under " a picture tells a story" category.  Kris started up his own charter fishing business (Northpoint Sport Fishing) and invited my friend John and I out for some early coho fishing to give the boat a shake down cruise. Kris knows his stuff and we did very well on the silvery fish.  What's funny to me here is that John knows more about fishing than about anyone, yet  big deep lake fishing is out of his element. A few pointers here by the captain seem to be saying "you turn this handle thingy and then the fish comes in!"  Funny to me anyway...


Patterns in the Forest

This is more for me.  I love flying and when up in a small small plane, one sees a world we're unaware of when traveling at ground level.  I had another opportunity to tag along on a radio telemetry flight with DNR pilot Beverly Paulan in search of collared wolves.  So far for me, that score card has remained empty, but no matter-I'm amazed by how the forest, swamps and marshes look from above.  I just don't tire of this view.


Porcupine Mountains Deep Forest
I've made some forays to the Porcupine Mountains and just a little taste on it's edges, but never deep into them.  Friends Mark Haferman and Dave Borman and I dove in last summer-maybe at the worst possible time.  I'll just say bugs.  But, we still saw beauty, had adventure, hiked through places unlike anywhere else in the Midwest.  Towering Hemlock forests just humble me and I'll need to get back here again.


Sturtz Prairie Morning

A native prairie is a pretty amazing place in the summer-one could drive by at 50 mph and miss everything there and not give it a second thought.  Taking a stroll though it however, opens a door to what so much of Wisconsin once looked like-a hundred or more years ago.  I'm fortunate to befriend folks that believe this matters and these places matter.


Bowles Lake Steam
Sometimes I have to force myself to shoot-or at least shoot things I usually don't.  That's not to say wading into cold water at sunrise is something I'd avoid, but necessity is the mother know.  I try to take a photography class each summer just to jump start "seeing" pictures.  What the class is on is less important that just doing it as they say.  Friend Mitch Mode offered me housing in his rustic off the grid cabin which facilitated a 5:00am dip in the cold lake each morning.  Grogginess disappears instantly.   On this daybreak, the camera came along for the swim.


I like boats-riding on them, fishing from them and making pictures of them.  Tugs are the under appreciated vessels of the ship world it seems.  This little guy was anchored in the Fox River just off Green Bay awaiting to flex some muscle and tackle his next job.


Bikes Planes beer and Buddys
For me again-just a reminder of Gnomefest and good times with wings and wheels and friends.


Famous Molly
This shot seemed to be pinned to the top of the Wisconsin Outdoor Fun web site all fall on the picture page.  Not that I minded-she's my girl!  Taken after a successful retrieve on the "USA pond" in Lehr North Dakota.  She's in her element here.


Duk Love
There is something only duck hunters will understand-the great satisfaction of getting the decoys out, hunkering down and waiting for the first whistling wings overhead.  No one else will get it and the pink sunrise is just a bonus.


Selfie with Black Lab
Bean field, North Dakota.  A little break from the potholes to see if the dog and I can prod any pheasants or sharptails in the air.

The Stand

Gun hunting is so much less about getting a deer and more about just being out there.  There is nothing like the pre-dawn hour, in the cold but not being cold-the optimism ahead and knowing there are hours of quiet time to look forward to in the stand.

"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:
"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:
"I take pictures of things I think are cool. I think these pictures are cool, I hope the viewer thinks they are cool too. Cool?" - See more at:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cougars in Wisconsin

“Finally, the DNR admits there are cougars in Wisconsin!” How many times has that been said? Actually the Wisconsin DNR has always been keenly interested in any big cat sightings in the state, according to recently retired DNR Mammalian/Ecologist/Conservation Biologist Adrian Wydeven.

The former Head Wolf Recovery Program Biologist was also responsible to track down (pun intended) any reports of sightings of rare species like the cougar in Wisconsin.   Recently, at the Treehaven Outdoor Education Center, Wydeven presented “Cougars in Wisconsin,” an overview of the animal that once roamed the state, but has been gone from the landscape since the early 1900's.

