On Saturday I went skiing in Death Canyon, and on the way down, took a detour to follow some interesting tracks. They caught my attention for a couple of reasons; the distinct and very regular 2x gait, and the trough through the snow.
They were clearly made by a medium-sized animal moving determinedly across the landscape. There aren’t that many candidates for tracks like these. They appeared too big to be marten, although in places the stride seemed short for a wolverine. I followed the tracks for about a mile; the animal would move rapidly across open spaces, and then duck under a grove of trees, look around, occasionally put its paws onto the snowy bark of a pine and, presumably, look up to see if there was anything to eat, before returning fairly quickly to its original course to the north, hauling across open meadow towards the next grove. To the sides of the prints, on the edges of the trough, the drag marks of long fur were occasionally visible. On close examination, I could see claw marks at the front of the tracks, and in a few places, where I crawled under the trees to examine the tracks against harder snow, I could see imprints of widespread toes and, once, the impression of what appeared to be a chevron-shaped interdigital pad. Canid tracks have a distinct triangular shape, and if it had been a cat, the claw marks probably wouldn’t be visible. Odds were good that I was tracking a weasel.
I was at about 7100 feet, which seemed low for a wolverine, but not impossible, especially given the abundance of game at this elevation; squirrel and hare tracks were visible near the trees, and moose wandered the slopes. The 2x tracks eventually went straight up a steep, downfall-tangled hill; I followed them upslope just long enough to collect what I had been sure would show up eventually: scat. The scat was small too, but I tucked it into a folded square of paper and then headed back.
When I showed the photos to Jason on Monday, he ranked the tracks “probable” – too big for marten, all wrong for wolf. The only other possibility was an otter; the tracks weren’t far from Phelps Lake and Jason said that he’s seen otter tracks across high mountain passes miles away from water. But he also said that otters tend to place their feet directly beside each other, rather than offset in the way these tracks were. Hopefully we can send the scat to the lab and that might provide a more definitive answer. In the meantime, though, it was a good way to spend a Saturday in the Tetons.