Audubon—Off the Beaten Path

Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it’s an engrossing hobby; for others it’s a critical contribution to conservation.

The wind pushes little whitecaps across the Columbia River in Washington about 130 miles east of Seattle. The morning is crisp, and 15 or more of us stand in a tight circle off the riverbank listening to Mark Elbroch, a top American wildlife tracker, explain the rules of the evaluation. For the next two days, for eight to ten hours a day, we’ll be identifying tracks and signs—paw prints, scat, bones—left by all manner of wildlife in a mix of habitats. The test takers, wilderness experts in their own right, are striving to earn Track and Sign Specialist certificates, among the top wildlife tracker credentials in the United States.

Elbroch finishes going over the rules for the field exam and gives a tug on his gray baseball cap. “The less attachment you have to your score, the better you’ll do,” he says before walking off into the shrub steppe with fellow evaluator Casey McFarland to choose the first questions.

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