By Joe Kreuzman for the Mail Tribune, Dec. 19, 2014

The day following Thanksgiving was solo time to head into the woods to camp and track, just wandering as each whim dictates. Whether a scent on the breeze points to the east or the sound of running water pulls slightly northward, it was pure tracking with no time or destination. My dog, Taru, and I found ourselves on the leading edge of a large storm with dropping temperatures and heavy rain.

Holy smokes, is that a wolf track? Right there in the snow beneath our feet — Why is this not a domestic dog? A team of instructors from Coyote Trails has been searching for wolf OR-7 since 2011. Is this really him?

Not only are these potentially the alpha male but also the alpha female and a few others all moving together. Wow! Now to prove this right or wrong. With the storm looming, it was time to backtrack this trail to determine more about these canines. Did they originate from a truck? Are humans walking along with them? What can be learned to corroborate this working hypothesis that these tracks are indeed from OR-7 and his little pack? The tracks have been through numerous freeze-thaw weather patterns, which tend to distort a tracks actual size, so much more research is needed before it can be safely said.

This back trail led for five miles directly into deep wilderness. The track patterns revealed the canines were moving in an “overstep trot” gait pattern with no veering off to scent mark or sniff at random squirrel tracks. This erratic behavior is suited to the short attention span of domestic dogs, which are constrained all week in homes or backyards and find the freedom of the woods so enticing they explore and wander everywhere. This trail was focused for miles. What domestic would do this? While traveling with three other domestic dogs? Not even farm dogs have this style of discipline and focused attention.

Wolves are keenly aware and when it is time to travel, they move in a trot as this movement conserves more caloric energy than even walking. Is OR-7 heading down in elevation and taking his young pack with him?

Lying in my dry shelter, as snow fell only 700 feet in elevation above, I pondered the day’s progress. As a scientific tracker, we must first see what the track is not. It is just too easy to make a track into whatever you want it to be. By developing a working hypothesis, it leaves one open to add new information as discovered, thus one tracks within the facts. Comparing these large canine tracks to a coyote track from the same time stamp provided good contextual evidence.

Tomorrow will be spent following the trail forward in the direction of travel. Dawn ushered in with two bald eagles perched in an old pine snag and the call of two Northern Harrier Hawks. What? More tracking mysteries to solve, but this will need to wait as the excitement to trail wolves in Southern Oregon is much more exciting today than bird identification.

Due to the recent weather patterns, the tracks are very clear to see in the forested debris, leading in and out of snow fields, across multiple creeks and finally with fading daylight into a well-protected area with numerous bones strewn about. All of these bones have been opened by a large canine to access the tasty and nutritious marrow.

Cougars, bears and coyotes all open large femurs with a telltale sign that is unique to its species. The bones reveal signs of old age and disease due to the many open pocks in the bones joint structure. This is the last needed confirming piece of evidence to prove the hypothesis of why these tracks are OR-7. To a tracker, there is no better day.

Joe Kreuzman is director of the Coyote Trails School of Nature.