Reports of “Puma Concolor, panther, catamount, mountain lion or mishibijn (Ojibwa), started trickling in to the DNR during the early '90s. The large tawny colored cat is one of three species native to the state, with only bobcats having a breeding population. Along with the cougar, Canada lynx have also been known to be reported here.

Prior to 1920, the 100-150 pound cats roamed primarily in the southern 2/3rds of the state in habitat more suited than the thick forest to the north. While males typically can have a range of 150 square miles, females stay much closer to home, covering only 64 sq. miles. Their primary prey are deer, but they will also take elk (out west) and smaller game like rabbits, beaver and raccoons.

Wydeven stated that although there had been earlier sightings, probably escaped captive animals, it wasn't until 2008 when DNR evidence confirmed a cougar of Black Hills (SD) origin near Milton, WI. A trapper followed tracks and discovered the cat in a barn. Upon retreating it suffered a injury providing blood along hair samples which was collected for DNA anylasis. That report quickly progressed from “possible” to “probable” to confirmed. Unfortunately, the cougar ultimately ventured into Illinois, possibly following the Chicago River corridor and was shot by police in the city. A year later in March of 2009, a cougar was treed near Spooner. Attempts were made to capture and collar it, but failed. During the same year another was caught on a game cam near Eau Claire in Dunn county.

Although the DNR has been accused of covering up reports of populations, including cubs or kittens (which would indicate a breeding population), Wydeven said those claims would run counter to biologists desire to know more about the big cats in the state. “Why would we hide it?” Wydeven asked. “We try and be very respectful of submitted observations.” Adding “We also strive to educate the public by posting confirmed observations on the DNR website.” "We take citizen observations seriously and value their input. They are our eyes and ears for some of the most interesting animal experiences," he said. "Interestingly, the epicenter of reported observations is the Rhinelander area." he commented when projecting a map of the state with pin points of sightings.

Aside from habitat, the bigger challenge of cougars will be living with people. When asked if there had been discussion on bringing females here to start a breeding population, Wydeven flatly said “No.” While the public would probably be okay with the species naturally returning, he doesn't see the same opinion if they were introduced. Evidence of that mindset is seen in angry accusations that wolves were “planted” in the state by the DNR, when in fact, they returned on their own from Minnesota. The state DNR has no management plans currently for cougar and they are protected in Wisconsin.

Peak sightings generally occur in summer for cougars. Although disappointing for many, some of these observations are discovered upon investigation to be false. Evidence of mistaken identity was presented by Wydeven (and can also be found on the DNR's rare animal web page). Many times these images are of bobcats. “Black panthers” (no black phases have been documented in North America) have proven to be other species like fishers while even coyotes with mange can be cougar look a-likes in photos. Sometimes “Cougars” caught on camera have even turned out to be domestic cats when there is no visual clues to compare relative size to at a distance. Others are hoaxes-from taxidermy mounted specimens to internet fodder. Photos of multiple mountain lions, cougars on someones porch and cats stalking a hunter-are attributed to multiple locations in the state over a period of years. They almost always are bogus.

Investigated and confirmed cases still continue. In 2010, a game cam picture of a male was taken in Clark County and eventually traveled to Bayfield county. It appears to be the same animal sighted in eastern Minnesota and Dunn county where DNA evidence was obtained. That cougar was killed in 2011 in Connecticut, a straight line distance of 1059 miles, by a car. Since cats don't like to cross long distances of water, Wydeven theorizes the animal traveled through the UP, crossing into Ontario and eventually through New York state- an amazing journey. There have even been photographs of collared cougars, again, most likely of South Dakota origin. In 2013, at least three cougars were confirmed in the state, all possibly the same animal. This past year an unusually clear image was captured in Lincoln County in August and another in September near Marinette.

