Wolf Tracking Gives Practice in Intuition

CJ Blair, Columnist

Some of the first comments I heard about Winter Term at Oberlin were all the places you can go to get away from the deplorable January cold. I’ll admit I was tempted to follow that advice, but all bets were off when I found a wolf-tracking program in northern Minnesota. The course examined predators of the North Woods, and we were able to spend the whole time looking for tracks outside, locating wolves with radio telemetry and observing their behavior in captivity. While the class provided extensive education in conservation biology, the act of tracking itself is an activity that provides practice in deductive reasoning and intuition that is applicable far beyond the scope of biology.

The first step in tracking also serves as what is perhaps its ultimate goal: to make a person open to the natural world so they are more aware of subtle changes in the surroundings. In his famous environmental book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau proposed that humans are “asleep” and have become callous to the language of nature. To combat this tendency, the instructors of my course armed the students with a broad range of knowledge about signs we might see. We learned the gaits of common animals, the shape of their feces and what their prints look like. When we were tracking all day in the minus 30-degree cold, that bit of knowledge gave us something concrete to look for.

I believe this intellectual fascination is the biggest advancement in making a person become a capable tracker. Aimless wandering might be enjoyable, but without a firm grasp on what you’re seeing, it’s difficult to appreciate the full extent of the diversity around you. Becoming open to your surroundings is less about seeing things for the first time than it is about isolating things you already know and understanding how they interact with the world at that time. A patch of melted snow in a forest means nothing to the average person, but a well-read tracker could identify this as a night bed for a deer and be able to tell which way it sat and how long it stayed there.

While this simple identification can be satisfying, it fails to place the identified object in the larger context of the ecosystem, which is a major objective of tracking. Consider the night bed I just mentioned. Say you’ve found the melted patch of snow. The logical next step is to ask what this deer did next. If you walk around the site for a minute, you might find a spot of blood in the snow, alongside a bit of urine. Dig around a bit, and maybe there’s some fur there as well. If there are any ovular canine tracks nearby, you can say with reasonable certainty that a grey wolf killed the deer and then performed a raised-leg urination on the kill to prevent other wolves from taking it.

That may seem like a fairly large intuitive jump, but such conclusions are warranted when there’s plentiful and varied evidence pointing to it. It’s impossible to know for sure what happened, but being able to assess the surroundings and piece together a plausible story is the best way to speculate what might’ve happened.

Douglas Adams once said that in order to solve a crime, you must solve the society in which it occurred. He was writing a comedic novel, but a similar technique applies in tracking. By understanding the larger context in which an event in nature takes place, you can deduce a stronger explanation of how it happened.

In this vein, the mentality of a wolf tracker transcends ecology. While it’s easy to get bogged down in the specifics of a vexing task, the solution might only be obtainable by seeing the bigger picture. To know the implications, the causes and the results of an event or problem may seem daunting, but an appreciation of the complex interactions of everything that happens with everything surrounding it is a sure way to ensure any proposed solution is considerate and effective. It is said that a shortsighted person can’t see the forest for the trees. If you start with the forest before you home in on the trees, you’ll be less likely to miss something you won’t forget.