Blog‎ > ‎

Cloquet Wildlife Survey, March 2018

posted Mar 30, 2018, 12:02 PM by Minnesota Ki Society   [ updated Apr 2, 2018, 9:09 AM by Jonathan Poppele ]
On Sunday, March 25, a dozen trackers and two young apprentices set out to survey the snow covered roads of the University of Minnesota's Cloquet Forestry Center. Though tracking conditions were poor, our team found evidence of bobcat, fisher and wolves in these woods. You can see some of what we observed on the Cloquet Forestry Center Wildlife Survey project on iNaturalist. It was clear from what we found that we have only scratched the surface of the diversity at the Cloquet Forestry Center, and we are looking forward to returning for a deeper dive into understanding this rich landscape and its inhabitants.

We began the day gathering in the Library of the main administration building on campus. Here our host, Rachael Olesiak, gave us an orientation to the Cloquet Forestry Center and shared her hopes for our surveys. Our intention for these surveys is to identify medium and large mammals present on the property, particularly carnivores, and get a general sense of their prevalence and habits. With that in mind, we organized ourselves into two team and made our plan for the day. We would survey three sections of forest road, each around a mile-and-a-half long. We would walk the first route together as a large group, break for lunch in the field, then split into our teams to walk the other two. It was a great plan, but it failed to account for how slowly trackers move in the field when they find something interesting. And it's hard not to find something interesting when you are in the woods!

As we gathered at the trailhead to start our first survey route, members of our group wandered into the woods nearby. Within about 15 feet of the starting point, we found the old, melted out tracks of a gray wolf. Nearby we found tracks of grouse, snowshoe hare, and many unidentifiable trails from medium sized mammals. These findings set the tone for the entire day. As did our experiences investigating them. Rachael had come out on a snowmobile the previous day to pack the road for our survey. The surface was firm and, while a little uneven, stable and easy to walk on. Off the packed track, however, the snow was deep with a crust too thin to support a person. Walking away from the road often meant postholing through knee-deep snow. So posthole we did--slogging through the crusty spring snow to get a look at the tantalizing, but mostly amorphous tracks.

At the trailhead, a wolf had approached the intersection through the woods, then turned away from the paved road where we had parked before emerging onto the packed snow covering the forest road. Its tracks on the forest road were barely visible. In the woods, its tracks were easy to spot, but tricky to identify in the deep, transformed snow. As we followed the road, we quickly found that the wolves made heavy use of this area. We found several scat and numerous places where their trails crossed the road. Deer sign, on the other hand, was not so common along the exposed roadway.

bobcat track
As we followed the road north, the landscape naturally splintered our large group into smaller, constantly shifting teams. Some trackers would linger over a particular sign while others would venture off into the deep snow in the woods or wander farther up the road to get the first look at what was to come. Part way through our survey, we began to see 
heavy feeding sign form porcupine. Apparently, porcupine are a bit of a problem in the forest, doing considerable damage to a variety of tree species. Fisher are one of the few animals that frequently prey on porcupine. As we moved into an older section of forest, we did eventually identify a fisher trail. With few prints in the transformed snow showing any detail, it took some time for us to positively identify a fisher trail. The first candidate we found remained inconclusive, even after considerable study and following the trail for a few dozen yards. Our group came to the consensus that the trail was that of either a fisher or a raccoon. At the end of the day, it was the only raccoon candidate we found. A little farther along, however, we found a trail we were able to identify as fisher with a high degree of confidence. We also found two trails left by bobcat, one of which sported the clearest individual print we found all day.

As we got closer to the end of our route, the wolf sign became increasingly sparse and began to intermix with the sign of domestic dogs. We found a couple of domestic dog scat in the road. They were placed much like the wolf scat and were similar in size and shape--but their uniform, granular consistency betrayed their origins. They looked a lot like they were made of Alpo.

As the wolf tracks gave way more and more to dog tracks, we made our way to the rendezvous site for lunch. Our plan had been to break for lunch at noon. The last tracking group arrived at 1:30. We had covered about 1.8 miles in a little over three hours, for a pace just a little less than 1kph. Seems just about right. 

Rachael had gone ahead to get a campfire going. We roasted brats over the open flames as we shared stories from the morning. Given our pace on the first survey route, we decided to skip our second survey routes and head back to the Library to wrap up our rich day in the field. Despite the difficult conditions, we were very happy with what we found and happy with the promise this landscape offered. The Cloquet Forestry Center clearly has rich and dynamic populations of medium and large mammals and offers great opportunities for tracking. We are delighted to have this opportunity to partner with the Center, and are planning to schedule two surveys each year going forward. We are also looking forward to coordinating with the students form the 
College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, many of whom do programs at the Center. We are tentatively looking at the weekend of August 18-19 for our next survey. I hope you can join us.