With the incredible travels of some of these dispersing males to the Upper midwest states and as far as Connecticut, one wonders how soon viable populations could re-appear. In speaking to Wisconsin Public Radio in 2010 Wydeven expressed “We believe cougars may eventually reestablish in Wisconsin. We have habitat that’s suitable. Deer is their main food source. There’s source population in the Blacks Hills of South Dakota and we’re within the dispersal range of those.” He goes on to add, “ It’s one of the things as an agency we want to be on top of, that when cougars start to reestablish in the state, we want to be able to detect them and determine there are cougars and document their presence and monitor their populations.”

It's generally agreed that at some point in the future, cougars could very well return and reproduce in Wisconsin, but it will be a long road back. With females keeping a small range from where they were born, it could take decades for them to venture across South Dakota and Minnesota into suitable territory here.  But some have-at least males so far. "It demonstrates that these large carnivores can return to areas where they had once existed, if they're given adequate protection," Wydeven told LiveScience in 2011. Indeed, and as with the recent reinstatement of the grey wolf under the endangered species act, heated arguments will be made on both sides on whether a species, once at home here , will garner that protection and return to its home.

Report rare species to the DNR here:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Late Season Fog Hunt

If mist and fog can make sound, then I was hearing it- though I have no words to describe the shroud enveloping the forest. Fog lifts from the cold snowpack, rising shifting and waving in a slow motion dark swirl through the wet black tree trunks. It lifts up, clinging to every twig and branch until gravity pulls it back down again-”splat” on my fleece covered shoulder. “Drip,” “splat,”  “ping”- a droplet ricochets off the barrel of my gun.

This is the late season for antlerless deer. The woods are dead quiet but for the drops and drips and a few crows talking among themselves in a distant corn field. It's still.....there is no anticipation like filled these driftless coulees a few weeks ago on opening weekend. Just quiet reverence to be out here, not so much hunting as waiting. It really is waiting- quickly scouting a spot to take a stand, now with rifle in hand, overlooking a greater part of the forest than with a bow. No one else is out here. No one but crows, a flight of nuthatches and chickadees and soft yelps from unseen stirring turkeys.

The gun and muzzloader seasons are behind leaving only melted tracks from tired hunters venturing up and down logging roads and sign that deer are still here. My prints press deep and sharp into the corn snow and quickly fill with vapor. The headlamp cuts through dark and mist and end up on a small knoll, its hillsides tore up from hoofs and claws in search of acorns. The draws on either side are white or brown depending on the digging of feeding animals. I like this spot-daylight should provide good visibility, my back against a higher steep hill leading to a bluff top. A blowdown top of a huge oak provides a blind. This will do.

Some jays move in and converse in the weird “rilling” squawk talk. They stay a while pounding their beaks into bark separating seed from chaff. They are apparently unconcerned with me, for their usual woodland alarm call is not sounded. Time passes, the cloud on the ground remains and daylight only barely budges in.

“A deer!” 

Three black BBs, two eyes and a nose, stare directly at me, burning a hole in my hiding spot. I'm pegged. The silent snow and murky air allowed her to slip in unexpected. The doe was there now-right there...and I can't move a muscle. I fear the stream of steam from my breathing will send her tail to, but doesn't. It's a don't blink contest and I'm not confident I'll win.

The Winchester is right next to me but unreachable. Nothing between us twitches. She's done this before as have I. The usual result is watching the tail waving bye after a few tense minutes. The crows and jays continue their chatting oblivious to the standoff beneath them. Not to be pessimistic, but I'm pretty sure of the outcome here- rarely will a mature doe let her guard down. She'll not afford the hunter pause to swing a gun up once she is locked onto to....something, that doesn't belong.

I have wind to my advantage or this wouldn't be happening-she is just confirming with unblinking eyes and a dull thump of a foot striking the ground. No, the safety won't be clicked off or crosshairs find their mark-she'll end this soon.

A sheet of fog moves up the draw, my eyes get burry from staring. She ends the game-spins and with amazingly few bounds, puts trees and brush and enough distance between us that I just watch. And take a breath.

