Alpine Otters Protocols

Alpine Otters Citizen Science Project Protocols

Patrick Cross – Yellowstone Ecological Research Center

May 20, 2018

Thank you for participating in our Alpine Otters citizen science project! The following protocols describe how we will non-invasively collect baseline demographic data on this novel population, which recently arrived in this high elevation environment due to trout stocking of its historically fishless lakes. These data will also allow us to evaluate (a) whether there are juvenile otters on the Beartooth Plateau, which would indicate that it is a year-round, breeding population as opposed to a seasonal, transient population, (b) the diet of this population, and (c) how it might impact native alpine carnivores, specifically red fox, American marten, and short-tailed weasels. Following these protocols will ensure that the data you collect will be high quality and useful for our analysis. Also attached here are safety guidelines – the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center’s policy is to prioritize (1) crew safety, (2) minimize resource impacts, and finally (3) complete project objectives, in that order – equipment checklist, example data sheets, and a track identification guide. If you have any questions, ideas, or suggestions, please contact Patrick at or (406) 556-1414.

Be safe, observe and consider every detail and clue, and have fun!


The field day will be on Sunday, May 20and we will be meeting at the Dump in Cooke City, Montana: it is one block south of Main Street/U.S. 212 on Republic Avenue, so take the first right as you come into town if you are coming from the west (i.e., Bozeman), or the last left if you are coming from the east (i.e., Red Lodge). Please be there and ready to go at 8:00 a.m.

It is a three hour drive from Bozeman, and not much less  from Red Lodge via the Chief Joseph Highway, so I would recommend planning to camp or staying at a hotel the night before (and possibly Sunday night as well). Free camping will be available at our field station in Cooke City: please let me know if you are interested. There is a gas station in Cooke City, but otherwise grocery shopping is limited, so come prepared with snacks and lunch for the day (we will provide dinner at the BBQ!). Also, there is no cell phone service in Cooke City, and there is a $30/vehicle entrance fee for Yellowstone. After a brief orientation, we will split up into teams and head up to the Beartooth Plateau.


Teams of ~3 volunteers will go to one of seven transects [mileage round trip]:

(1)   Broadwater River (11 miles): START = Clark’s Fork Trailhead (45.0207⁰, -109.8660⁰), END = northwest edge of large meadow ~1.5 miles past Broadwater Lake (45.0611⁰, -109.8575⁰). This transect crosses the foot bridge over the Clark’s Fork River and follows the Kersey Lake trail until it intersects with the horse trail/road, at which point it will follow the Broadwater River northeast to Curl and Broadwater Lakes. The team will split up here and proceed upstream along opposite shorelines of the two lakes, meeting up again at the Broadwater Lake inlet. From there, they will continue together up to the end point.

(2)   Kersey Lake

: START = Clark’s Fork Trailhead (45.0207⁰, -109.8660⁰), END = Aquarius Lake (45.0568⁰, -109.8126⁰). This transect begins with the Broadwater River transect, and will likewise spit off of the hiking trail where it intersects with the horse trail/road, but then this one will follow the creek up to Kersey Lake. There, the team will split and go up opposite shores of Kersey Lake, meeting again at the inlet, then proceeding through the large meadow, into the woods, and along  Sedge Creek as it zigs, then zags, into the burn, after which it is a straight through two smaller lakes and on to Aquarius.

(3)   Crazy Creek (10 miles): START = Crazy Creek trailhead (44.9430⁰, -109.7737⁰), END = inlet of Ivy Lake (44.9926⁰, -109.7609⁰). After passing the waterfall, follow the creek up to Ivy Lake, then split up to go along opposite shorelines, meeting again at the inlet. Because of steep terrain around Ivy Lake, you can go ahead and blitz down to the mouth of Ivy, and from there follow the returning leg protocols (below)

(4)   Lake Creek (9 miles): START = outlet of Lily Lake (44.9449⁰, -109.7126⁰), END = inlet of Three Bay Lake (44.9724⁰, -109.6984⁰). Lily Lake is just off of a short unpaved road (#130) just east of the Beartooth Highway/Chief Joseph Highway intersection. The transect will follow the outlet creek downstream to the southeast to where it joins Lake Creek, then proceed up Lake Creek to the northeast. Lake Creek has some sharp zigs and zags and crosses numerous small ponds.

