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Wild Animal Tracking in Yellowstone

Dr. James Halfpenny, famous mammal tracker, instructor and author in Yellowstone National Park, says reading animal tracks is like a detective game


When it comes to finding the world’s most elusive wild creatures, Dr. James Halfpenny’s soft footsteps are never far behind. The veteran wildlife tracker has searched for dinosaur tracks in Montana, tracked water buffalo in Tanzania, studied endangered species in China, and researched polar bears in Greenland.

But the naturalist finds his favorite tracks closer to home in Yellowstone National Park. That’s where Halfpenny is kneeling today, carefully examining a large paw print etched in the snow. This massive animal track belongs to a canis lupus, or grey wolf, that trotted through here within the last few hours. Halfpenny traces his fingers along the massive footprint’s edges and peers off in the distance, reading this story told in snow.

Wearing vintage wool pants, heavy hiking boots, and a flannel shirt with a ruler and small notebook poking from the pocket, Halfpenny is in his favorite role as wildlife detective-Yellowstone’s own Sherlock Holmes. He has a gift for seeing clues that most of us miss.

Animal Tracking Workshops

“Think of reading tracks and stories as a detective game,” he says to students in his tracking workshop at Yellowstone Forever. “First, you should try to gather all the clues possible.”

An ecologist and educator, Halfpenny has been gathering these clues since 1957 and teaching tracking classes in Yellowstone for more than 25 years. He’s the author of numerous books on tracking, including the acclaimed book Discovering Yellowstone Wolves and, what has become the bible of animal tracking, A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. His writing, photographs, and classes have been featured in Backpacker magazine, Field and Stream, and The New York Times.

On this particular day, Halfpenny has one goal for his students. “I have to get you guys thinking like wild mammals,” he announces to the group. And then the famous tracker gets down on his hands and knees to demonstrate how a wolf moves. “All our life, we expect to think: right, left, right, left,” he explains. “So I have to get you to think like a four-legged animal. “

Getting students to open their eyes to the natural world is not always easy. “People will cop out and not think,” Halfpenny says gruffly. “So I have to push them. And when people start tracking, they start seeing things in nature.”

Halfpenny tries to push his students back to a time when tracking was all about the hunt-chasing down an animal in the snow was the only way to get your next meal. There was no room for error.

In order to rediscover these instincts, the 58-year-old tracker must teach people to see in a new way. “What makes a tracker a tracker is the ability to see tracks amidst all the sticks and stones. A lot of times, you have to look with your fingers…touch, feel, lift and move…close your eyes!”

Tracking Wild Animals Isn’t Easy

Identifying elusive tracks in the snow is definitely not an exact science. A wolverine, for instance, looks like its feet are on the wrong side. And a cat track is distinguished from other four-toed creatures by a slight v-shape in its pad.

But Halfpenny seems made for this kind of obscure work. His life’s never been the same after he read Everest Thompson Seton’s Animal Tracks and Hunter Signs when he was just eight years old. Halfpenny’s parents owned a hobby shop along the North Platte River in eastern Wyoming, and that’s where he got materials to make his first animal track plaster cast at age 11.

By the time Halfpenny was 16, he was tracking for hunting trips. He celebrated his 21st birthday leading an expedition to Antarctica, the first of many such adventures. “Much of my career has been in places where there are no maps, and no compass, like the Arctic, where a compass doesn’t even work,” says the tracker.

Halfpenny spent 13 months in Vietnam, came back, worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and then began teaching wildlife ecology classes in Yellowstone. He’s completed two exploratory expeditions to Greenland (one involved a 150-mile hike hauling boats by hand), and an expedition to China to explore the Tibetan plateau. This trip was the first time scientists were allowed to enter the once-off-limits area. They lived off the land for four months while collecting specimens and searching for evidence of the mythical abominable snowman (they didn’t find any).

Halfpenny’s abilities to read clues in the dirt, sand or snow have also brought him to East Africa tracking with the Maasai (and running from charging buffalo), researching bears in Alaska (and getting close enough to hear fish bones cracking in their jaws) and visiting with the Inuit in Greenland.

Let’s just say Halfpenny is used to spending an unexpected night out in the wilderness-he’s had to do it more than once. This is a man who can sling a backpack over his shoulder, head out into the wild, and live without any trappings of modern-day comfort.

And the tracker comes by his astuteness academically, too. He has degrees in botany from the University of Wyoming and got his Ph.D. in animal ecology from the University of Colorado in 1980. He went on to work at the University’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research for 17 years.