In the minutes that follow I wonder where the doe came from before appearing as a statue aimed directly at me. That's not where a deer was supposed to be-I had shots all visualized and set in my head other directions. I'm not frustrated, it's the way of hunting, of waiting. This place is their home, not mine, at least not mine enough.

The sun is up somewhere as the surrounding timber slowly grows lighter. The fog won't burn off this day, the just at freezing temps will keep the pea soup clinging close to the ground. No matter, I'm comfortable so far in the mild damp air and the woods are waking. There are worse places to be.

Trying to put venison in the freezer late season can be tackled two ways-bring some buddies and make pushes through parcels or solitary, taking the opportunity to have backwoods to yourself. I chose the latter.

This property normally has a small group of friends with bows and broadheads in hand when I hunt here. It's the rut then and deer habits are different than now. Bucks run all day and night, camo clad men tromp every acre, quite the opposite from December, when everything settles down for the approaching winter. There is no big drama like during the rut or rifle season, but rather just an opportunity to be here on the animals terms.

Corvis the crow and his clan shift location-perhaps finding tidbits to feed on, their caws echoing off the trees inviting others to join in. A chainsaw fires up and the clug of a diesel powered skidder drones on the far side of the property. The logging operation I drove though in the dark produced vast hi-ways of deer tracks-the tops proving browse. They'll be well fed this winter.

Free from the distraction of another deer showing up-one has more than enough time for the mind to wander. A common trait for most hunters I'd think. Quiet time on a stand is different from that of sitting in a comfortable chair at home, much like the outdoors enhancing the flavor of coffee poured from a thermos. I think about why no other deer have waltzed by, why the raucous crows have moved again and what they are up to. Deeper thought takes me to what this woods will look like when the skidders and saws move this direction. Good for wildlife eventually, but changed.

A bigger change will happen later and I wonder about that as well. Word passed down that after logging, a frac sand mine would be developed here, a big change. The ridges will be gone along with the deer and hunters who will move on. My friends and I have had a good run here, hunting this land and fortunate the owner has been gracious enough to share his property. In a year or two I'll have to find another place to sit on a snowy fog filled day. It won't be quiet or still then and there will be no staredowns with suspicious does. I'm thinking of this and a pair of crows alight in a tree nearby-clicking, rattling and grating crow talk, maybe sensing the thoughts drifting up from my blind.

A second pour of coffee into a tiny stainless cup warms my hands-the very best way to do that. A scan left and right concludes no whitetail has snuck into range. I guess while sitting here contemplative and scribbling notes, part of me was aware and keeping an minds-eye out for game. I think hunters develop a sixth sense for these things.

The crows move off having kept me company long enough apparently, while the jays return. A drawn-out, downward "kaaaar" of a Rough Legged Hawk is somewhere just beyond the limbs of the oak and white pine below me. Wonder if his hunting is going better than mine?

I start to think I maybe dressed a bit too optimistically, as my toes are starting to ache with cold in my too-thin boots. I can hold out a bit longer I think-there is still hope something might walk by from feeding to bedding grounds. “Wump wump” - a distant set of shots. Maybe I'm not the only one out here today?

Eventually, the feet win the argument that we're done. I'd been fidgeting a bit too much as well and realized I'm just staring blankly at the same trees, not “seeing” any longer. The reality that my season is over for the year sets in as I stuff and zip my pack, the backtag pinned on it at a strange angle and ready to retire.

There are always thoughts of pulling the bow out again, but I know better, the skis and fatbike and maybe an occasional foray with the black lab will not allow another deer hunt this year. The freezer will be venison-less again. I'll need to make mental note to prepare the pheasants and salmon still hiding there before it's too late and rely on successful family sharing a few steaks and roasts.

