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.