Phil Johnston explaining vole tunneling to the group of workshop attendees on Feb. 1 | Photo by Walker B. True

Walking and Wildlife Tracking

A group of students and community members wandered around Redwood Creek to track the local wildlife
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A group of students and community members wandered around Redwood Creek to track the local wildlife

On Saturday, Feb. 1, Phil Johnston, the mountain lion biologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, stopped the group of 20 mixed retirees and Humboldt State University wildlife majors to quiz them on the tracks he had noticed in the sand.

The participants all went to the headwaters of Redwood Creek, just south of Orick, to learn about the tracks, scat and other markings of the animals in our area. Some were there to learn what they could and enjoy the hike, and others were looking for a leg up in their future careers.

“If you’re good enough at interpreting signs and staying on the trail, it’s pretty close to watching them.”

Phil Johnston

Throughout the day, Johnston stopped and drew circles in the stand with his walking stick around particular markings, scat or tracks and asked the group to weigh in on the different features and aspects of it. He asked leading questions about what family the suspected animal may belong to as well as what it most certainly did not belong to.

“If you’re good enough at interpreting signs and staying on the trail, it’s pretty close to watching them,” Johnston said.

Johnston leads these wildlife tracking workshops at the Natural History Museum in Arcata. Evaluators certified by CyberTracker will be coming to Humboldt County to test 10 people on their tracking skills, according to CyberTracker standards. People who pay the $170 certification fee must pass the certification exam on April 25 and 26 to receive their certification.

Louis Salas is a 31-year-old wildlife major pursuing the CyberTracker certification. Salas hopes to work in predator conflict mitigation after he graduates, and figured that if he can earn this certification, he would have a leg up in the competitive field of wildlife biology.

“I’m an older student and I’m competing with a bunch of 18 to 22-year-olds,” Salas said.

The community impact of the workshop didn’t pass him by. Salas said the workshop was a welcoming environment and he enjoyed seeing older people getting out and learning. Salas said when people learn about wildlife, they care about it more.

“If nobody cares about the landscape that we live on, no one’s gonna protect it,” Johnston said.

He wants people to have a connection to the place that they live so that they will want to preserve it for future generations. Johnston said that tracking gives people the ability to feel like a participant in the ecosystem instead of a tourist.

Dave Ramirez is a forestry major and Deanna Lopez is a zoology major. Neither were after the certification and just came out with a friend to learn more about tracking. Both of them said they would probably come back. The commentary and teaching turned what would normally be a quick walk on the beach into something better.

“It’s more meaningful than just hiking,” Ramirez said.

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