The hunt or wait or any time in the woods is all good and although this day, in the mist and fog and drips and melting snow, I'll return home empty handed...but with everything I needed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Snow tracking Rare Animal Species

Dr. Jim Halfpenny

Never forget the trail, look ever for the track in the snow; it is the priceless, unimpeachable record of the creature’s life and thought, in the oldest writing known on the earth.” Ernest Thompson Seton, Mammal Tracks and Sign

Tracking and reading animal signs and the stories they can tell has always been something I've been interested in. Tracks can easily distract me from my other persuasions like skiing, mountain biking or hiking. But keeping an eye on the ground and not taking for granted the signs animals leave behind is really a part of those sports as well. When word reached me that Dr. Jim Halfpenny, professional tracker, carnivore ecologist and author would be teaching a course in Wisconsin, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more.

Dr. Halfpenny describes himself as a “scientist and educator who specializes in carnivores, cold and tracking.” A love of those predators, especially bear and wolverine, and teaching others how to track and find other rare species is central to his life's work. Canada lynx, wolves, fishers and martin are other animals of special interest and ones we studied in our course. These mammals, along with cold, high altitude and arctic study, have taken him to seven continents-to call him an expert in these fields would be a gross understatement.

The class, offered at Treehaven Outdoor education center between Rhinelander and Tomahawk, was an intense, professional, no nonsense and comprehensive course on the subtitles of tracking and trailing. Participants in the seminar varied in background-some, like myself, desired certification for the Wisconsin Volunteer Wolf tracking program, others were there to refresh their skills and some just to learn more about tracking in general. From the get-go, it was conveyed that this was a professional level curriculum, the same as DNR personnel would be taking in the days following our tenure there.

Jim stressed quality in tracking and that trackers can be judged by the “dynamite test”- “that everything trackers do and practice must be TnT!-testable and teachable.” As Seton describes the trail as the oldest writing on earth, Halfpenny also added tracking as the oldest profession on earth, contrary to some common opinions. The second oldest profession needed to be paid by successful hunters who, of course had to be skilled trackers. These trackers Halfpenny describes as “naturalists and scientists,” who had to become skilled at identifying and following tracks. If they formed the correct hypothesis to test (of an animal to eat) then they were well fed. If not, as Jim would comment to us, “then their genes are not sitting in this room.”

The ideal attitude of the tracker is that of a detective. One of the reasons I love to read Sherlock Holmes is that he thinks like a tracker. He lets nothing go unexamined. He is constantly observing, sifting through facts and evidence, piecing puzzles together, solving mysteries.” Tom Brown Jr., Nature Observation and Tracking

Halfpenny mirrored this idea as well-that good tracking is like the CSI of the animal world. Tracks, sign and gait, all clues, need to be looked at and collected as quality evidence in order to make a hypothesis. “I-E-R” ...what is Important, collect Evidence and Review. That review may change the hypothesis, and one should be careful not to hold on to one theory too tightly, but be accepting of where the evidence leads you. He presented illustrations of how this progression can work and when conclusions need to be changed. An example might go something like this when a slightly old track is found. “Ahh, 4 toes, kinda rounded shape- must be a cougar!” Fresher snow later clarifies the track showing now 5 toes”-large track, five toes front, 4 hind, claws showing, nope, must be a bear!” Still more evidence indicates a chevron shaped interdigital pad. “No, not a bear,.... large, claws, 5 toes front, 4 toes rear, chevron shaped pad-a wolverine!” Jim used a much more detailed example than this, perhaps based on an actual case study.

Although I've tracked for fun for a long time, the subtle nuances of what to look for when trailing, of what the sign can tell us, was simply amazing in this course. Characteristics of tracks like toe number, claws showing or not, the shape of the interdigital pad, foot posture and gait, all can narrow down tracks into animal groups. We learned how small things like toe spacing or anterior lobe shape can differentiate between similar tracks. Halfpenny spent a good deal of time crawling on hands and knees demonstrating how animals move so we could interpret gait patterns in the snow. This knowledge, in turn, can provide clues as to what the animal is doing. A slight change in gait, where the front feet are in line with travel, can indicate where an animal is looking. Tracks indicating a walk, to trot to gallop, could be a clue that prey has been spotted. Fascinating data for the observant tracker.

