2001 – 2002 Rare Carnivore Surveys Field Season

November 2001: Almost all of the leaves are off the trees and snow is starting to frost the high peaks without sticking around on lower elevations and we are getting ready for another field season on the Rare Carnivore Surveys project in southwest Montana. The other day, Steve and I went out to a local wild game processing outfit and picked through his waste barrels looking for appropriately sized and meaty bones. We packed up several tubs with this detritus to bring home and start rotting – camera station bait in the making! I have also been to the store to purchase field notebooks and the rest of the topographic maps we will be using in the field and had them laminated. We have studied our maps to identify the areas we needed to survey this season, likely looking sites for potential camera stations, and desirable transect routes. Tom Jenni, Steve, Betsy, and I have gone through all the camera station equipment to replace batteries, set clocks and calendars, load film, repair broken straps, etc. Ready, set…………….

02 December: GO! The first field day – yahoo! We headed up into Hyalite Canyon with two teams. Steve and Tom snowshoed Blackmore Lake trail and set up two camera stations along the course of that trail. Betsy and I along with my fiancé, Patty, and a friend, Hugh, headed up the trail along the main fork of Hyalite Creek and also set up two stations. As this trail sees a lot of use, particularly by ice climbers, we were able to walk most of our route in our boots using the snowshoes for the off-trail portions. One of these sites ended up photographing several domestic dogs (what self respecting dog could resist the lure of rotting meat) during the course of the winter.

After a few days of pretty intensive camera station placement, we started running some track transects independent of camera sites to increase the coverage area of our surveys. December 11th sticks in my mind as a particularly interesting day: Patty and I were walking and snowshoeing a transect at the north end of the Mosier Creek road system and discovered black bear tracks. While it is not that surprising to find bear tracks in the Gallatins, the fact that it was almost the middle of December made this an unusual find and our only set of bear tracks for the season. We followed these tracks through alder, over and under downfall conifers as long as it was going in the basic direction of our transect. We ended up running into the same track series as our transect looped around the ridge.

On the 17th, Steve, Tom, and I headed up to the Big Belt Mountains in the Helena National Forest accessing the Gipsy Lake area via White Sulpher Springs. On the way in, we encountered a bit of a snow drift on curve in a bit of a swale; Tom recommended to Steve, who was driving, that he “put it in low (low range 4-wheel drive) and just punch it!” We spent the next 45 minutes or so digging the truck and trailer out of the drift and putting on the tire chains! After establishing our base at the Thomson Guard Station cabin, we proceeded to spend the next three and a half days setting up camera stations in several drainages in that region. On one of the particularly long and memorable days, we were skiing into the Big Birch Creek drainage from Gipsy Lake. The ski started out pretty exciting as we encountered mountain lion and bobcat tracks within the first couple kilometers. It started getting really interesting, though, a couple of hours in. We had branched off the main trail following an old, no longer maintained trail; Steve had hiked the route the previous summer so Tom and I were following blindly along trusting our fearless leader to find the way. It turns out that Steve has a special relationship with Big Birch Creek and a trip just isn’t complete without a serious foray into some nasty shit-tangle necessitating carrying skis up or down a steep slope with mega-downfall. I say this because we did it again the next time I was back there with Steve. Tom and I started paying attention for those slash marks indicating the location of the trail and tried to contribute to the route-finding effort!

Towards the end of the month, we started going back to our camera stations to make sure that they weren’t buried in snow, evaluate battery function, change film if needed, add more bait, and freshen lures: Long Distance Lure (a particularly lovely extract of skunk glands which we often refer to as “Long Distance Looove”), Lynx Lure, and catnip oil. It also provides a very important opportunity to survey for tracks to augment activity at the stations.

