Winter Tracking Carnivores

For three years now, my wife and I have been volunteers in the Wisconsin DNR’s Carnivore Tracking Program.  The DNR trained us how to look for and identify carnivore tracks.  The information we gather is submitted to the DNR and combined with information from many other trackers to get a picture of the distribution and abundance of carnivores in Wisconsin.  The species we report on include wolf, coyote, bobcat, fisher, otter and fox.  We are also on the lookout for cougars, lynx, and pine marten. These last three animals are very rare in Wisconsin, but they do occasionally wander into our state.  To do the track surveys, we drive backroads within our designated block and look for tracks in the snow.  I have put together a summary of some of the things we have learned.


There are two things that really stand out about wolf tracks.  First, they are big.  Track size will vary between front and rear feet, and between different animals.  But  in general wolf tracks will be between 3 1/2 and 5 inches long, and between 3 and 5 inches wide.  The second thing that will stand out is that wolf tracks tend to run very straight. 

wolf track

wolf track

Straight running wolf tracks

Straight running wolf tracks

To tell the difference between wolf tracks and dog tracks, look first at the animal’s gait.  Dogs tracks will go all over – not in a straight line like wolf tracks tend to do.  Wolves are certainly capable of running, but they will rarely do it as it wastes energy.  Dogs, as most of us know, run all the time.  Wolf tracks will be longer than wide, forming a rectangular shape.  Dog tracks tend to be more square or roundish.  If there are human tracks, houses or buildings nearby, the tracks are likely made by a dog.  Coyote tracks could be mistaken for wolf tracks as they also tend to run straight, and are long and narrow.  But they will be much smaller – usually 2 or 3 inches long by 1.5 to 2.5 inches wide. 


Wolf tracks

Wolf tracks


Fishers are members of the weasel family that are between about 8 and 13 pounds and can grow as long as 4 feet.  We usually come across at least one set of fisher tracks during each survey.  Fisher tracks are roughly 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches – again with some variation between the front and rear feet and between individuals. 

Fisher tracks

Fisher tracks

If you see a track with five toes, and the size is about right, it is probably a fisher.  But all five toes don’t always show.  In this picture, the left print shows five toes, but the right one only shows four of the toes.  Also note that the pattern of the toes is asymetrical, unlike the classic four toe pattern of canids. 

Loping track pattern of a fisher

Loping track pattern of a fisher

Fishers use the standard “loping” gait of the weasel family.  In deep snow, the two adjacent tracks as shown above will almost appear as one track with one portion slightly ahead of the other portion. 


If you find some tracks that you suspect are made by a bobcat, the first thing to look for is claws.  The claws on cats are retractable, and they will rarely show in a bobcat’s track.  Look closely at several different prints to see if you can see any claw marks.  If you find some, the tracks are probably from a dog, coyote or fisher.  Bobcat tracks are about 2 inches by 2 inches, so they look round instead of long and narrow like a wolf or coyote. 

bobcat track

bobcat track

Bobcat tracks will wander somewhat, although not nearly as much as dog tracks will.  The gait tends to be consistent and regular.  A fisher’s gait will have the two by two loping pattern. 

Bobcat gait

Bobcat gait

Rare Animals

A few cougars are spotted each year in Wisconsin, and are often confirmed by trail cams put out by hunters and photographers.  So far, they have all been males dispersing from farther west, where they are more common.  Cougar tracks are very rare here, so it is unilkely that you would find any.  But the tracks are about 3 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches, rarely show claws, and tend to run straight and direct.  Lynx are even more rare in Wisconsin – it has been several years since a confirmed sighting.  But they do occasionally disperse out of Canada when their main prey species – the snowshoe hare – has a population crash.  Lynx tracks will be similar to cougar tracks, greater than 3.5 inches wide with claws rarely showing.   But they have a lot of hair on their feet, which will make the track indistinct.  Cougar tracks will show more clearly.  If you see or suspect a wolf, cougar, or lynx are in your area, you are encouraged to fill out the DNR’s “Large Mammal Observation Form” at:

For a description of coyote, otter, deer, grouse, and snowshoe hare tracks, see my previous post called “Tracks in Winter – Common Critters”. 

To learn more about the DNR’s volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program, visit

All photos in this post are by Dan and Diane Anderson.

Happy tracking!



2 thoughts on “Winter Tracking Carnivores

  1. Anthony February 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm Reply

    Great blog all around — this is my favorite post yet. Highly original and informative.

  2. Catherine Calvetti February 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm Reply

    Just passed it on to several geocaching groups. Great info! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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