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Missouri footprint study shows how furbearers are doing

November 02, 2012 at 09:38 AM

The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — The musky stink rides the wind, its fatty-acid aroma beckoning wild critters to come take a whiff.

From across farm fields and forested woodlands, they sniff out the invisible calling card — a man-made artificial-scent disc a little larger than a quarter. The curious creatures leave their tracks behind in soft-dirt “footprint traps” set out by Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife resource technician Jay Steele.

Steele is checking the 10 tracking stations he placed the day before along the edges of several rural Lawrence County gravel roads in the vicinity of the Robert E. Talbot Conservation Area, where he works. This one is the last of five tracking lines he has set in various locations around the county, a total of 50 dirt traps that have been set and checked annually since 1977.

“They’re being surveyed and they don’t even know it,” he says of his furbearer targets.

Data that’s been collected for decades helps show how various fur-bearing species are doing as their habitat becomes altered, weather patterns change or other species compete with them for food.

The footprint traps are about a third of a mile apart. We pull up to trap No. 4 along the edge of the road, which yields a bonanza.

“You can see here the tracks of a boar possum, a big male, who dragged his tail through the dirt when he came to check out the disc,” Steele says. “It looks like he walked right up to the disc, but left it alone. And over here, that’s a dog print. It’s round and very symmetrical, unlike a coyote track that’s very elongated.”

He marks his findings on paper and moves on down the road to the next station. We find raccoon prints, more opossum tracks and several more dog prints. At one of the stations a coyote clearly walked up to the scent disc, checked it out, then did what coyotes typically do.

“Looks like he peed on it,” Steele observes. “There wasn’t anything to eat there so he just marked it and moved on.”

Near a just-plowed field, station No. 7 proved to be a bust.

But the final trap of the day yielded an interesting story.

Steele squats down and reads the markings, following the animal movements from west to east across the dirt. He explains what seems to have happened.

“Look here and here, those are house cat tracks,” he says. “The house cat walked around the edge, leaving these tracks here and here. But the bigger tracks are from a coyote. It looks like the coyote walked right up and took off with the scent disc. Sometimes you have to fine-tune what you’re seeing, especially when one animal leaves tracks on top of another one’s tracks. That seems to have happened here.”

He tallies the day’s results: Tracks from two coyotes, two opossums, two dogs, three raccoons and three house cats.

Four other tracking lines he had previously set and checked drew an interesting array of critters. He recorded a weasel, bobcat, fox squirrel, red fox, skunk, a woodchuck, two muskrats, a rabbit and mother deer with fawn following behind.

He thinks the deer just happened to wander through the footprint trap, but was at a loss to explain why a rabbit would check out the stinky disc.

“It probably saw something white and unusual in its environment and came to check it out.”

A couple of other tracks failed to make it into his annual report — car-tire marks through one dirt station and human shoe prints in another. Steele says he’ll explain to the curious what he’s doing, if they find him working one of the stations. But he prefers a low-key approach to keep “bigfoot” prints or other human-inspired attempts at humor out of his dirt traps.

He grins a little as he described one of the most unusual incidents involving the research stations. He said a local woman, perplexed by the appearance of strange dirt circles, called the sheriff.

“She thought aliens had landed because she found all these round, sifted tracks in the edge of the road,” he recalled. “It wasn’t aliens.”

Animal-track data Steele records is sent to MDC researchers at Columbia. MDC resource assistant Justan Blair said the tracking takes place in 25 Missouri counties in late September. Over the past 34 years, the footprint traps show steady increases in raccoon, opossum, bobcat, skunk and coyote populations.

But red fox and gray fox populations appear to be dwindling significantly, with gray foxes declining faster than their red fox kin.

Blair said rising populations of other fur-bearing species — especially bobcats, coyotes and raccoons — might be increasing the competition for food and habitat and putting pressure on foxes. Although there are more reports of bears and mountain lions in Missouri, Blair said the footprint traps so far haven’t caught evidence of their increasing numbers.

But they have shown an increase in house cat “predators.”

“They say house cats are the number-one predator in suburban areas, they take a lot of birds, mice, voles, that kind of thing” he said.

Because the footprint traps are very low cost to put in place, just a matter of sifting dirt through screens, and don’t require a lot of man-hours to record the data, Blair said the “Furbearer Sign Station Survey” is likely to continue indefinitely. The longer data is recorded, the better trend lines can be observed.

“We get a lot of information for a little amount of money,” he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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