01 January 2002: This turned out to be my one and only field day in January. Tom and I headed up Blackmore Lake trail to check on the stations he and Steve had placed on December 2nd. We were still able to drive all the way to the trailhead but stepped immediately into our ski bindings. We proceeded to service both of the stations and document a couple sets of pine marten tracks along the way and then “headed for the barn.” About a mile from the trailhead, I failed to finish a switchback turn standing, opting instead to slide out of the turn on my knees – ended up bouncing my left knee off of a rock on the side of the trail. I made quite a racket (some of the words are not fit to be printed) as this was not my intent and it really hurt. I skied on out with little overt difficulty but considerable caution. X-rays the next morning revealed a fracture in my patella. I spent the rest of the month with a straight-brace on my knee more or less confined to the couch. Steve and Betsy had to scramble to find some more help to continue with the fieldwork.

04 February: My birthday present today is getting to go back in the field. The knee has stabilized (augmented with a walking brace) and up to flat work. The strength to do any serious or long climbs isn’t quite there but I can get out and about. Betsy and I headed up to the Big Belts to remove a set of stations on Gurnett Creek. New snow made the tracking less-than-productive but we retrieved the camera stations so that we could use the equipment to sample another set of sites for the rest of the winter ……… and the knee did fine.

The rest of the month proceeded pretty smoothly with a mix of station retrievals, new site placements, and independent tracking transects. Near the end of the month, we received some major snowfall, which made access quite sporting yet fairly necessary. Sporting because navigating our snowmobiles from the mouth of Hyalite Canyon to the jump off points for our foot transects became very tricky. Necessary because all that snow had the potential to bury the stations so we needed to access them and raise the animal detection equipment above the level of the new snow. Betsy and Jean had gone up the Langhor Road on the 27th and buried one of the machines. Their day was further complicated by extreme difficulty finding the station they were looking for. Steve and I went back up on the 28th to retrieve the snowmobile and try our luck at finding the station. There was so much snow that it was breaking across the windscreen of the snowmobile and my face – when I opened my mouth it quickly filled with snow! After we got the 2nd machine un-stuck and Steve was following me up the road, he said he basically couldn’t see me, just this moving mass of billowing snow. We gave up on the snowmobiles shortly as it was turning into a day of digging ‘biles out of the snow. We skied on in to the stations and managed to accomplish our goals but were pretty whipped by the time we got home.

March 2002: The first week of March was continuing with transect work, as weather and snow conditions would allow. The second week of March, I worked with Tom, Jean, and the Thatchers to retrieve all of the stations we had out on the Gallatin National Forest (GNF). Our agreement with the GNF is to have our bait stations cleaned up by the 15th of March to avoid any conflict with bears coming out of hibernation. The next week I headed up to the Thompson Guard Station with Patty to retrieve our stations up there. It turned out to be a step back into winter. Lots of new snow and snowing resulting in near constant ‘biling epics – we must have shoveled 30 cubic yards of snow in those 3 days getting machines unstuck. One of the interesting conundrums we face is appropriate clothing. When riding the ‘biles, we need lots of clothing to combat the wind chill and low activity level. This extra clothing makes it difficult and sweaty when digging out and lifting or shoving the (infernal) machines around. It was also cold. The middle day started at about 14 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and the warmest reading I got on my thermometer all day was minus 6 deg. F.! However, one harbinger of spring that we had seen on our way up to the Big Belts was the first red tail hawk of the year (our first) on the 19th. I saw my first kestrel on the 25th, and first bluebird on the 26th. Our last field day was the 28th; Tom and I skied up North Cottonwood Creek in the Bridgers and documented bobcat and the only set of wolverine tracks in the Bridgers this season.

April 2002: The field season is over and we’re wrapping things up. Field notes, transect routes, and camera station results have to be tabulated, analyzed, and summarized in the form of a final report. Bait and lure containers have to be cleaned up and stored. Snowmobiles require “summer-izing” so that they can be safely stored for the summer. Although I am currently looking forward to warm weather, I am sure that by about Halloween, I will be eagerly anticipating next winter’s adventure.

