[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                     March 13, 2009
Outdoors

Sign language can provide information about wolves, other 4-legged animals

By Tim Wilder, The Real McCoy Contributor

Photo: Wolves leave signs of their presence through tracks in the snow during a winter outing at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Tim Wilder)
Wolves leave signs of their presence through tracks in the snow during a winter outing at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Tim Wilder)  

As I was obtaining my grade-school and high-school education, I was told by both my parents and teachers on numerous occasions to learn a second language.

Like most students, I took a semester of German, Spanish, and French, but most of what I learned has long been forgotten. In order to improve my job skills, 10 years ago I decided it was time to heed my parent’s advice — I started learning sign language.

But this was not your typical sign language — the sign I was trying to decipher was being left by wolves, coyotes, and other critters as they go about their business on Fort McCoy. When the first resident wolf was documented on Fort McCoy in 1999, wolves were a federally endangered species.

In order to properly manage this species, we needed to know how many wolves were on Fort McCoy and where they were living. I needed to learn how to read wolf sign.

Photo: An otter, which likes to slide through the snow, called tobogganing, left this sign at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Tim Wilder)
An otter, which likes to slide through the snow, called tobogganing, left this sign at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Tim Wilder)  

To become proficient in this sign language, you need to understand things like stride length, width of straddle, which animals have four toes and which have five, which animals walk on their toes versus those that are plantigrade (walk on the balls of their feet), which species are likely to leave toenail marks and which will not.

It is also beneficial to know something about the biology of the animals you are tracking. For example, you are not likely to observe raccoon tracks when the temperature is well below zero — they are spending their time curled up in a hollow tree. Mink do not like to venture far from water — you are likely to find their tracks crossing a road near a stream or culvert.

Just like learning any new language, practice makes perfect. Well, maybe not perfect, I am still learning something new every time I conduct a survey.

So far this winter, the tracks have told me that at least seven wolves are living within a territory that includes most of North Post.

Indications are that this pack contains an alpha male and female — so it is likely that wolf pups will be born within an earthen den somewhere on Fort McCoy in early April.

So even if your boss doesn’t care if you learn a new language, grab a good field guide and hit the woods and fields after the next snowfall — you may be surprised at the stories that are written in the new fallen snow.

(Wilder is an Endangered Species biologist for the Fort McCoy Directorate of Public Works.)

 

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