A Day of Winter Carnivore Tracking – Copper Canyon – Lincoln Ranger District  

Copper Canyon – Lincoln Ranger District – Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest

 I recently joined our Wildlife Crew on the Lincoln Ranger District of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest who were performing carnivore tracking surveys in Copper Canyon by Lincoln, Montana. We were trying to locate carnivore tracks while snowmobiling up trails and roads and collect DNA samples, such as hair and scat, while backtracking the tracks of target species. We were also looking for trace environmental DNA in their actual tracks using eDNA collection and analysis. This all starts with locating and identifying a track, which can be quite difficult due to many factors such as snow consistency and depth. The scope of the project has us looking for target carnivore species which included Canada Lynx, North American Wolverine, American Marten, Fisher, and Red Fox. Once a track is measured and identified as a species of interest, we follow the animal’s tracks backwards to locate a scat, urine or hair sample to send off to the National Genomics Lab in Missoula, MT for DNA analysis. Hair and scat are the most ideal sources of DNA since it can be analyzed down to an individual and information such as sex can be obtained. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is trace DNA shed by an animal in the environment, in carnivore tracks it can be such things as skin cells from the pads of their feet left in the snow impression. For this survey we took samples of eDNA by scooping multiple track impressions of target species directly from the snow and bagged them up. eDNA is particularly useful when trying to get an idea of what species are in the area, and confirming track identification, it’s limits is that it can only be used to identify down to species and not individuals of that species. These surveys help land managers better understand current populations of carnivores that have a low population density and/or are difficult to monitor and detect. The analyzed DNA and eDNA information can offer biologists better insight on population dynamics present on the landscape for these species over traditional survey and observational data.  

Lynx Day Bed
Canada Lynx Tracks

Our day riding up Copper Canyon offered notable examples of Lynx tracks, and a host of tracks from other non-target critters. This is one of my favorite projects on the forest in the winter since it involves slowly snowmobiling up FS trails and roads looking around, being observant, and taking it all in. Being able to spot the target tracks from a snowmobile takes a bit to get used too, since most trails are covered in Wolf, Coyote, Snowshoe Hare, Squirrel, Deer, Moose, Elk, and even domestic dog tracks making scanning the side of a trail quite difficult at times. Once you find a target track the real fun begins with loading up snowshoes on your feet and heading out to following the tracks wherever they may go. Some tracks I have followed go in a 100 circles in a 100 yards, others can cover quite some distance and go over the horizon. On this day the Canada Lynx tracks we found were some of the cleanest and freshest tracks I have ever had a chance to follow, we found a day bed and a urine sample during our 2.5 k backtrack. Hair and eDNA samples were taken from the day bed and tracks, making this quality backtrack. Riding between tracks and on the way home you get time to reflect on how awesome and valuable this work and experience is.  This was a true full circle day for me because I used to be on the wildlife survey crew collecting this information and now I am a Resource Assistant using this valuable information to help land managers make the best decisions for wildlife. 

Backtracking and Data Collection
Head of the canyon after a great day in the field

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