A Day in Clyde Park

We were, after all, in Montana’s Big Belt Mountains, a place where, to our knowledge, grizzlies have not been found in years. That’s how Betsy and I came to be having this rather silly conversation about bear spray. Having sensed that I was once more about to be walked into the ground, I was looking to eliminate every possible ounce of weight and had about convinced myself that spray was superfluous. Betsy said she was carrying hers, so, apparently not satisfied with how dumb the original idea was, I decided to go it one better. I pulled my spray out of the shoulder holster and dropped it in the top of my pack.

Deb and I had driven up to Bozeman from our cabin in Silver Gate to help for a few days with the Y2Y corridor survey. As with the rest of Wild Things’ work, this is a project we believe in, plus it gave us time to just roam around the mountains with two of our most favorite people in the whole world. We had camped the night before on the east slopes of the Big Belts, and, as is our custom, had split into two teams for the day’s work.

We were only about an hour or so into that day’s work, hiking a faintly marked, seldom-used Forest Service trail along a narrow brush-choked creek. We had stopped to locate ourselves on the map when Betsy pointed at the brush 35 feet away and whispered, “bear.” Almost simultaneously, we discovered that there were two bear. The brush was so dense we couldn’t immediately sort out what we had, but whatever bear were in that brush had plenty to say to each other.

Now, there are not many circumstances involving black bear that would unnerve me, even at pretty close range. In fact, about the only situation I can think of that would actually strike fear in me would be surprising at truly close range a dominant boar in courtship mode. Odds are he has already had to chase lesser bear away from his lady-love and might mistake a human at close range for an interloper.

Turns out, of course, that’s exactly the situation we had just found ourselves in. This is the kind of situation that makes you appreciate good field companions because several decisions need to be made in seconds without benefit of conversation, so you pretty well go on instinct, and mutual trust and respect surely helps. This wasn’t exactly new for us; the last time, it was the four of us together in Yellowstone and it was an up close and personal grizzly.

So, here we were again on autopilot. The first thing I did was a slow hunker, giving Betsy a chance to fish the bear spray out of my pack. Although I’m not sure why she would want to arm someone dumb enough to be carrying bear spray in his pack in the first place; desperate, I suppose.

Anyway, here’s the deal. These bear are in and out of the little creek but moving slowly downstream, which is where we are. So, what is already too close is getting closer. We do not need to discuss the fact that we don’t want to be discovered at this stage of the game. There’s some maneuvering room behind us, so, whenever we sense that the bears can’t see us, we take a few steps back, eventually putting another 30 or so feet between us. The slight breeze is, fortunately, with us, allowing the amorous pair to pass right by us and slightly downstream, where the female manages to slip out of his sight.

Everything became dead quiet for two or three minutes, and I had just begun to think they had both moved away when the boar, who was hidden from us at the moment, decided to attack a clump of willow. With all the roaring and breaking brush, I first thought there must be a fight. Turns out, it’s just a thoroughly frustrated bear burning off some pent-up aggression. After a brief but thorough whipping of the willow bushes, he left in hot pursuit, ending what Betsy and I hoped would be the highlight of that particular day.

The rest of the day was somewhat more normal. We climbed a few thousand feet, met up with Steve, Deb, and Pearl (our dog), bushwhacked back down a few thousand feet, collected hair and scat samples, made notes, soaked our feet in an ice cold stream and wished we could just do this forever.

I’ll always wonder what would have happened if we’d walked ten steps farther before stopping to check the map. Wouldn’t it be the perfect irony for the two of us, who spend half our lives walking with grizzlies, to go off and get ourselves whipped by a black bear? Actually, both of us would have kinda deserved it: me for putting bear spray in a pack and Betsy for letting me do it. Come to think of it now, I’m beginning to wonder if I should even hike with her anymore.

A Magical Day in the Big Belts

For two weeks in July, Joel Emerson, a friend from Fayetteville, Arkansas came and volunteered in the field with us. One day in particular was really memorable as we conducted wildlife surveys in the northern Bridger and southern Big Belt Mountains.

