Following the footsteps of fox and bear | Science | Smithsonian

Following the footsteps of fox and bear

Naturalist-sleuth Susan Morse and her fellow conservationists at Keeping Track monitor wildlife in order to pinpoint critical habitat

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In the early 1970s, Susan Morse, who was studying English literature at the University of Vermont, decided to follow another of her life's passions — the outdoors. She was an avid trekker, hiking often in the woodlands surrounding her cabin retreat in northern New England. She was committed to trying to save as much unspoiled terrain — the habitat essential to America's remaining wildlife — as possible.

Eventually, Morse would telephone Harley Shaw, then an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist known nationally for his research on the habitat and behavior of the cougar. Morse joined Shaw and an expanding cadre of volunteers, some from as far off as Germany, to employ a low-tech but very effective method for monitoring cougar movements: tracking. (Morse had already honed her skills as a tracker for a decade or so, serving her early self-taught apprenticeship in mountainous New England.)

Today Morse is the executive director of Keeping Track, a nonprofit organization that teaches tracking to community groups from New Hampshire to California. She and her fellow naturalist-sleuths are relying on keen powers of observation to generate data on habitat use — and thereby assist conservation groups and local governments trying to preserve critical habitats for animals from bear to muskrat, river otter to bobcat.

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