Alissa Rafferty and Gus Goodwin, Tracking Wildlife

In the winter of 2011, two field technicians—Alissa Rafferty and Gus Goodwin—worked around the Booneville area to track wildlife movement across the countryside. The work was completed as  part of a $1 million grant awarded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grant program tothe Staying Connected Initiative.

Alissa reflects on her experience:

hand and trackTracking was a really fun challenge. What surprised me was how much more there is to it than looking at an individual track. It’s a process comparable to learning how to read. You have to take in all of the surroundings, all of the context. When we would at first feel stumped by a track, we could look for other clues including habitat, how the animal moved, the direction it was going, and the pattern it left behind.

We became pretty familiar with the landscape after doing the same route all winter, and could begin to predict where we would see certain tracks. We are always told how important water is to animals, especially during winter when it can be hard to find. It was neat to actually see this firsthand from the high density of tracks we observed around creeks and streams.

One of our neatest observations was in a stream that ran through a culvert under the road. We would often see mink tracks going through the culvert to the other side. On a day when the culvert was buried in snow, a mink approached, realized the opening was blocked, then turned away and was forced to cross up and over the road. This insight into the animal’s behavior and decision making process is something we wouldn’t have been able to capture without previous observation of its tracks. It was valuable to see how certain roadside features can play such a strong role in dictating those decisions, as well as the animal’s potential safety. After all, one of the main goals of our project is to be able to answer the question, “How do we ensure animals can continue to move freely and safely between intact habitat patches, and how can we improve the efficacy of those corridors that already exist?”

Night-tracking image of bobcat. Motion-activated cameras are recording species that may have conflicts with roads upstate. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy

Alissa and her fellow technician have their work cut out for them. By the end of last year’s project, which was augmented with carefully placed motion-sensitive cameras in the spring, they collected 1,167 tracking records and measured and mapped 215 underpasses (bridges and culverts), 124 guardrails, and 74 fences.

One of these cameras collected this remarkable video of a bobcat.

Ultimately, the data collected will help the New York State Department of Transportation determine where road adaptations could be made at no or low cost to ensure safe driving for people and safe passage for wildlife.

Remote-camera image of coyote. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy

For instance, within the next year or so, the Conservancy plans to work locally with highway crews on some wildlife-friendly retrofits for culverts. In a similar effort, our staff this summer is working in partnership with the Ausable River Association and SUNY Plattsburgh on an aquatic habitat connectivity project. Along the Ausable River, they will assess the capacity of culverts to facilitate fish movement to habitats for spawning and seeking refuge.