On this particular day, we got up early to make the hour drive to the southern slopes of Mount Edith in the southern Big Belts. It was one of those Big Sky days in Montana – cloudless blue sky and about 85 degrees. Turning off of Highway 12 and onto a Forest Service dirt road we traveled another 15 miles or so to where we parked at the end of a long, dirt track. From there we started to climb – steeply! Up through an area of mixed Douglas fir and sagebrush, with outstanding wildflowers in bloom everywhere, we climbed about 800 feet onto a broad, level bench. It dropped steeply away on three sides and provided amazing views of the Big Belts, Elkhorn, Tobacco Root, Bridger, and Madison Mountains, as well as of Canyon Ferry Lake which is the first major dam along the Missouri River. On our climb we noted quite a bit of elk and deer sign (sign consisting mainly of tracks and scat).

Once we reached the bench, we walked to the northeast, gaining another 200 feet or so and angled into an old-growth white bark pine forest such as I had never seen before. First of all, it is unusual to see white bark pine below 8,500 feet in elevation and we were at 7,000 feet, and on a south facing (warm and sunny) slope. The trees were huge, and old and magnificent. There was abundant sign of elk in the trees, tracks and game trails everywhere we looked, and the smell of elk was strong in the air.

We contoured our way along, heading north (we followed the same elevation line), and heading for the head of the drainage that was hundreds of feet below us on our left. We hiked this way for about a mile until we came to the base of the cliffs on Mount Edith where the creek forms. The forest opened up some here, with white bark mixed with lodgepole pine and lots of grouse wortleberry in the understory. The wortleberry is in the blueberry family and produces tasty little red berries which were just ripening. We helped ourselves to more than a few as we hiked along. We were still seeing abundant sign of elk, some deer and some moose sign as well. Remember that all of this hiking was off-trail, so we were climbing over logs, around boulders, crisscrossing the stream and generally feeling our way as we went.

Joel and I found several beautiful wet meadows along the way, just full of wildflowers. The only blot on all this beauty was the presence of a plant called stinging nettle, and boy does it sting. We had to watch every step to avoid getting into patches of the nasty stuff.

We followed the drainage for several miles, making a stop along a nice wide part of the stream for lunch, taking off our boots and socks to wade and cool off our hot, tired feet. One of the most amazing aspects of the hike to me was that there was no sign that humans had ever been in that area. It is unlikely that no one had been there before us, but probably very people had and they had tread lightly enough to leave no sign of their passing. We followed several game trails, and in mid-afternoon Joel stumbled onto a moose antler! What a lucky find. He strapped it to the outside of his pack and carried it the rest of the day. No mean feat considering that a typical moose antler weighs about 10 pounds.

Lower in the drainage we came on several bear rub trees. These are trees where bears have clawed at the bark and scratched their itchy hides, leaving clumps of fur stuck to the tree. There were also several bear scats along the way, but nothing fresher than several days old.

Shortly after the bear trees we came into a large area of old clear cuts, with young trees starting to regenerate. It was quite hot out in the open and we stayed to the edge of the trees, where we surprised a cow moose that was grazing along the edge of the stream. Hard to say who was more surprised, us or her. She trotted off down stream and we let her go, giving her some room to get away and feel comfortable.

From there, we had to hike back up the ridge in order to hike back down the other side to get back to the truck. All in all, we probably hiked about 12 miles, and gained a total of about 1500 feet in elevation. It was a very productive day, with lots of sign of elk, which is one of our target species in these surveys, as well as moose, deer, black bear and coyote. There were also a number of bird species to be seen along the way, in particular the Clark’s nutcracker, which feeds on the cones of the white bark pine. Hot and tired, we climbed back into the truck, traded our heavy boots for sandals, and broke into the cooler for some nice, cold iced tea. The perfect end to a perfect day in the field.

A Day at Dudley Creek

It was a sunny day in mid-February when Steve Gehman and I set out from Bozeman, Montana at 8:00 am. We headed south on route 191 into Gallatin Canyon, our destination the trailhead for Dudley Creek, about ½ mile north of Big Sky.

Along the road was quite a bit of sign of ungulates: feeding ‘craters’ in the snow, and day beds. The lower part of the drainage is a mix of open meadows, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, great habitat for elk. There was evidence of elk and moose, and on the steeper, south-facing hillsides bighorn sheep often graze during the day.