Over the years, Halfpenny’s tracking prowess has led him down the path to controversy. He’s often been asked to testify in important trials involving the collision between human and animal habitats. He was one of the first to sound the alarms over mountain lions encroaching into the city of Boulder, Colorado in the 1990s.

The tracker’s also had the wearisome burden of locating animals that are disappearing quickly from the planet. In Vail, he looked for lynx and grizzly tracks during a proposal to expand the town’s ski area. And on the East Fork of the San Juan in Colorado, he tracked for lynx at another proposed ski area. He found evidence of lynx (even though the populations back then were dangerously close to extinction) and the ski area wasn’t developed.

Halfpenny has also been called up more than once to search for disappearing animals of the two-legged variety, or what he likes to call “naked apes.” His tracking for lost humans has come to some dead-ends, literally, but Halfpenny would rather remember the searches with happy endings, like the time he tracked a Boy Scout who’d been missing for three days. “I found him,” Halfpenny remembers. “He was fine, but something didn’t make sense.” So he tracked the boy’s footprints backwards and found a car littered with candy wrappers. Turns out, the Scout leader had orchestrated the whole affair as a lesson for his troops.

Company, “A Naturalist’s World” Teaches Natural History

These days, Halfpenny focuses much of his time on his company, “A Naturalist’s World,” which teaches natural history classes all over, including Japan, Britain and France. His non-profit also works with a year-around research station at Hudson Bay, Canada, called the Churchill Northern Studies Center. This is where the tracker likes to set up his video camera to record things like a massive polar bear playing outside the research station, pushing a swing set or tearing the seat off of a snowmobile. But it’s also where more serious research happens on a diverse range of topics relating to northern science.

When you listen to Halfpenny talk about things like polar bears in Canada, you can’t help but wonder who he likes more-animals or people. And you also can’t help but ask, What’s more important, the track, or the animal that made the track? Or is it all about the fun of the chase?

How to Track Wild Animals

“You can see a wolf or coyote maybe one day out of 30,” the tracker explains curtly. “But you can track them any day.”

In Halfpenny’s workshops, as long as there’s snow on the ground, there’s the guarantee of a good day tracking. As his students keep their eyes to the ground and look for their first signs, Halfpenny explains to them what makes a good tracker.

First of all, there’s the weather. “When you teach tracking,” he says, “you are at the mercy of the weather. In the court of natural history, Mother Nature is a stern judge. Every day I go out, I’m prepared for the worst.” The teacher likes to use one critical admonition for tracking, called the Seven P’s: prior planning prevents piss poor performance. He also throws out the acronym “MIW,” which stands for words students hear him utter more than once: “Make it work!”

In the end, a successful tracker needs surprisingly little, according to Halfpenny. Even in this era of computerized tracking devices, all he thinks you really need to track is a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler. In fact, his favorite tracker is a seven-year-old girl who lives near his home in Gardiner, Montana. “She sees signs well; she’s really good,” Halfpenny smiles. “She just goes out there and tracks with her pencil, paper and ruler.”

The tracker lives for watching his students discover this simple art of tracking. “It’s fun to get somebody out there,” he says. “I see that ‘wow’ in their eyes, and that dawning is the thrill that keeps me going.”

As Halfpenny gets older, another thing that keeps him going is the realization that there will always be something interesting to follow through the woods. “I like just being out there by myself tracking…my mind flashes around.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the veteran tracker doing anything else. “My retirement plan is death,” he likes to say.

And, believe it or not, there’s still one animal Halfpenny has yet to see in the wild…the wolverine. His voice drifts off following some imaginary set of tracks: “Nothing would be more exciting to me than skiing along and seeing a wolverine…”

Yellowstone Forever

When it comes to studying wildlife, there’s no better teacher than Yellowstone National Park. And the materials in this classroom are all provided by Mother Nature. This is where you can head out and see coyotes, weasels and wolves… all before lunchtime. This is where you can see grizzly bears mating…without leaving the parking lot.

Since 1933, the nonprofit Yellowstone Forever has been feeding visitors educational experiences. Their motto is to “inspire, educate and preserve.” And that’s just what the Association does, offering an inside glimpse into Yellowstone that you can’t get out the window of your car. Programs range from field seminars on subjects like wolf biology, to backcountry expeditions, and tailored natural history courses. Students stay at park hotels, right in the backcountry, or at the historic Lamar Buffalo Valley Ranch, outfitted with classrooms and cabins.

Against the remarkable backdrop of Yellowstone, students leave their normal lives behind for a taste of what it’s like to be a real wildlife biologist-spotting scope, notebook, ruler and all. Institute participants quickly discover that there’s a whole dimension of the park that they didn’t notice before. They begin to discover how the natural order of things really works in Yellowstone.