(5)   Muddy Creek (8.5 miles): START = Muddy Creek campsite (44.9329⁰, -109.6514⁰), END = Granite Lake (44.9898⁰, -109.6646⁰). This transect is very straight forward, following Muddy Creek through several large meadows before pinching into a narrow canyon just before Granite Lake. This transect was used during our recent fox study.

(6)   Beartooth Lake (10 miles): START = Beartooth Lake outlet (44.9396⁰, -109.5995⁰), END = T Lake (44.9917⁰, -109.6058⁰). This transect follows the south and east shores of Beartooth Lake, then cuts east to join the creek flowing out of Beauty Lake. After bushwhacking up to Beauty, it then follows the west shore on up to the string of small lakes ending at T-Lake. Given the route finding and steep trees between Beartooth and Beauty, this is probably the most difficult transect.

(7)   Island Lake (10 miles): START = Island Lake turnoff (44.9374⁰, -109.5369⁰), END = Becker Lake (44.9834⁰, -109.5690⁰). After passing the campground, follow the east shores of Island Lake and Night Lake, then after travelling ~0.25 miles through a small meadow, veer to the northeast towards an obvious pass (the summer trail goes into the woods to the northwest). Flake Lake is at the top of this pass, and cross it and Mutt and Jeff Lakes, continuing on up to the outlet of Becker Lake. If time permits, follow Becker up to its inlet and go a half mile or so up the meadow between it and Albino Lake.

At the trailhead, turn on the tracking feature on your GPS units (2 per team). On the outgoing leg of the transect (start to end), ski as close as possible to the body of water it follows (even over it if frozen). During this stage, we will be recording tracks within likely otter habitat. On the returning leg of the transect (end to start) split up and spread out ~450 yard on either side of the outgoing route – use the map page and your outgoing track on the GPS to follow this new route. During this stage, we will be recording tracks outside of likely otter habitat. This way, we can compare the two datasets and assess whether differences (if any) are random or potentially influenced by otter activity. Each team needs two GPS units.

Transects should take ~ 6 hours, and we want everyone back to Cooke City by 4:30 p.m. at the latest, so plan to turn around at lunch. Do your best to complete the transect, but if you can’t, that’s OK: safety and good data collection are more important than making it to the end.


Keep a sharp look out for carnivore tracks within 50 yards of your transect on both the outgoing and returning legs. Photograph each set with a ruler for size reference,  getting a close-up of one clear individual track, one with the gait pattern (4+ tracks), and one with habitat in the background, and record an individual animal ID#, the GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude in decimal degrees, to 4 decimal places), species (4-letter code using the first two letters of the genus and species, e.g., “LOCA” for Lontra canadensis  - see track ID key), and photo IDs on your datasheets (see attached). If the animal’s movement path is perpendicular to your route, record it once and enter an “X” in the P Column; if it is parallel to your route, record the first encounter and enter a “B” (for begin) in the D Column, and record the last encounter and enter an “E” (for end) in the D column. If you later encounter the same track again (i.e., strongly suspect that it is the same animal), record the first and last encounters again, but this time enter “B2” and “E2”, respectively, in the P Column, and so on. If you have any doubts or questions about a species identification, put a question mark in the Species (Sps.) Column, take photos of the track (with a tape measure in the photo for reference), and enter a detailed explanatory note on the datasheet. And with all tracks, be sure to follow them for a bit to observe them in different conditions: different gaits and snow conditions can cause confusion.

If you encounter otter tracks, there is additional information that needs to be recorded, as well as photos of the body slides with a ruler for size reference:

(1)   An individual ID# for each group of otters (including “groups” of one) in the G Column

(2)   The direction that the animal is traveling, based on its tracks. Compass bearings are best (just make sure that the compass is declinated to 11.25⁰E, and write that down on the top of the datasheet, or write down 0⁰if your compass can not be adjusted), otherwise cardinal/intercardinal/secondary-intercardinal directions (e.g., N, NE, NNE) will suffice.

(3)   Track measurements (in centimeters), specifically:

a.      Track length – longest axis from heel to tip of toe NOT including claws

b.      Track width – widest axis from left edge to right edge

c.       Intergroup length (IGL) – from the toe of one foot to the heel of the next foot.

d.      Straddle – from the outside edge of one foot (e.g., front right foot) to the outside edge of the opposing foot (in this example, the front left foot).

