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Around Our Town...Game and Fish

Discover the secretive world of winter wildlife

12/01/2005 - By Robin Kepple

When I first moved to the mountains of Colorado many years ago I didn't know bears frequented my yard until the morning in late fall when I found the tracks of two bears in the newly fallen snow.

The bears, most likely a sow and a cub, walked under the snow-laden ponderosa pine trees between my house and detached garage sometime during the night. After discovering the tracks, I went back in the house and got a camera and took some pictures because I thought it was pretty cool to have bears in my yard. But I probably would never have known they were there if it had not been for those tracks in the snow.

At this time of year Wyoming's open spaces may seem quiet and nearly lifeless, but tracks in the snow tell a different story. Discovering the secretive world of winter wildlife is an exciting family activity. You don't have to be a wildlife expert to have fun tracking. Some general knowledge of the types of wild animals that live in your area, and a good book on animal tracks is sufficient to begin your own winter tracking adventures.

Just as a house cat leaves a different footprint than a dog, every species of wild animal leaves a track that is distinctive to its kind. Depending on where you go tracking around Casper, you'll probably find prints of squirrels, foxes, raccoons, deer, pronghorn, birds and a variety of other animals. As you examine the different tracks, note their size, number of toes and track pattern. Use a field guide to help identify the species you are tracking.

Tracking wildlife doesn't necessarily mean following the tracks to catch up with the animal. Instead, it's more like an episode of CSI: you study the tracks to gather as much information as possible from the "evidence" the animal leaves behind. These key pieces of evidence will help you learn about the animal's behavior.

All animals leave behind signs of their passing. In addition to tracks, look for droppings (called scat), tooth marks on vegetation, hair, and possibly even the remains of a meal. For example, when a squirrel eats the seeds from a pinecone, it will leave behind a small pile of "middens," which are the inedible scales from the cone.

The more you know about an animal's survival needs, the easier it is to determine what species of animal made the tracks. There are many excellent field guides and resources available to help you recognize the basic footprints or scats that common animals in your area might leave. And mammal or bird field guides can give you insight into an animal's habits and life history. A small ruler to measure the size of a track can also be useful, as well as a camera to take a photo for later study.

Many people also enjoy taking plaster casts of wildlife tracks. This can be done by mixing a batch of plaster of Paris, pouring it into the track and waiting for it to harden. Plaster casts make a wonderful educational tool for children, and kids really enjoy making them.

If you are fortunate enough to find a set of tracks that lead directly to the animal, be careful not to get so close that you change the animal's behavior. Winter is a stressful time for wild animals and they should be left alone to survive as best as they can.

Not only is tracking fun, it also gets us outdoors during a time of year when many of us don't get much in the way of exercise. And even if you are unable to identify the animal you've tracked, coming across the path of one of Wyoming's wild animals is still an exciting way to spend a winter afternoon.

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