Wildlife tracking can be a window into the past. Similar to reading a guest log at a hotel you can learn who was here before you, when they arrived, and where they were going. Tracking doesn’t have to be about stalking animals through the woods. It can simply be about expanding your awareness of what is going on around you. Learning the footprints of common wildlife in your area can be extremely rewarding whether you are a wildlife enthusiast or an occasional hiker.
After grasping the basics of tracking, you may be surprised how a quiet hiking trail suddenly becomes full with signs of life. Where before, perhaps you saw only rocks and plants, now you may see evidence of a sauntering bear, foraging javelinas, or an owl swooping down to catch a rodent – all of this is written in the sand. Learning to identify tracks can reveal the astounding diversity of life that exists out of human sight yet right under our noses. This is especially true in Arizona.
When most people think of Arizona, they tend to think of dry heat, cacti, and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, “biodiverse” doesn’t usually come to mind, although perhaps it should. According to NatureServe, Arizona ranks as the third most biodiverse state in the U.S. Despite low rainfall, this “barren” state boasts a variety of life that will surprise even many of its long-time residents.
Arizona is home not only to mountain lions and bobcats, but also to the jaguar and ocelot. The Grand Canyon state is the only state in the country with four different species of wildcat according to the University of Arizona Jaguar and Ocelot Monitoring Project, an initiative to monitor these cats in the wild. In the recent past, jaguars ranged from the Mexican border all the way to the Grand Canyon. However, due to hunting and habitat loss, they are labeled “near threatened” in the United States. Some can still be found in remote areas of southern Arizona where they are studied to inform conservation efforts.
Beyond felines, Arizona is also one of only two states where Mexican wolves exist in the wild. Similar to the jaguar, the Mexican wolves were hunted down to only a few individuals by the 1970s. However, after a successful captive breeding program, the wolves were reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico where their numbers have since been on the rise.
We have endangered ungulates such as bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. The pronghorn antelope is the second fastest land animal in the world (second only to the cheetah). Arizona is also home to the exotic-looking coatimundi and ringtail. Both are relatives of the raccoon but appear more monkey and cat-like respectively.
In addition to elk, river otter, and black bear, we also have four species of skunk, three species of fox, and two species of deer – this all without mentioning the plethora of birds, reptiles, and invertebrates found in the state. Many of these species are elusive and it is uncommon to see most of them in person. However, being track-conscious can help us feel their presence.
While it’s unlikely you will ever come across ocelot tracks, you will certainly start to see evidence of our other wild neighbors once you become aware of the tracks around you. It is surprising how often hikers walk on top of fresh animal tracks such as mountain lion without realizing it. This is not to say that they should be fearful, but rather that they are missing out on the richness of their surroundings.
Tracking is as old as humankind and it has only been in the last few hundred years that most of us have forgotten this ancient skill. Today, it is perhaps one of the least-invasive ways to observe and connect with the diverse wildlife around us. Next time you are on a walk, make a special note to be aware of the ground beneath your feet. When you learn to read the dirt you may be surprised by the stories it has to tell you.
Winkler is an artist and tracker who creates paintings out of wildlife tracks. Learn more at www.walksoflifeart.com