(4)   The width of the slide (the track made by the otter’s body dragging through the snow). With the track measurements, these data will help us distinguish juveniles from adults.

(5)   In the notes section, try to record some specific details about the location and activity: how far would you estimate they are from the nearest open water? From the forest edge? Are they travelling in a straight line, or zig zagging around? Do you see any spots where they were rolling around in the snow? Do you see any places where they slid in and out of water? Are there other animal tracks that seem to be following them? In addition to these notes, take lots of photos and record GPS coordinates for any signs of interesting behavior like this. This is where we all need to be a “Sherlock Holmes” and try to really get inside the minds of the otters (which is the best part of wildlife biology!)

If you encounter the same group of otters multiple times (and believe beyond a reasonable doubt that they are the same otters), you do not have to record these additional details again, just make sure to mark the locations and enter the data in the D Column as above.


We will also collect any otter scats encountered. These will frequently be at “latrine sites” with multiple scats, usually on a boulder near the waters’ edge. They will be stringier than a typical dog scat, and will often contain obvious fish scales: if in doubt, take a picture that shows the surrounding area and any nearby tracks, then collect it anyway. We will be collecting the entire scat, and bagging/recording them individually:

(1)   Record the location of the latrine site, assign it an ID that combines the initials of your transect (e.g., “BR” for “Broadwater River”) and a numeric ID (1 through x), and enter that information on the datasheet.

(2)   Record any evidence of other animals nearby, as well as additional observations, in the notes section.

(3)   Collect the scat sample in a ziplock bag, assign it an alphabetic ID (A through Z), write that number down on the ziplock bag as well as the datasheet. For example, if you are on the Broadwater River transect and find two scats at one latrine and one scat at another latrine, they will be labeled “BR-1-A” “BR-1-B” and “BR-2-A”.


An important part of this project is to document and share it through popular media, so we will be making a short, entertaining, and informative video about it. Therefore, all participants must agree to allow their image to be used in the final film. We also need at least one participant in each team to record several videos clips throughout the day, including at least one from each of the following categories:

(1)   An action shot showing other team members skiing along the transect. Ideally these shots will include some great background scenery too.

(2)   A track recording shot showing the team gathered around a track, discussing its identification, measuring it (if applicable), and recording the data on the datasheet. Make this interesting: honest disagreements on species identification with explanations are great! Also, multiple clips with different species are also encouraged.

(3)   Wildlife, anything you encounter, even better if the clip includes some excited team members in the frame. Just make sure that no animals are harmed or intentionally harassed in the clip.

(4)   Otter sign: keep the cameras rolling with any and all otter sign encountered. As with #2 above, include some commentary: What do you think the animal(s) were doing here?  How do you feel about finding some evidence?

A digital camera or smartphone that can record HD video will suffice. Also, any still photos of landscapes, team members, wildlife, tracks and other wildlife sign, etc. will be appreciated.


Feel free to carry a notebook and record any other interesting wildlife or ecological observations or ideas that come up throughout the day, whether they relate to otters or not. You never know when an important detail can help benefit this project, or an idea can help inspire the next one!

Safety Guidelines

Patrick Cross – Yellowstone Ecological Research Center

May 20, 2018

Here are some safety guidelines to consider, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. By recruiting experienced backcountry skiers for this project, we trust that you will have sufficient experience and sense to make good decisions in the field. Remember, our priorities are (in order): (1) Crew Safety,  (2) Minimal Impacts to Resources, and then

 (3) Project Objectives


Spring weather on the Beartooth Plateau can be highly unpredictable, so make sure to have sufficient clothing for everything ranging from cold blizzards to rain to hot sunshine. Along with waterproof shell layers, have moisture wicking base layers and additional insulation layers, as well as warm hat(s) and gloves. Sudden snowstorms can limit visibility, so make sure to have navigation tools like a GPS (with extra batteries), map, and compass. Also, keep an eye on the horizon for dark thunderheads indicating lightningdanger.  If you see lightning, hear thunder, or otherwise feel there is a risk of lightning (1) do not go out onto wide, flat, exposed areas, (2) seek cover, but not under a large tree or inside of a rock cave, but rather on a slight slope covered with trees/rocks of various heights, (3) place metal items, including skis and ski poles, away from you, and (4) crouch down using your pack as support (don’t sit or lay down), and wait out the storm.


