Tracking Elephants and Falcons Across the Plains of South Dakota

Evermore frequently, hunters are venturing afield with animal partners.

States are increasingly allowing the use of tracking dogs for the pursuit of live and wounded game. Hunters are finding new uses for dogs in other seasons such as locating and gathering shed antlers in the spring. The more often we are in the field, the risk of losing contact with these valuable animals increases.

Thousands of dollars change hands each year as hunters purchase animals from their trainers. Pack horses that can climb mountains and ford streams without spooking at the scent of blood, lions, or bears are in high demand. Pack goats and lamas are seen more frequently on today’s trails as the properties needed to keep horses shrink in size and increase in value. The forests are becoming a veritable menagerie of domesticated animals in the company of hunters and I imagined that I had seen them all.

But this week I attempted to help a man track a lost falcon across the plains of South Dakota.

As the value of some partner animals can exceed ten thousand dollars, sophisticated electronic location devices have been developed to aid in their recovery.

As I approached the hunter near Cox Lake, he was slowly turning a tracking antenna.

“No,” he replied to my question. “I haven’t lost my dog. I’m looking for my falcon.”

Thirty-one falconers are licensed by South Dakota to pursue upland game. A two-year apprenticeship program is required where more common species such as red-tailed and sparrow hawks can be captured and trained under the tutelage of an experienced falconer.

“I’m worried that a grouse hunter might do something rash.”

All birds of prey are protected by federal law, but hunters in pursuit of pheasants and grouse have been known to be less than friendly towards the competition of feathered hunters.

“I have tracking devices on the bird. We trained in this valley all summer and I’m hoping it stays in the area.”

I told him that I would keep an eye out, but it has to be harder to track a bird through the sky than an animal across the ground. It reminded me of the tracks I’d discovered the week before.

Millions of years before we became a nation, large portions of South Dakota bordered an inland sea. The marsh lands accepted the tracks of animals much larger than those found today. While excavating the foundation for a cabin, I discovered the tracks of one such animal.

I’d seen these tracks before. Casts are impressions that have filled with sediment after the passing of an animal. The sediment occasionally hardens and is surrounded by material that protects and saves the track. Most of the previous examples I had discovered had been on the surface and weathered by wind, rain and erosion and lost most of their detail.

This track hadn’t seen the light of day in millions of years.

Four legged creatures tend to step their hind feet into the impression left by the front. I’ve trailed three bull elk through deep snow and only seen the impression of one as they used the tracks of their leader to their advantage. By stepping on the compressed areas, their travel became less difficult. This habit leads to double foot strikes as the first print is compressed twice.

While tracking through the Hills, I have encountered the impressions of lions, wolves, and bears, but never before had I come across the track of an elephant.

The most visible impression was from the left hind foot of an adolescent. I have spent hours carving and filing the hooves of horses and studied their texture and shape. This track clearly detailed the outlines of toenails and still showed the dermal ridges, the cracks that appear along the foot pad, as the skin hardened to callous, broke and chipped away, just like the hoof of a horse. It didn’t take much time online to find modern impressions that matched the track. In 2012, six-million-year-old tracks were found of an entire herd of elephants that crossed the Arabian desert.

If a hunter can find the sign of one animal millions of years after it passes, finding the track of a falcon through the sky seems a little less daunting. Shoot me a note if you see such a bird along the Red Water, and we’ll work to get it back to its owner.

Columnist: Bob Speirs

Bob Speirs – owner and operator of Crow Creek Wildlife Management Service in Spearfish, South Dakota has been writing award winning articles, stories and poems that entertain and educate hunters for over 15 years. Known for his outstanding whitetail management and hundreds of satisfied customers, Bob’s unique perspectives and insights help to educate and entertain hunters everywhere!

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