Making tracks at the Trail Center

May 16, 2002 12:00 am
Elementary school students from Payette, Idaho, collected as many animal tracks as possible. Students supplemented what they're learning about natural history in school with a trip to the Interpretive Center Tuesday. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Elementary school students from Payette, Idaho, collected as many animal tracks as possible. Students supplemented what they're learning about natural history in school with a trip to the Interpretive Center Tuesday. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Greg Miller can tell a lot about an animal just by glancing at the tracks it leaves behind.

Snowshoe hares got their name because of the way they use their long hind paws to more easily make their way across the snow. Mountain goat tracks clearly show evidence of the soft pads that allow goats excellent traction on cliffs.

After a program, appropriately enough called "Tracks," which Miller offered twice Tuesday at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a couple hundred area elementary school students now have a new appreciation for what they can tell about animals by the tracks they leave behind.

But rather than simply tell students what they can learn from animal tracks, Miller, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, showed them.

Using rubbery models of various tracks, Miller had students roll the tracks in ink and then stamp them on pieces of paper.

The students, who came from as far away as Cedar City, Utah, were urged to label each track on their paper —and notice the characteristics that made each track distinct.

"A lot of these kids hunt with their families," Miller said afterward. "I just wanted to get across the point that not all animals are bad. They don't need to shoot them, necessarily. The next time they're out and see animal tracks, they might have a different perspective."

He said his goal for the workshop was to give students hands-on experience identifying animal tracks.

"They may be out and see tracks, but they have no idea who left them or why they're there," he said. "It's a brief way to give them a little better understanding of animal biology."

Before letting students near the tracks and inkpads, Miller gave attendees a talk on which animals were around when Lewis & Clark passed though almost 200 years ago and which ones have been introduced since.

There were grizzly bears and wolves in those days — and the wolves may be coming back, he said. Elk were plains animals back then, in the days before they'd been chased to the mountains. Recent studies show that lynx may be at least passing through Eastern Oregon —chasing the snowshoe hares, their favorite meal.

The Baker Valley was a marsh in those days, he said, a place where buffalo moose fed on the ample willow trees that grew here. Whitetail and mule deer abounded, as did coyotes and bobcats — all of which remain today.

But plenty of species —including the European starling, Rio Grande turkeys, Hungarian partridge, Chinese ring-necked pheasant, chukars, Virginia opossum and English sparrow — have been since introduced to the region. Most are doing well, he said.

Some are doing even better than they'd do otherwise — and they have humans to thank.

Foxes, for example, wouldn't be nearly as abundant if they didn't have chicken houses to raid.

Miller also gave students a brief update on the inseparable relationship between prey and predator.

"As the snowshoe hare has declined, so has the lynx," he said. "Then one will go up and the other will follow closely behind. It's a 10-year cycle, up and down. The prey will do something, and the predator will follow."

Dick Graham, who was shepherding his fourth graders from West Side Elementary School in Payette, Idaho, during a visit to the Center Tuesday, said that Miller's talk dovetailed nicely with what was going on in the classroom.

"We've been studying Idaho history and the Lewis and Clark expedition," he said. "I think they'd heard enough about gold being discovered on the Clearwater River. This (workshop) gave them some information they can take back to the classroom."