Avalanche and thin ice dangers may be encountered on the transects. Stay out of terrain traps below steep slopes (even if it is small like on the side of a gully), be aware of changing snow conditions (i.e., collapsing indicating a buried weak layer; point releases, sluff slides, or rollerballs indicating a warming snowpack with increased wet slide potential, etc.), and practice safe route finding and travel techniques (i.e., only one person crossing a slope at a time, with the rest of the team spotting from safe positions) when crossing any slopes. All team members should also have a beacon with full batteries that is on at all times (we will do a beacon check at the Dump), shovel, and probe in their kit.

For ice, many of the lakes and creeks will still be frozen and should be safe to cross: if it can support a heavy snowpack, it can probably support you. But as with crossing slopes in avalanche terrain, keep a distance from each other and keep an eye on each other when crossing ice. Stay off of any ice with overflow (i.e., water on the surface), that is obviously thin, or that is close to open water. Use your best judgment, and remember that safety precedes following a track or completing a transect: I would prefer that you only collect photos and observations, and no measurements, of an otter track that is on thin ice, or that you cannot complete a transect because you had to go all the way around a big lake instead of over it, rather than have you fall in.


Bears may be emerging that time of year, so keep an eye out for bear sign and continuously follow bear avoidance measures, especially making noise. And remember, the bear may not be able to hear you if it is windy or there is a noisy creek nearby, so before walking around any blind corners or into any thick cover where you cannot see your entire surroundings, be cautious and make extra noise. Also, all team members are required to carry bear spray at all times. If you encounter fresh bear tracks heading in the same direction as you, especially those of a sow with cubs, use extra caution and/or avoid the area. Again, I would rather have you leave a transect early than get eaten by a bear.

But bears are not the most dangerous animals you may encounter: people are, particularly those driving a vehicle. Be extra cautious in parking lots and along the narrow roads, and give any snowplow drivers or other highway maintenance folks plenty of space (they may not see you). Likewise be cautious driving too and from the study area: follow all speed limits and wear your seatbelts. Also, be aware that it is also spring bear hunting season, so you may encounter hunters as well.


Be fully prepared for long days outdoors in a remote, snowy environment. In addition to the clothing described in the weather section, that includes bringing sun protection (sun screen, billed hat, sunglasses) and wind protection (face mask). Even though you are supposed to be back well before dark, bring a headlamp and extra batteries just in case. You should also have fire starting material, a pocket knife, basic first aid kit, and other survival supplies just in case you have to spend a night out. And of course, bring plenty of water and food.


You are responsible for your own safety as well as those of your team members. Keep an eye on each other, go at the pace of the slowest member of the group, don’t push too hard, and make sure everyone has input on any route finding, safety, and other decisions. Every participant has not only the right, but the responsibility, to shut down the whole project if anything seems unsafe.


You will also be asked to provide emergency contact information, any particular health issues, and allergies before participating in the project, as well as sign a volunteer liability waiver form.

Equipment Checklist (For EACH Individual Team Member)

Patrick Cross – Yellowstone Ecological Research Center

May 20, 2018

_ Skis

_ Boots

_ Poles

_ Backpack

_ Skins

_ Avalanche Transceiver (with extra batteries)

_ Shovel

_ Probe

_ Waterproof Shell Layers

_ Moisture Wicking Base Layers

_ Insulation Layers

_ Warm Hat

_ Gloves (light and heavy weight)

_ Facemask (e.g., buff, scarf)

_ Billed Hat

_ Sunglasses

_ Bandana

_ Extra moisture wicking/insulating layers

_ Sunscreen

_ Headlamp (with extra batteries)

_ Pocket Knife/Multitool

_ Fire Starting Material (e.g., lighter, matches, etc.)

_ Map and Compass

_ Basic First Aid Kit

_ Parachute Cord and Lightweight Tarp (optional)

_ Food (include lunch and snacks)

_ Water (at least 2L recommended)

_ Personal Necessities (toilet paper, medication, etc.)

_ Bear Spray*

_ Locator Beacon (e.g., Spot, InReach)* (one per team is OK)

_ GPS*

_ Ruler or measuring tape*

_ Pencils (x2)**

_ Ziplock Bags (x20/group)**

_ Data Sheets, Protocols, and Track ID Key**

_ Camera (smartphone OK)

_ Notebook

_ Binoculars (optional)

* = We have a limited number available: please let me know if you don’t have your own

** = We will provide

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