Connecting with nature
February 12, 2008
With snowshoes strapped to their feet and their eyes peeled for animal tracks, members of the Park City Mountain Sports Club made their way through bare winter trees and across expansive fields of white in Jordanelle State Park Saturday.
Led by Park Naturalist Kathy Donnell, the group came to be educated on identifying animal tracks, a program Donnell runs for the public every first and third Saturday of the month through March at the Rock Cliff Nature Center.
"The fun part about winter is that you can snowshoe anywhere," she said. "In the summer you should stay on the trails, but in the winter, you get to go to different parts of the park that you can’t go in the summer."
Donnell said with all the snow this year people need to be especially careful to respect animals’ space. "People come out this way to see a lot of animals," she said, "and if we keep building and pushing them out, that’s going to take a big toll on them."
Wildlife Protection Society President Jackie Fehr helps coordinate these outings with Donnell. "There’s wildlife everywhere around here," she said. "On every mountain top there are mountain lions, moose and elk, and when they need to move, they have to cross highways."
Fehr hopes helping people learn how to identify tracks will not only increase their awareness of animals, but also enable them to recognize crossing corridors where animals regularly come down to traverse roads.
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"People need to be aware of what animals are here and how to cohabitate with them," she said. "It’s a safety issue for animals as well as people." She added that Park Meadows is an example of an area that was once a critical winter habitat where animals still try to live.
Donnell agreed that being able to identify animal tracks is important for understanding animals and their movements. "We can learn so much from wildlife," she said, "and we just forget that we are all on this planet together."
As the tracking group plodded along in an open field Saturday, they came across a spot where something big had crossed from a patch of woods to the river. The depth of the tracks, girth and large strides helped them identify that this was not a large mule deer like many of the tracks they had seen before.
Donnell got out her measuring tape. It was a moose. Following the trail of tracks in to the woods, Donnell estimated that it was not just one moose, but rather a cow moose and her calf.
Fehr added that another way people can identify moose tracks is by the hour-glass shape they make in the snow. "This is such great education for kids and their parents into the world of wildlife," she said. "When animals move around, you can tell their size and how fast they’re moving and what direction they’re going."
Before the group even had a chance to don snowshoes and search for tracks, Donnell held an educational session with them indoors to go through tracking basics.
She discussed the three main types of tracks: hoppers, including animals like rabbits and squirrels; short-legged bounders, including animals like weasels (a subset of short-legged bounders are short-legged, short-bodied animals like beavers or raccoons); and long-legged walkers, made up of animals like deer, elk, moose, and cougars.
Donnell demonstrated how the animals walked with the hind-and-front track patterns laid out on the floor. "It’s kind of like Twister, huh," Laura Howson, a Park City Mountain Sports Club member, said.
Howson came to the tracking class as a way to venture out into nature and view wildlife without the traffic and noise of town around her. "It’s so nice to have this area so close to Park City," she said.
Club member Don Jacobs said he feels fortunate to know of places like Jordanelle State Park and the Rock Cliff Nature Center. "I think that a lot of people in Park City don’t know that the center and camping and trails are here," he said.
Jacobs said he attended the class because he is an avid snowshoer and hiker. "This makes those kinds of activities more interesting," he said. "You see animals every once and a while, but you see their tracks more often, and now I’ll be able to figure out what the tracks I see are."
This class was not only an introduction to tracking for club member Patti Giglioli, but also her first time on snowshoes. "It was just great to be outside and enjoy the camaraderie of the group," she said.
Donnell said snowshoeing is a wonderful winter activity for families to get out and recreate together. "It’s an easy sport that doesn’t cost a lot of money," she said, "and it’s an excellent way to get exercise."
Donnell and Fehr plan to host another animal tracking class on Saturday, Feb. 16, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Jordanelle State Park Rock Cliff Nature Center.. There will also be a moonlight snowshoe hike on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m.
Interested groups should call (435) 615-8309 or (435) 783-3030 for more information. Cost is $7 per car load to enter the park.
Tips on tracking
There are three types of animal tracks: hoppers (rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks), short-legged bounders (weasels, sometimes beaver and raccoon) and long-legged walkers (deer, elk, cougars). First you must figure out which category the tracks belong in before you can identify the animal. "It’s all very much an art of guessing," Park Naturalist Kathy Donnell said.
Look at the pattern.
Look at the stride/straddle/size of foot
What part of the foot is on the ground? Five toes, four toes, two toes
Are there claw marks?
Who lives here?
Other signs, chew marks, scat, hair?