Testing us, he positioned cards on the floor indicating front and hind feet, placing them in patterns and asking us to identify such things (in the example of a wolf) as the sex of the animal, it's hierarchy in the pack and time of year. In revealing the interpretations of these clues to us, my eyes were opened to some of these very signs I'd seen in the past, but didn't have the “vocabulary” for. It made me eager to get outside and explore and seek out some of the sentences these animals write in the snow.

In the days since returning from the program, I found myself really “seeing” more when outside. The fatbike trail, illuminated by my bike light, defined a “F4 h4C” track formula-one we learned meant that it was most likely in the dog family. It was rectangular and about 2 fingers wide-most likely a fox. Another, barely visible in the hard pack snow, revealed a “1x3x1” toe position, and “f5(4) H5(4)co print with a chevron pad, three fingers wide. Characteristics of a Fisher. It seemed now that I was aware of these clues, I was observing them everywhere while outdoors. My attention was pulled away from my riding and wanting to focus on the sign below the wheels.

The naming and classification of tracking is also crucial according to Halfpenny. Without a consistent vocabulary, it becomes very confusing and difficult to teach or learn. For instance, the above track formula is quite simple if one understands the language. “F” means front foot and capitalization indicates it's larger than “h,” the hind foot. “5” is the number of visible toes, although “(4)” means sometimes just four are. “co” implies claws often show while “C” stands for claws usually show. “1x3x1” labels the toe pattern having a space between toe 1 and 2 and between 4 and 5. A good indicator of an animal in the Mustelid or weasel family.

My notebook quickly filled it's pages with crude sketches of tracks (they were illustrated in his books, but I need to draw to reinforce them I guess), of gait patterns and average size of different animals strides. Scribbled terms like “transverse gallop", as opposed to “Roto-gallop", “ambles” and “pronks” along with “group” and “intergroup” was the jargon tossed about the room and during our field work to help understand trailing. Scat was looked at closely (in photographs) to just give us another visual sign in identification of species. Size, shape and what it contains can be a powerful tool in collecting hard evidence and confirming a hypothesis.

Outdoors, we had a chance to witness tracks and gaits actually being made. A young Labrador retriever was brought in to produce walking, loping, trotting and galloping patterns.Still being a pup at heart, she had some difficulty staying on task for the class, but did manage some top end speed, which was interesting and impressive to measure. With so much winter outdoor experience, Halfpenny revealed a world I hadn't known of in snow (and I love snow as well!). He taught how to spot the subtleties of a track in snow by the phases and anatomy of a track being made. The “ramp, “ floor,” “head wall” and “collar” of a print in snow can indicate direction of travel and it's age. The effects of long wave and short wave radiation (from the sun or surrounding forest) will change and metamorpihize tracks, enlarging or shrinking them in size. Understanding this process and the snow type is crucial in determining age and proper measurements of its size. Crawling under a nearby spruce, he also clued us in on finding “track traps” -places animals want to be and locations where a successful tracker can find prints.

Our field work also included casting tracks in snow-not the easiest process. A nearby creek bottom at Treehaven was a target rich location for tracks. After demonstrating the process of casting-spraying with snow wax, mixing of plaster, pouring and curing the plaster, we were off. Halfpenny charged us with finding different species, making the cast and meeting back for show and tell. A bobcat had searched the mostly frozen creek for prey and soon we had some clear tracks to cast. I found the process would take more practice for my water to powder ratio was off and my cast crumbly. Others returned with hare tracks, fisher, fox, red squirrel and deer.

Dr. Halfpenny had quite a collection of casts from his years of work, from martin to grizzly bear. Casts of a much better quality than ahhh... ours. I'd brought in a large wolf cast from a few years ago to share with him. On inspection he questioned me on the number of tracks in the cast. Confused, I sheepishly replied “one?” Nope, he pointed out an ever so slight change in the toe shapes, indicating a double register, two prints. My extra large wolf track was actually 2, something Jim said is common when inspecting unusually large tracks.

