While some people are looking forward to balmy temperatures and springtime, a group of trackers in western Massachusetts are keeping their fingers crossed for more snow.
Following a fresh snowfall, three trackers strap on snowshoes and take to the fields of Berkshire County looking for the marks of creatures that traveled across the snow-packed earth hours before. But those braving the cold aren’t dodging trees in isolated, dense forests.
Instead the focus is on land bordering major highways and roads such as eight miles along Route 7 in south county. Laura Marx is a forest ecologist working with The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. Along with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, or BEAT, the Conservancy is studying whether roads, bridges and other man-made structures disrupt animal movement from Vermont’s Green Mountains to the Hudson Valley in New York.
“If you’re trying to get from the northern Appalachians down to the central Appalachians, this is one of the ways to go, through western Massachusetts,” Marx explained. “We have a lot of good information about where the habitat is, but what we weren’t entirely certain of is ‘How much are the roads that bisect that habitat, preventing animals from moving where they need to go?”
Needing at least an inch of snow, teams of two to five trackers walk along fields bordering roadways and every 200 meters venture away from the passing cars, the whole time searching for paw or hoof prints in the snow. In some cases, tracks might suggest an animal decided not to test the road, but as tracker Jim Pelletier explains to Marx, some don’t let it stand in their way.
“The last print here is directly in line with a set on the far side,” Pelletier pointed out. “So when we go down that side [of the road] we’ll see his other half [of prints].”
“So he came right across the road,” Marx said. “That’s great.”
The findings are marked down based on the type of animal; coyote, deer, fox, otter and even porcupine, as well as the location and whether the mammal crossed the road. Marx says the tracking results will be combined with road kill data and information gathered from wildlife cameras to analyze animal movement in relation to roads, bridges and culverts.
“Bridges and culverts can be a good place for animals to get under the road, which is better for them and safer for us if it’s the big stuff that’s trying to cross,” Marx said. “We don’t want to hit them either. But it really depends on how the bridge and culvert are designed. So some of them, if you’re animal, you can walk along the bank under them. But others are narrow enough that you have to swim. So if you’re a mammal and it’s the middle of winter and the river has not frozen yet that can be hard to get under the road through that culvert.”
Marx says the results likely will demonstrate the need to protect certain tracts of land that serve as highways for the animals. Elia Del Molino is a program manager with BEAT. He says the overall goal is to maintain the Berkshires’ natural landscape and abundant wildlife because it is an economic draw for the region.
“It’s all so important to protect these wild things because it will really help the Berkshires and western Massachusetts grow economically and develop in a way that strikes a balance with wild things and man-made things,” said Del Molino.
As for successful tracking, Pelletier says the necessities include training and a few other qualities.
“A good set of eyes,” Pelletier said. “In some cases a good sense of smell. And a fair amount of luck.”