How many instructors wear industrial strength knee pads when teaching nature courses? For Jim Halfpenny, naturalist, carnivore ecologist and professional tracker from Gardiner, the pads are crucial – especially on concrete floors – in his animated presentation of a course simply called “Gaits.”
Part of the fourth Tuesday free nature courses provided the public by the Audubon Conservation Education Center (ACEC) on South Billings Boulevard, this class refers to the movement of animals, or as Dr. Halfpenny calls them, sub primates across the ground, i.e., their gait. He tells the approximately 35 people in the audience, “Start thinking like quadrupeds!”
About half the group attending are environmental science students from West and Senior high schools, and Dr. Halfpenny’s complicated lecture is intriguing enough that there are not a lot of cell phones, iPods, etc., in evidence nor the usual whispers, giggles, and tittering associated with a certain age group. The students probably haven’t seen too many of their teachers down on all fours imitating the movement of coyotes and wolves.
“I like the coyote,” Dr. Halfpenny says, “so we’ll use him as an example for this presentation.” He calls a woman from the audience to come up and be “Average Coyote or AC.” She’s also soon down on all fours with Halfpenny beside her facing the audience and measuring from her shoulder, where her arm pivots, to her hip, where the leg pivots. Seventeen inches. About right for AC, he says, although coyotes from farther south and Texas are bigger.
Jim doesn’t use notes, but does have a PowerPoint that clearly illustrates the gait patterns he lays out on the floor with cards marked for front and back feet and combinations thereof — dropping a card for each foot as he imitates its animal gait on his hands and knees.
He has spent five decades learning (constantly), practicing and teaching the complex science of tracking. Wildlife information gems like the bigger southern coyote come easily to him as does the average weight of a wolf (130 pounds) and that of an average elk (750 pounds) - a good reason, he says, for the wolves failing 80 percent of the time in attempting to take down elk.
Halfpenny has measured a wolf leap, and this is a layman’s term, at 25 feet when chasing dinner. He easily switches to rabbit information or bobcat, and he’s written authoritative books on polar and grizzly bears.
He notes that wolves can run a long ways, partly because, with their long snouts and long tongues, they can cool themselves off. Cougars, on the other hand, have short faces and tongues and no cooling capability. The latter tend to stalk and rush rather than run down prey.
Gaits, Dr. Halfpenny points out, are only one part of the triangle of the art and science of tracking; scat — or animal feces — and tracks are the other. He has just finished a two-day course with the Yellowstone Institute in Yellowstone Park, part of which involves students going out into the Lamar Valley and finding actual trails and tracks for interpretation.
The most important part of beginning to apply what he terms “the slow science of tracking interpretation,” is “don’t inadvertently step on the tracks you’re trying to identify! Treat the tracks scenario you are studying like a CSI investigation.”
He ends his presentation with a short film clip of a hare running in snow. Its elegant gallop and leaps show perfectly what he has been talking about. The camera moves back slightly and shows the reason for the hare running all out - a cougar close and closing, again showing the coordinated movement of feet and gait — which leaves evidence in the snow for trackers to interpret. The cougar cannot match the nimble rabbit in its sharp turns, and the final sequence shown is the distant rabbit literally showing off, or in Dr. Halfpenny’s terms, pronking away.
Dr. Halfpenny will be teaching an intensive two-day course at the ACEC on March 10-11 that covers all three parts of this arcane science: $125 in advance or $150 at the door. He says, “Come prepared to work — learn a lot, and have fun.”
Dr. Halfpenny is president of A Naturalist’s World. His latest book is “Yellowstone Bears in the Wild.” His website and further information are at www.tracknature.com.
For information on upcoming workshops at the ACEC, including Dr. Halfpenny’s, Google mtaudubon.org/education/index.html; phone number: 294-5099.