We parked the Wild Things’ 1977 GMC pickup at the trailhead and walked ¼ mile up the private road to the beginning of the trail. We put on our skis with our climbing skins attached and set off. Climbing skins are made of either plastic or goat hair, and enable a skier to climb much steeper grades without slipping backwards. They slow forward glide to some degree as well, but the trade-off is worth it! We headed west, following Dudley Creek, and looking for two sites to place remote cameras. As we went, we traced our progress on a 7.5 minute topographic map of the area.

The snow was pretty good considering how warm it had been, as there had been a fresh dusting of about 2 inches the night before. We followed an older ski trail along the south side of the creek as we went, climbing steadily through a mixed forest of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). There were numerous sets of red squirrel tracks as well as snowshoe hare tracks. In a few places we even found tracks from pine martens (Martes Americana), a distinctive two-print, bounding pattern in the snow.

After about a mile of climbing above the creek, we found ourselves in an old spruce-fir forest, and came upon a set of tracks that were larger than others we had seen so far. There was fresh snow in the tracks making them hard to read, but the larger footprint, longer stride and uneven gait indicated they might have been made by a wolverine.

We decided that a narrow, flat bench about 100 feet above the trail would be a good place for the first camera. We climbed through the trees and found a spot with two well-spaced trees to set up the transmitter, receiver and camera. I set up the camera system while Steve hung the bait which consisted of a deer rib cage which had been ‘fermenting’ in a tub since October – nice and stinky to draw in the critters. Steve also applied small amounts of commercial trapping lure to trees in the area to add to the scent attractants.

From that site we continued to ski west along the creek, about 100 feet above the creek itself. We went another mile or so, then dropped down steep slope, through deep snow and thick trees to the creek bottom. Continuing on westward, we crossed the creek and looked for a site along the north side of the creek. There were steep avalanche chutes coming down from the ridges around us, areas that had been swept clear of trees by the action of snowslides. Giving these areas a wide berth, we found a good site in a group of lodgepole pine. Again, I set up the camera system while Steve hung the bait. This time he used a towel that had been soaked in blood and guts that had been fermenting since last spring and it was really ripe smelling! At both sites we also set up lynx hair snaring devices in an effort to procure evidence of lynx in the area. The hair snares consist of a 4” X 4” square of carpet with sharp tacks poking through from the backside. This gets nailed to a tree with the tack points facing out. Special ‘lynx attractant’ lure is applied to the carpet square as well as catnip. The goal is to lure in a lynx and take advantage of the natural tendency of cats to rub against objects of interest. Once an animal rubbed against the carpet, the tacks would snag some hairs, which we would later collect and send off for DNA analysis. The DNA analysis would tell us not only which species had left the hair, but could also tell us which individual animal is was. To add to the attractiveness of the set-up we also hung another carpet square (without the tacks) from a nearby tree by a wire about 5 feet from the ground, with an aluminum pie pan hung on swivel underneath to act as a visual attractant. Cats are very attracted to visual stimuli.

Once the set up was complete we struck off east along the creek heading back to the trailhead, staying on the north side this time. By now the sun had been shining on the snow for most of the day and the snow had gotten VERY soft in some places, causing us to go crashing through the crust periodically, and fall head-first into the snow. Between bouts of falling and racing down hillsides barely in control, we found another interesting set of tracks. These were definitely wolverine, probably the same animal. We followed them for a while and came to a big hole dug in the snow. Using its amazing sense of smell, the wolverine had discovered an old carcass buried under about 3 feet of snow. It then dug down to the carcass and chewed up several of the bones left at the site. A nice bonus for a hungry animal.

We finally reached the truck at about 4:00 pm, tired and sore from our hard work, but it was worth it. We had placed two remote cameras, 2 lynx hair snares, found evidence of a wolverine, and been out in the mountains on a beautiful day. Not a bad days work.

