I grew up in metro DC in the 50s. That was the heyday of Smokey Bear. Smokey was a native of New Mexico, a victim of a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains and rescued by a fire crew; he was brought to the National Zoo in DC and served as an iconic image for the US Forest Service, in service to fire prevention–his image still lives on in memes and posters.
I was reminded of Smokey last weekend as my tracking group left the Gila River, headed home. The question came up whether bear were ever seen along that particular stretch of river. The answer was yes, but not today: no food to be had, and bears would be concentrated where there would be lots of mast to eat up for winter fat. Not sure how we jumped to talking about Smokey, but there you are. We jumped back to the topic of bear tracks, their size and appearance, and the likelihood of seeing them.
Could I have imagined, standing in front of Smokey’s cage in the late 50’s, that I would one day live in Smokey’s home state and learn to track his natural cousins? Hardly, yet here I am. I took a certifying class in tracking, found a new avocation, and have been collecting tracking data for citizen science projects for the last several years.
This particular day, my group and I went out to the Gila River for the sheer pleasure of walking very slowly and staring at the ground. We almost didn’t get out of sight of our vehicles, captured as we were by evidence of critters small and large left in the dust of the road. Four-leggeds are lazy; they’d rather walk roads and trails just like two-leggeds. We did make it on
down the trail and came across a typical latrine where fox and then coyote and lastly fox left their calling cards perched on a flat-topped rock in the middle of the trail. Marking, or as a friend would say, posting on their Facebook page. Reaching the river course, we found where bobcats had walked along the river bank, back when the river reached the bank, and left us a story of stalking in the dried mud.
At the muddy edge of the river, we crawled around with rulers, books and glasses trying to identify a plethora of footprints. Raccoons galore and bits of crawdads that had been caught, washed and munched. More coyote and someone’s large dog. A rodent, but what kind? A ringtail cat? No, the claws are too long. Maybe a little bitty skunk? Photographs on my cell phone to bring home and puzzle over with my tracking bible and online query.
And here’s the motivation for so much crawling, puzzling, measuring and photographing. The reason for all this tracking for citizen science projects. To paraphrase a well-known politician, It’s The River, Stupid.
The Gila River is the last wild river in the state. The Rio Grande has been tamed for agriculture from just about the northern border of the state. The Gila itself disappears into irrigation ditches by the time it reaches the Arizona border. We are fighting, for the third time in as many decades, an existential battle to keep the river free from diversions and dams to ensure that the endangered fish, birds, lizards and turtles continue to have a place to live. In addition, the Gila River flows through the Gila National Forest, including the Gila Wilderness, which is also under existential threats from fire to fighter planes. We do what we can with what talents we have to contribute to protecting the River, the Forest and the Wilderness. #Publiclandsareworthprotecting !