The weekend wrapped up with a presentation by Nate Libal from the Wisconsin DNR, who assists with the large carnivore program. He gave an overview of the Volunteer wolf tracking program and reviewed much of what we'd learned of tracking during the course. I was anxious to sign up and put to practical use some of the skills I'd learned. Trackers are required to take several 30 mile surveys during the winter in specific zones, record data, not only on wolves, but other carnivores as well and submit results to the DNR. Wisconsin has by far the largest and most extensive tracking program in the country collecting data.

“Snow Tracking Rare Species” with Dr. Halfpenny was everything I'd hoped it would be (and more). Finding and following tracks is one thing, but properly identifying them, reading what the animal is doing (or did) and knowing all the clues a tracker can collect to make a correct hypothesis is what I'd desired to learn and did. Now to put it all into practice!

Trackers first observe tracks and trails as naturalists and classify what they see. From their observations, trackers formulate hypothesis and as scientists, test their hypothesis. Trackers, as practitioners, use their skills and knowledge in the field for their enjoyment and often to fill their stomachs. As teachers, trackers honestly pass on their knowledge to others.” -Dr. Jim Halfpenny

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dilemma

The Dilemma

1. a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.
2. any difficult or perplexing situation or problem.

My knees were killing me, camo bibs frozen to the ground. The crosshairs were steady on the chest of the buck. Safety...on. It was a longish shot but doable. The Winchester bolt steady on a stick bipod. He stood motionless until my eyes grew blurry staring through the scope. Re-focus. The antlers turned slightly offering me another view. Safety? On. A single coal black eye from the deer pierced between two trees trying to locate me. Maybe a faint waif of my scent had reached him? He couldn't quite nail me down though his eye seemed to have a magnet on my blind.

About fifteen minutes earlier a single small doe had trotted by up-wind. Not really seeming to know where she wanted to go. I scanned her through the binoculars and waited. She worked her way across a hummock swampy area and then suddenly raised the flag and bounded up and over a small rise. Hmmmm. She didn't know I was here and couldn't smell me. I kept watch that direction wondering why the sudden departure.

A movement caught the corner of my eye. It's one of those quick glances that tell you instantly “that's a buck.” Yep, head down, slowly picking his way through, horns on his head. This was the real deal-reach for the gun, kneel down, peer out of the blind for a possible shot.

Last day of the season and there were no high expectations  in this buck only area. But that thought was gone-changed in an instant as the gun sat cradled into the shooting sticks. He did his best to move cautiously, like bucks on the last day do, but steadily closer. He was sure to place brush and tree trunks between himself and me at every step it seemed. Yep, an antlered rack.....not a monster or one that would score whatever numbers matter for those who know such things. Just a buck and maybe a shot. He made his way directly ahead, knowing a destination of thick swamp would be his residence for the remainder of the day. I still couldn't get a clear picture of his rack exactly, but his body size seemed a bit trim for a mature deer.

The place he stood- for....ever was maybe 90 years away between two trees. Tail behind one, head another. Turning his neck either way would give me glimpses through the scope of his headgear. 8 pointer, 5 inch brow times, main beams just at the alerted ears. Safety....still on. Clear shot at his chest and the gun seemed plenty steady-one eye looking my way. I had seemingly an eternity to decide-legs starting to cramp but I'm still okay-Safety, on.

I'd seen this buck on our property a few times this year and on a camera-pretty sure of it. Same deer, I resolved in my head. I thought then- “He'll make a really nice buck next year-I hope he makes it.” Did that thought change now as he presented this opportunity? My season would conclude with a click of the safety.

He turns his head, takes a nervous step, now sure of where he wants to go. In his deer mind, the threat passed perhaps. I lower my gun, thumb slides off the safety and I take a breath. “Come back next year young buck, if I'm skilled and patient enough maybe we can continue this little dance.” I think to myself. He silently continues off until I no longer see him though the brambles and briars. Next season there will be no dilemma.