A Day in the Bridger Mountains

The day was one of those blue-bird days we get in Montana – cloudless, deep blue sky with the sun sparkling off the snow crystals and the air warming from the overnight low of 0 degrees up to around 30 degrees by mid-day. We set out at 8:30, with me, Steve and one of our hard-working board members, Penelope Foster.

We drove our faithful Nissan Pathfinder north into the Bridger Mountains, up to the north end, arriving at our ‘trailhead’ at about 10:00. We parked on an old U.S. Forest Service logging road that leads up over Flathead Pass about three quarters of the way up the mountain range. The road isn’t plowed in the winter, so we drove as far as we could and then took the snowmobile up from there. We parked the snowmobile up on the pass, donned our skis and headed north from there. About one mile from where we had parked the snowmobile we picked up a trial that gradually climbed partway up the ridge that towered above us, then leveled out and more or less followed the same contour line north. It had snowed a few days before and the branches on the trees were still covered with snow, like powdered sugar topping, it was beautiful. It was a an amazing day for another reason too: the ubiquitous Bridger Mountains wind was actually not blowing for a change!

Our destination was a camera which Steve and Ryan Eisfeldt, one of our field technicians, had set up in early December. We planned to check on the camera and then move its location further north to a spot that looked promising on the map. The snow was perfect, with a firm base and anywhere from 4 to 8 inches of powder on top of the base. Most of this winter we have had to force our way through what we call ‘bottomless’ snow, where our skis sink right down almost to the ground, so having a firm base was a relief.

As we skied toward the camera we kept note of the tracks we sighted: snowshoe hares (lots of them), weasels, red squirrels, coyotes, and an occasional moose. Once in a while we even found tracks from a mouse or a vole skittering across the surface of the snow.

The trail climbed into gullies, up small knolls and on toward the camera. When we reached it, we found that birds had been hard at work on the deer ribcage that we had used as bait. Stellar’s Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers, gray jays, mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches all had taken their share of this prize. The receiver unit showed that eight photos had been taken, so we recorded the dates and times of the photos, and collected the film. Then we took down the rest of the camera set up, packed it in our packs and skied on to the north, searching for the spot on our map that we thought looked like a likely travel corridor for a wolverine or a lynx.

Another mile down the trail and we found it: a flattish place at the base of the towering Bridger Ridge, right next to a drainage. The ridge was steep and dotted with islands of trees, just the kind of place that a wolverine might cruise by occasionally to look for any hapless mountain goat, moose or elk that might have been taken by surprise by an avalanche. Since there was also quite a bit of snowshoe hare sign, there was the chance of lynx as well. Having three people working on the setup made things go quickly, which was good as the day was getting late and we didn’t want to end up skiing out in the dark. I strung wire between two lodgepole pines from which to hang the new bait we had carried in (a deer backbone), and Steve and Penelope worked on replacing the four C cell batteries in both the transmitter and the receiver, as well as putting new film in the camera. We worked together to set up the transmitter and receiver on their respective trees about ten feet apart, then duct tape the camera setup to the tree above the receiver. Duct tape is our best friend in the back country! We use it to set up our cameras, repair packs, ski bindings, holes in gear, all sorts of uses.

Once the camera setup was complete, we wrote the camera name on a sheet of paper (ZM-19) and lowered it between the transmitter and receiver. This both records on film which camera the pictures came from, and also tests to make sure the unit is working correctly. This time things went smoothly. After making some notes on location and habitat type (lodgepole pine cover type, spruce-fir habitat type), we donned our packs and skied off back toward the snowmobile.

By this time we were getting tired from a long ski and breaking trail. We took turns breaking trial on the way back, looking for an easier way than we had taken coming in. We wanted to avoid clambering over large downed logs and through thick branches if we could! Once we got back on the trail it got easier, and it was just a matter of covering the miles. At 4:30 we reached the snowmobile, and had it loaded back on its trailer and ready to go by 5:00.

Some days are magical. This was one of those days; the stillness of the air, the intensity of the blue sky, the beauty of the snow on the trees, and the story told by the wildlife tracks in the snow were all things to be treasured.

