Kyle Strauss, left, a Cascadia Wild instructor, records data as Dylan Schertz, 11, center, and his father, Paul Schertz, take measurements from animal tracks in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004.
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens
MOUNT HOOD NATIONAL FOREST, Ore. Jason Davis knelt in a snow-filled ditch beside a frozen gravel road, the bill of his baseball cap nearly touching four small marks in the snow.
The dime-sized marks were each about eight inches apart, and headed into the bushes. As he pondered them, more than a dozen animal trackers in winter gear and on snowshoes gathered around, craning to see the marks as well.
''Could it be a mouse?'' asked Davis, 31.
Some trackers looked up, searching for trees that could have dripped water onto the snow and caused the marks. Others followed the faint trail into the woods, but didn't see any more clues.
These wilderness detectives are volunteers with Cascadia Wild, which has organized the Wolverine Tracking Project for the past five years to bring urbanites closer to nature and to gather information about animal species and their numbers in the Mount Hood National Forest.
For most of the trackers in the group, it is their first attempt at identifying signs of animals in the wild after going through classroom instruction in Portland, about 60 miles west of here.
Every Saturday and Sunday for six winter weekends the volunteers will strap on showshoes to wander snowfields and spot signs of wildlife living around and on Oregon's tallest mountain, Mount Hood.
They will record how many animal tracks they find and add the information to a growing database that is shared with the U.S. Forest Service.
In 2003, the group covered up to two square miles of forest in each of 19 outings. They found tracks left by a menagerie, including bobcats, red fox, rabbits, ermines and a spotted skunk.
''We like to share the information because the Forest Service often doesn't have the funding to do survey work,'' said the spokesman for Cascadia Wild, Dave Shapiro.
Alan Dyck, forest wildlife program manager for the national forest, said data provided by Cascadia Wild are valuable because surveys aren't routinely conducted in the million acres of forest land around Mount Hood.
In particular, predator data is useful to the Forest Service and can be used as a management tool. The existence of predators like pine martens, bobcats and wolverines indicate forest health.
''We are using the information to help monitor carnivores in general,'' said Dyck. ''If they aren't there due to too many people or not enough food supply, it shows we aren't doing our job to protect them.''
Beyond information gathering, the project is also an opportunity to get out of the city and into the woods for many of the volunteers.
Sometimes the volunteers spend the night in the snowy woods, sleeping in ski cabins.
Jason Davis, left, Ian Abraham, right, and Candace Larson, volunteer trackers for Cascadia Wild, examine animal tracks in the Mount Hood National Forest, Ore., Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004.
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens
''It's awesome up here'', said 52-year-old Taylor Pittman, of Olympia, Wash., among the volunteer trackers who drove into the forest for a day of tracking.
She said she has tried hard to incorporate nature into her life.
''I've come up here for less reasons, to go snowshoeing or to hike. Give me anything to spend time with other people who love the wilderness,'' she said.
Training for new volunteers begins in Portland, where they learn to identify animal tracks and sort out information that they find in the woods. Animal tracks, bits of hair, broken plants, and seed remnants give a tracker vital information about an animal.
Pittman showed what she learned in one training session by placing her hands on the ground and hopping like a rabbit her front hands reaching out first, and then back feet catching up. Then she demonstrated how a coyote walks, moving her right hand and left foot simultaneously.
With measuring tapes, global positioning system units, data sheets and animal tracking books, on this day the volunteers are scouting snowy fields for traces of wolverines one of the shyest of carnivores. Over the years wolverines have been seen in the forest, but no evidence of their existence has been found since 1990.
During their day in the woods, the trackers find no trace of wolverine, only the tracks of animals the predator hunts such as rabbits, squirrels and pikas. The volunteers use their classroom education to guess how big the animal is, how fast it was moving, and where it was headed.
Experienced trackers come along to help the beginners.
''There can be a pretty quick success rate and then people realize 'there's a bobcat this close to where I live,' or other wildlife all around us,'' said Shauna Stevenson, 34, of Portland, who has volunteered for the Wolverine Tracking Project for the last two years.
She looked at novice trackers examining the ground, their faces close to the snow.
''It looks funny, but this represents a connection with the natural world. Everybody ought to have more of this.''
A few people leaned over tracks in the snow and were able to deduce they were made by domestic dogs coursing erratically up a snow bank and back down again.
''Wild animals don't do that,'' said one of three trip leaders, Kyle Strauss, 28, from Portland. ''They tend to run in a straight line.''
Strauss bent down to touch another set of frozen prints, trying to determine whether it was left by a coyote, red fox or a small dog.
One set of tracks ran downhill, in a straight line, and were slightly melted. Another set came back along the same path, sometimes overwriting the first set of prints. They were clearer.
No snow had fallen in the previous 24 hours. Suddenly the picture became clear to Strauss the tracks were made by a trotting red fox.
''The fox came down early in the day yesterday, and the prints melted in the sun,'' he said. ''Then it returned in the evening, headed for home.''
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