Dustin Hannasch felt like a cork stuck halfway into a bottle. Buried to his knees in powder, the now 23-year-old struggled to pry his snowshoes free with every step. After three hours he’d covered only a mile and a half on the North Pass of the Cochetopa Hills, near Gunnison, but the discovery of a red squirrel track made the exertion worthwhile.

“I’d seen plenty of older squirrel tracks, but I came upon that one immediately after it’d been made,” says Hannasch, a biology major at Western State Colorado University who conducted snow-tracking surveys during an internship with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). His mission was to scout for lynx tracks, which he didn’t see that day. But spotting freshly minted evidence of the lynx’s favorite afternoon snack strengthened his connection to the predator. “I wondered if a lynx could’ve been nearby, stalking that squirrel,” says Hannasch, who says he finds snow tracking, which fully immerses him in nature, to be a kind of spiritual experience.

In today’s technology-obsessed era, Hannasch and other wildlife biologists who track animals on foot might seem stuck in the Stone Age. After all, animal tracking is an ancient art that dates back to the earliest humans. In his wildlife ecology class at Western, biology professor Pat Magee often shows students like Hannasch a picture of a petroglyph of a bighorn sheep as seen from the side—except for its feet, which are depicted from the bottom, like tracks. “Rock art like that represents humans’ very first wildlife biology textbooks,” Magee says.

Today, tracking might seem less valuable, since procuring meat has become as easy as tossing a plastic-wrapped package into the shopping cart. But for scientists, it remains an irreplaceable technique for keeping tabs on wildlife populations. Wildlife biologists in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest, for instance, rely on snow tracking to study populations of pine marten, an indicator species that reflects a forest’s overall health. Tracking also plays a key role in a new long-term lynx monitoring program initiated last winter by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). In the past, CPW has also spied on species by flying fixed-wing aircraft, fitting animals with GPS-equipped collars, and setting up motion- and heat-triggered backcountry photo booths. But when today’s researchers want to know who’s tromping around Colorado, where, and in what numbers, there’s still no better method than on-the-ground detective work.

When the Colorado division of Wildlife (now called Colorado Parks and Wildlife) reintroduced Canada lynx to the state in 1999, all 218 cats that were ultimately released into the wild wore collars. Some transmitted data via very high-frequency radio waves, while others used satellite technology to relay the wearers’ locations. Biologists received emails alerting them to the satellite collars’ whereabouts. “That gave us a really good way to track animal survival, whether they were denning, and where they were,” says Eric Odell, the species conservation program manager for CPW. Odell heads the program designed to monitor Colorado’s lynx population over the next 10 years. But the CPW’s latest effort won’t include fancy neckwear.

At $2,000 to $3,000 apiece, GPS collars are pricey—and their batteries fizzle over time. When the battery juice runs out, it means flying to locate the cats and capturing and sedating them. “It’s expensive, dangerous, and invasive,” Odell says. So in 2010, when the lynx population had become self-sustaining and the reintroduction effort was officially declared a success, CPW stopped investing in collars for the cats. That left the agency with no way of knowing whether Colorado’s lynx were holding steady or even proliferating, as biologists suspect.

Seeking less intrusive, less costly surveillance strategies, CPW conducted surveys designed to measure the effectiveness of various monitoring techniques. Snow tracking turned out to offer “the highest detection probability,” Odell says, because cameras and hair-collection posts only record activity in specific spots. Tracking, however, canvasses broad swaths of territory and lets researchers follow prints back to scat or hair—evidence that’s useful in DNA analysis.

Tracking’s efficacy is good news for cash-strapped agencies such as CPW and the USFS, neither of which have vast reserves of money to lavish on satellite collars and plane flights. But the state’s rugged topography makes tracking an arduous undertaking, especially in winter, when snow’s blank slate collects detailed activity records.

Although snow tracking checks both the discreet and discount boxes, it is labor-intensive. “It takes us all winter to complete our surveys,” says Anthony Garcia, a district wildlife biologist for the USFS who’s spent the past decade tracking pine marten in the San Juan National Forest. His annual beat includes 180 miles, divided into 18 sections located at elevations ranging from 8,000 to 11,000 feet. He and his team chart tracks left not only by pine marten but also by snowshoe hare, squirrels, and lynx—information they share with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and (if the species presents a conservation concern) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The CPW’s new lynx monitoring project includes 50 survey units scattered across 5,400 square miles of the San Juans. Only 19 of those units involve snow trackers; the remaining units record lynx presence using cameras. “Ideally, we’d use snow tracking for all of them,” Odell says. But the difficulty of winter travel through this rugged and remote region—along with a shortage of personnel who have time to schlep to those units at least three times each winter—calls for some camera use. It also prompts many other land managers to recruit from a special breed of wildlife conservationists: volunteers.

The enchantment of winter hiking prompts plenty of people to brave the snow and cold for recreational jaunts into the Colorado high country. When you imbue those forays with a noble purpose like wildlife preservation, agencies like the USFS have learned they can attract an unusually dedicated crew of amateur researchers whose passion compensates for their lack of academic degrees. Dustin Hannasch is one of them. He applied for an internship created in 2012 when Matt Vasquez, a USFS district wildlife biologist, partnered with Western’s Magee to send energetic students on snow-tracking missions throughout the Gunnison Ranger District. Two selected trackers canvas the study plots three to four times throughout the season and report their findings to the USFS. “We often don’t have enough staff, funding, and time to conduct winter fieldwork,” Vasquez says. “But we have students here in Gunnison, and this program provides them with a big opportunity to gain field experience.”

The relationship between the USFS and Western might seem novel; however, other states, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, also are using citizen scientists to track animals. In Washington, volunteer members of the Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project collect data, which are passed on to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to primarily track rare and threatened carnivores, such as lynx, grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines. Such species on the brink get a big boost when land managers can observe how their territories may be expanding or shrinking and whether populations are fluctuating. But even established animals are worth tracking, since their patterns reveal plenty about the broader ecosystems in which they live.

Garcia’s pine marten surveys, for example, will help land managers understand the impacts of management decisions and natural events, including the recent bark beetle epidemics that have decimated many of Colorado’s pine and spruce forests. His work also examines the consequences of logging and other human invasions, which allows the USFS to make better-informed decisions about activities such as timber sales and ski resort expansions. Other snow surveys document travel corridors that are critical for elk, mule deer, and lynx. If we want these creatures to maintain a healthy presence in the landscape, it behooves us to make land-use decisions that help them survive—which requires the kind of evidence that, considering financial restraints, is best gathered by snow tracking.

And then there’s snow sleuthing’s less tangible benefit: It’s fascinating, even “eye-opening,” Hannasch says. “It’s taught me to admire evolution’s adaptations to the winter environment, like the huge paws of snowshoe hare and lynx that keep those species from sinking into deep snow, or the pine marten that can actually travel beneath the drifts,” he explains. Plus, says professor Magee, “Tracks tell stories, and everybody loves stories.”

This past winter, while cross-country skiing near Gunnison, Magee happened upon a cluster of sage-grouse tracks. He followed them to the sagebrush where they’d foraged, then found the spot where the tracks disappeared beneath the snow (grouse are snow-burrowing birds). A few paces later, Magee saw where the tracks emerged again and discerned where the birds’ wings left impressions on the snow during takeoff. “Tracking is a cool way to unlock this winter world and see just how much activity takes place,” he says. “The landscape may look empty, but it’s not empty at all. That’s just an illusion.” You just have to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and read the clues.

Kelly Bastone is a 5280 contributing writer. Email her at letters@5280.com.