A Day in the Flathead National Forest

On January 15, I made the seven hour drive over hard-packed and icy roads from Bozeman to west Glacier, Montana, to spend a few days with WTU biologists Meg Hahr and Amy Edmonds on our Flathead carnivore surveys project. Meg designed and initiated the study in Fall 2000, and we adopted it as a WTU project shortly thereafter. The purpose of the project is to assess forest carnivore presence and use patterns in the North Fork Valley, which lies just west of Glacier National Park and east of the Whitefish Mountains. Upon arriving in West Glacier, I picked up Jud Parsons, an avid outdoorsman from Oregon and a generous supporter of WTU, and we met Meg and her husband Sydney at their home for a fine meal and a delightful evening. Jud and I spent the next three days helping to conduct track transects and set up camera stations with Meg and Amy.

Wednesday, January 17 was a particularly exciting and memorable day for me. After a breakfast of oatmeal, muffins, and elk sausage at Amy and partner Lee Secrest’s home on the edge of the North Fork river, the four of us looked at maps and made a plan for the day. We would split into two groups, with Amy and me surveying a nearby tributary drainage where she saw a set of lynx tracks in December, and Meg and Jud doing the same in an adjacent drainage that also contained good lynx habitat. In addition to conducting track transects, each group planned to set up a camera station along their route.

Amy and I planned to ski a six to seven mile loop along logging roads that encircled an area of lowland, relatively flat, moist forest habitat that included some 20- to 40- year-old timber harvest units and patches of uncut mature forest. After skiing approximately three-quarters of a mile on a road that also served as a major snowmobile route, we encountered the large tracks of a cat that climbed upslope through deep powder snow just off the side of the road. Amy’s first impression was that they were lynx tracks, but we wanted to follow them, examine them more closely, and take numerous measurements to be sure that they were not mountain lion tracks (general appearance and measurements can be very similar for the two species when tracks are in powder snow). Our excitement grew as our observations and measurements pointed to a confirmation of lynx tracks. Upon closer inspection, we located faint tracks from the same animal on the hard-packed snowmobile trail; after examining and measuring these prints, we were 100% sure that we had found lynx tracks. The lynx had wandered along a narrow untracked road through mature forest, then came onto the snowmobile route and walked along this road for approximately 200 yards, before bounding upslope into a 40+ year-old timber cut that supported lodgepole pines and larches.

Just beyond the point where the lynx had come onto the main road, Amy and I turned off onto an un-used (by humans) side road to continue our ski circuit. Now off of the hard-packed road, travel became more strenuous, and we took turns breaking trail through eight to twelve inches of powder snow. Tracking conditions were excellent, and we observed many tracks of snowshoe hare, red squirrel, and moose, along with less frequent looks at pine marten and weasel tracks. After another half-mile, we started to find lynx tracks again – first, a single lynx crossing the road, then sets of tracks indicating two lynx traveling together, on the road, off into mature forest, and back onto the road again. We stopped and set up a camera station just inside of a patch of mature coniferous forest through which the lynx had walked, in hopes of capturing a lynx on film.

As we continued on our ski route, we found more and more lynx tracks, and the afternoon slipped away as we dutifully recorded notes regarding the movements and habitat selection of the lynx. We were about halfway around our loop with less than two hours of daylight remaining; we decided we would have to keep moving and not make any more stops to record data, if we were to make it back to Amy’s truck before dark. We skied less than a half-mile after making this decision, and hit an impasse – a dense alder thicket now choked the road. We fought our way along the side of the thicket in an effort to try to determine its extent, but were unsuccessful. After some debate, we agreed to turn around and follow our tracks back the way we had come, rather than risk a possible slog of a mile or more through the alder with darkness approaching.

We arrived back at the truck as twilight came to an end, and made the short drive back to Amy and Lee’s place to find Lee preparing to come looking for us. We recounted our day, and listened as Meg and Jud told us about theirs (they also saw lynx tracks). A jovial evening among friends was followed by a fine night’s sleep.