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Reading the tracks opens book on Alaska animal life

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Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012 12:51 am | Updated: 1:41 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - A couple decades ago, as I skied into the marten hills near our most distant trapline cabin, I noted with pleasure the number of marten tracks dotting the shadowy little valleys and steep stunted-spruce hillsides.

Setting traps along several miles of trail and skiing back to the cabin took all day and allowed for observations and deep thoughts. By then I had decided that in spite of the impressive number of tracks, marten numbers were actually quite limited and we were in for a poor year. Sadly, that proved quite correct.

One of my favorite tasks as a long-line trapper is the interpretation of animal tracks, especially determining the population strengths of the animals we trap and whether they are especially vulnerable to being caught. After several decades I’ve learned not to be too quick to relate the number of tracks with either the population or an expected catch.

That day some 20 years ago, as I passed track after track, I put together several facts. First, no snow had fallen for a couple of weeks. Usually snow covers older tracks, but this time each pass an animal made was added to the ones before. Over a few weeks one hungry animal can leave a lot of tracks behind. Five marten tracks left in a little valley over two weeks is a lot fewer that five marten tracks in two days.

I noted that the tracks in each valley all seemed to be one size. Normally, in spite of marten having a reputation of being solitary animals, we expect to see tracks of several different sizes, indicating males and the smaller females or juveniles. Now despite the number of tracks, each little valley seemed to hold only one critter.

Additionally, the tracks seemed to be limited to certain areas. One little valley seemed all tracked up, but the low ridge separating it from the next valley remained barren. Instead of spreading throughout less-valuable habitat, each animal stayed in its own small range

Other times tracks and populations seem low just because animals are traveling elsewhere. We might go for weeks without seeing wolf tracks, only to have a pack return to these haunts, leaving tracks everywhere. Wolves often move into our area later in the winter because as snow deepens, moose tend to yard up in areas of young-growth willows, one of which happens to be within a few miles of our house.

I have often noticed a scarcity of lynx tracks early in the winter, and we rarely catch many until the last half of the season, even when their snowshoe hare prey are near the peak of their boom-and-bust population cycle. I suspect even when plenty of well-fed lynx are around, they just don’t leave many tracks because food is so easy to come by that they don’t move much.

By January, even a flush bunny population will be depleted. Lynx have to search a little more extensively for dinner, and being hungry makes them much more susceptible to being caught. We see more tracks and note with pleasure when they come in all sizes, from the wolf-paw-sized track of a 30-pound tom down to the half-sized tracks left by mostly grown young-of-the-year. This indicates a strong and growing population.

Bunnies recently died off around here. Last year lynx were hungry, left lots of tracks, and as starvation threatened, they became more susceptible to trapping — perhaps just as well since a number will starve to death during these lean years, and reducing the population leaves more bunnies to feed the survivors.

This year, with the hare population bottoming out, we are seeing quite a few lynx tracks but only medium-sized to large, suggesting they did not have enough nutrition to successfully raise young. We see only one size in a given area, but that one is covering a lot of ground in search of food, crossing and re-crossing our trails. By January they were hungry enough to investigate grouse innards placed behind a trap while earlier they’d turn up their blunted little noses at such a disgusting morsel.

During these lean times, we avoid catching lynx until after Christmas. Traps are baited with rotten fish for fox instead of the grouse, rabbit or beaver preferred by lynx, and we close the cubby doors down narrow enough so cats rarely bother with them. By waiting until the lynx are fully prime, we make each one worth the catch and as well target the ones most likely to succumb to starvation during the winter.

Then, too, animals like fox and wolves that lack a lynx’s snowshoe foot tend to step in their own tracks. A single set of footprints may be left by one wolf or 10 wolves single filing in the same track. One fox may step in its own tracks along the same trail three different times, or three fox might use the same tracks.

This winter I found a place where 12 marten tracks crossed my ski trail within 100 yards. A pocket flush with marten? Nope. All were made by one critter hunting voles in the boggy little meadow. Once he moved on, not another track showed up.

Reading and interpreting sign like this allows for a better evaluation of populations than just counting tracks. This is one way to help tell us when we need to pull out a month or two before the end of the legal season to ensure healthy returns next year. Over the decades, we see populations influenced much more by natural factors than by trapping, and that is just the way we want it.

Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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