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Cloquet Wildlife Survey, August 2019

posted Aug 29, 2019, 10:41 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 29, 2019, 10:41 AM ]
On August 17, a group of four trackers and naturalists from the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project join students from the University of Minnesota's Natural Resources programs for our second summer Cloquet Wildlife Survey. They survey took place at the Cloquet Forestry Center during it's Summer Field Program for undergraduates.

The Summer Field Program focuses on forestry, but includes a smattering of field experiences in wildlife biology as well. One of these is the opportunity to observe a black bear immobilization. Each day of the program, staff set a culvert trap for a black bear. The morning we arrived, the trap caught a bear, so we put our tracking survey on hold to join the students for the immobilization.

Our introduction to bear immobilization began with a primer on darting and drugging the animal. The field staff went through the preparation of the ketamine that would be used to tranquilize the bear, and the dart that would deliver it. Ketamine is a widely used anesthetic in veterinary surgery and is considered safe and effective for immobilizing animals for research. The process of preparing the dart was more complicated that any of us observers had expected, involving well over a dozen steps and taking about 20 minutes to demonstrate. When the dart was ready, we were led to the culvert trap and watched from a distance as the researchers darted the bear.

Once the bear was under, students were invited to assist with moving it out of the trap and working through a basic regimen of measurements. The bear was a young male, likely two years old based on tooth wear. He weighed 175 pounds and had very low body fat – typical for this time of year.

Badger den
While the bear was out, we trackers had the opportunity to examine his feet up close. A couple things we noticed: First, his front feet were considerably wider than his hind feet. The discrepancy seemed larger than some of us would have guessed based on tracks I have seen and left us wondering if there is a degree of sexual dimorphism in this trait. Do males have more disproportionately larger front feet compared to females? We also noted how high the claws sat on the toes. As Sue Mansfield has pointed out to us, though bears have very long claws, they often do not contact the ground when the bear is walking.

When the bear began to twitch his nose and move his tong, the researchers stopped taking measurements and retreated a bit to allow the bear to recover. Our tracking group took the opportunity to slip off to our survey routes.

A group of 13 students joined our foursome for the tracking survey. We split into two teams and shuttled to the southern and eastern edges of the property. From there, each team followed one of the forest roads back to a central rendezvous just south of the main campus. The roads of the Forestry Center offer a mix of surfaces: hard-packed double track, gravely, grass-overgrown, and sections of perfect sand. There were enough of these natural “track traps” along the routes to find a number of interesting tracks and trails.

Both of the teams found coyote scat and fresh coyote tracks along the survey routes. At the same time, neither team saw any wolf tracks and the only wolf scat we spotted was at least a few months old. This stood in sharp contrast with the previous year's survey when our teams found several fresh wolf scat along each mile of these roads and no sign of coyote activity. What has had the wolves move away from this immediate area and the coyotes move in?

Despite the absence of fresh wolf sign, the deer activity suggested that they were still near by. Deer sign was scarce farthest away from the campus and the areas of greatest human disturbance. As we approached the more human impacted areas, deer sign became more dense. The pattern is common in semi-wilderness areas with a stable wolf population—deer seem to focus their activity in a ring around the areas of greatest human impact just a little closer in than the wolves are comfortable. Yet despite this apparent pattern in the deer's behavior, there was no sign that the wolves had been hunting here for many months.

There were other active predators in the area, however. The team walking in from the east found a series of large excavations along the roadside that included one fresh hole with tracks in the fresh dirt. The palm pad in the track had the characteristic C-shape of a mustelid, revealing the excavator to be an American Badger.

Porcupine track
The team walking in from the south found a smaller set of mustelid tracks, these belonging to a long-tailed weasel. The team found two different weasel trails, one with enough detail to identify the prints and the other that they identified from its gait in loose sand. We know from past surveys that fisher also live in these woods, but these mustelids spend little time on roads and their tracks eluded us this time out. But the same was not the case for one of their best known prey, the porcupine. The team coming in from the east found porcupine scat long the road, which they identified based on size and content. Meanwhile, the team coming up from the south found a long stretch of porcupine tracks along a section of sandy double track.

Other highlights from the day included finding the tracks, then probing sign, and finally scat of Northern Flickers; tracks of jumping mice (which are apparently quite common in these woods); a lovely assortment of frogs, toads, butterflies and spiders; and the delight of being in the field with a group of young nature geeks who were quizzing each other on the Latin names of trees.

It was a lovely day in the field and we look forward to returning to Cloquet next fall to join up with the students of the Summer Field Program once again to explore the north woods forest.