Lonely Work: Winter studies take biologist to remote areas
Wildlife biologist Tim Thier. Photo by Dave Reese
Road sign on remote trail in Whitefish Mountain Range. Dave Reese photo
BY DAVID REESE
The wolf was here the day before.
The animal had left large pock marks in the snow that formed a long, singular line stretching down the snowmobile trail in front of us.
After about five miles up this remote forest road near Stryker on Monday, the wolf’s tracks suddenly veered off the trail and into the deep snow — before quickly returning to the trail. In its wake it had left a calling card of its presence: a small piece of deer hide, cut in a perfect square fashion, giving us the clue that the hide had been used by a trapper as bait for a pine marten trap. The wolf’s teeth left large holes in the frozen hide, and every scrap of available protein had been cleanly scoured away.
“Tough way for a wolf to make a living out of something like that,” remarked Tim Thier, tossing the piece of hide back in the snow and hopping on his snowmobile. Thier is a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist who has studied furbearing animals in northwest Montana during the winter for the past 13 years.
His work involves snowmobiling miles and miles of winter back roads of northwest Montana throughout the winter, counting the various tracks left by furbearing animals like wolf, lynx, coyote, wolverine, pine marten, snowshoe hare and weasel. His study helps monitor the population trends of the various animals and how they cycle up and down over the years.
Thier monitors a dozen separate routes during the winter. His coverage area as a wildlife biologist stretches from the North Fork of the Flathead, to Lake Koocanusa, the British Columbia border, Stryker and the 10 Lakes area near Eureka, all the way to Kalispell.
Thier’s process for monitoring furbearers is fairly simple; he counts the various kinds of tracks along the snowmobile trail, and writes the information on a clipboard under various categories such as felids (mountain lions) or mustelids. (weasel). He also keeps track of prey-base animals, like squirrels and rabbits. His annual studies are part of a statewide effort to monitor winter furbearer populations. “Over time, it gives us a picture of where we have high densities of furbearer populations in the state, and where changes may be occurring,” Thier said. For instance, this year Thier is seeing fewer snowshoe hare than usual, but their populations are cyclic.
The lone wolf tracks that he spotted on Monday in the Stryker area made him wonder about the wolf’s origin, since this area is between areas of known inhabitation by the various wolf packs of the Whitefish Range and the North Fork of the Flathead.
“We may have a new pack here,” he said, before climbing back aboard his snowmobile and continuing up the road toward Upper Whitefish Lake.
Coming around a corner, Thier stops in mid-road and shuts off his snowmobile. Lumbering off into nearby thicket is a large moose, his hulking brown shape moving easily through the four-foot-deep snow. The moose pauses briefly among the gray trunks of aspen, looking like a live version of a Bev Doolittle painting. It ambles off and disappears into the dark woods.
Some of Thier’s satisfaction in his work isn’t purely scientific. “I get such a kick out of watching moose,” he said. “They’re amazing animals.”
We make our way down a narrow road and over a small divide that separates Fitzsimmons Creek and Swift Creek, just south of Upper Whitefish Lake. We separate briefly as we cross avalanche chutes. Thier pauses to examine an old rusted coffee can nailed to a fir tree — an abandoned pine marten trap that most passersby would probably not even notice.
But Thier knows these parts intimately. His work takes him high the mountains, deep in the forests, to places like the headwaters of the Stillwater River, where it bounces clear and clean through the ice and snow on its journey to the Flathead Valley.
Returning from Upper Whitefish Lake, as dusk begins to fall, we encounter two snowmobilers — workers from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, who are placing signs on the trail to make snowmobilers aware of dangers in the area. Thier strikes up a familiar conversation with one of the men, as if encountering a coworker in a hallway on coffee break.
TO THE CASUAL observer, the winter environment may seem devoid of wildlife. Tracks, however, tell a different story; that of the hunter and the hunted. A short-haired weasel, for instance, is able to tunnel through the snow to the earth’s surface and hunt for small mammals like mice, Thier explained. “There’s more going on than what you see at the surface,” he said.
Things don’t always make sense to Thier, who scratches his head over why a weasel would make erratic, circular tracks in the snow, as if chasing its tail. Why would this animal behave this way, if trying to conserve its energy during winter? Another weasel track can be seen, this time an irregular pair of paw prints. “It looks like he’s carrying something here, but I don’t see any blood,” said Thier, whose work often allows him to play detective.
Seven miles from the trailhead, near the intersection of Mount Marsten road and the road that leads to Upper Whitefish Lake, the wolf tracks continue down the snowmobile trail. We lose the trail when we venture through untracked snow down a side road, away from Mount Marsten, whose summit is obscured by fog. About a mile later, near Upper Whitefish Lake, the wolf track appears again, seemingly out of nowhere.
These deep backwoods are Thier’s office, where he often works alone.
In the 14 years that he’s worked up here, Thier has rarely actually seen the animals that make the tracks he’s studying. The snowshoe hares, for instance, are a nocturnal animal that he rarely encounters during his daytime work. “I’ve seen a hare maybe two or three times in all these years,” he said, eating lunch in a heavy snowstorm near Upper Whitefish Lake. “But it’s nice to know they’re here.”
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