Much of the Continental Divide in winter remains a place seldom visited by people -- a harsh environment, windblown and seemingly void of wildlife. But the area is far from unoccupied, and when an animal travels through, it leaves evidence that to a trained eye can reveal much about the mysterious creatures that call the high country home.
A first-year project sponsored by the Helena National Forest, Montana Wilderness Association, Winter Wildlands Alliance and others sought to fill a gap in wildlife information for a portion of the forest west of Helena. The area includes slopes east of the Continental Divide including the Nevada Mountain Roadless Area.
Project organizers recruited and trained volunteers under the tutelage of wildlife researchers at Bozeman-based Wildthings Unlimited. The data generated will go to the Helena National Forest as it develops a new forest plan.
“It’s kind of a unique area in terms of the Continental Divide on the Helena National Forest,” said John Gatchell, MWA conservation director. “It’s proximity to rich wildlife habitat and what we’ve seen showing up with the diversity of life, it’s a neat thing for people to get engaged with.”
Organizers plan to get the study rolling earlier next year to continue to learn about the area, he said.
The early springlike weather was no friend to the wildlife trackers researching rare forest carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverine. A lack of snow meant difficult conditions for finding and discerning tracks, and lower elevation snow plentiful early in the season was largely absent by mid-March.
“It was unfortunate because we had a lot of people trained and then the snow melted and didn’t come back,” said Steve Gehman, the project’s lead scientist from Wildthings. “But it was the best response we’ve ever gotten to one of our workshops, and we’re ready to go. We’re really hopeful for better weather next year and a similar response from the community.”
On Jan. 10, four teams of volunteers met for training with Wildthings. The workshop took the volunteer-trackers into the study area to look for signs of wildlife and a first lesson in the art of track identification.
Three of the four groups found exactly what they were hoping for, striking a fresh set of wolverine tracks, possibly the same individual based on proximity and a wolverine’s propensity to roam long distances, Gehman said.
Motion cameras were placed on an elk carcass in hopes of a reappearance, but other baiting attracting carnivores to cameras was abandoned due to recreational trapping in the area, he said.
Gehman also documented lynx tracks earlier in the winter, indicating the presence of the threatened species.
After the training, volunteers continuing with the study reported findings as they repeated the routes, called transects, throughout the winter and into spring.
Two of those volunteers, Gary Ingman and Joe Donohoe, met in early March to run one of the transects and see what animals were using the Continental Divide.
A small storm had left a skiff of snow for Ingman and Donohoe as they took to the trail. Temperatures above freezing also meant a soft surface, making for some better than expected tracking conditions.
Ingman and Donohoe come from different backgrounds, although both considered themselves in the learning stages of track identification.
Ingman, a board member for Helena Hunters and Anglers, has spent decades in the study area both recreationally and participating in a bear-hair study. He has even seen wolverines on more than one occasion, recalling an eerie encounter where a wolverine appeared in the fog loping only a few yards away.
Donohoe, an avid outdoor recreationist and conservationist, has called Helena home for less than a year when he heard about the tracking program through MWA.
As they hiked along a forested ridge, coyote tracks sprinkled the trail. A quick glance showed the diamond shape and prominent claws of a canine, and the duo kept hiking in search of more tracks. Snowshoe hares also made frequent imprints in the snow along with the occasional squirrel and blue grouse.
From a deep stand of fir trees, a line of tracks ventured across the trail before dropping onto the western side of the Divide. The delicate outlined pads, smaller size and absence of claws provided enough evidence to identify this particular track as that of a bobcat.
A few quick measurements, photographs and GPS markings and Ingman and Donohoe were back on the trail.
The next two miles produced few tracks of interest. The snow grew deeper requiring the use of snowshoes as conditions continued to soften.
In a small saddle a new, larger set of tracks crossed the trail. With a frozen under layer, they punched only a few centimeters deep but were clearly fresh.
Ingman and Donohoe inspected the tracks, taking measurements and walking along. One looked more canine while another more feline. Long strides became short strides and claw marks came and went. Finally by consensus, a wolf was decided as the most likely candidate.
Another 200 yards up the trail, a second wolf joined as the pair marched through the forest providing more tracks and further evidence of the animals’ identities.
With the transect coming to an end, a few elk tracks plowed through the deep snow, but neither lynx nor wolverine were located again this year.
Even as a seasoned outdoorsman, Ingman had never had any formal training in tracking and enjoyed the opportunity.
“I definitely have learned more about tracking through this,” he said. “I was really hopeful I could document a lynx and I do believe I have seen lynx tracks before.”
Ingman detailed the challenge of track identification, as several species leave tracks of similar size and shape. A mountain lion, lynx, wolverine and wolf can all be easily mistaken for each other even in good conditions. With wind and sun distorting tracks even more species come into play for trackers.
Ingman found cat tracks on one of his trips that had him hoping for that lynx he was searching for before he finally decided after conferring with Wildthings that they were those of a mountain lion.
“It really is part science and part art,” he said.
The hope of finding wolverine and lynx is not only part of the excitement of tracking, but also important as indicator species for the health of an area. The mere presence of those animals is good indicator of habitat quality for a wide variety of wildlife, Ingman said.
“I think it was really strategic of MWA just involving the citizenry,” he said. “People want to help and get involved and it builds advocacy for protecting wildlands while getting people on the ground to see country they haven’t seen before.”
After moving to Helena with his wife last year, Donohoe bought a book about animal tracking as he explored the mountains of western Montana.
“But it’s just not the same as getting personal instruction,” he said. “I went from vaguely knowing tracks to having some confidence in my skills.”
Part of looking for the rarest animals in expansive areas is the reality that often nothing is found. Donohoe was in the group that did not find wolverine tracks in January, and after he'd run multiple transects throughout the winter, the wolf was the most exciting discovery.
“I’m still happy I did it -- I’d like to think that if you put enough volunteer power collectively you can come up with something good,” he said. “You don’t just go out and find wolverine tracks.”