A Master Tracker Puts His Skill to Work for Research
George Leoniak was fourteen when he first became interested in tracking wildlife, during an after-school program. “I love learning about animals, and [the program] opened up a window into their lives that I wasn’t getting in books, George said. You can see their story, across sand or snow. The mystery was the driving force for my interest, and it still is. There’s always something new to see.”
Today, George is an expert tracker with his own business, Leoniak Tracking Services, through which he gives presentations and tracking workshops to groups or individuals. His tracking credentials include senior tracker, track and sign evaluator, and track and sign specialist in New England and Southern California. He specializes in mapping wildlife corridors and is an adjunct faculty member in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies, where he often uses his tracking skills in teaching a course in field mammalogy.
An Ancient Skill, Still Relevant
What has really drawn his interest over the last few years is the Cyber-Tracker Conservation Tracker Evaluation System that evaluates and certifies wildlife trackers, ensuring they can do what they claim and also educating trackers, especially citizen-scientists.
“Certification of wildlife trackers is a new concept,” said George. “It’s only six years that track-and-sign evaluation has been in North America, so it’s very exciting to be on the cutting edge.” Certifications are also now happening in Spain, Germany, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Canada, England and Scotland. The evaluation process is becoming an international standard for assessing an individual’s tracking skills.
“Teaching a new generation of trackers is crucial to science, he said. Before the advent of radio telemetry, which has taught us much about animals and their habits, we learned about mammals from reading tracks and signs, and direct observation,” he said. “However, the training of new biologists often skips over the need to learn about mammals by reading tracks and signs, and more emphasis is placed on learning the skills to work with the current technology. So, in a sense the interpretive field skills of a competent tracker are becoming rare, and there is an increasing need for those skills and well-rounded naturalists in biology training.”
Growing up on the New Jersey coast, George had heard of the famous local tracker Tom Brown Jr., and when an acquaintance of Brown’s began an after-school program in tracking, George joined up. When he moved to Vermont and began to explore the outdoors, his passion was rekindled.
He graduated from Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vermont, worked for the Student Conservation Association, based in Charlestown, New Hampshire, and attended the Audubon Expedition Institute and Marlboro College. At Marlboro he majored in biology and psychology and studied red fox ecology and behavior, along with environmental education. He started a tracking club and taught a class called Nature Observation and Tracking, as part of his research for the educational psychology side of his degree. “It was a good way to learn teaching strategies,” he said.
“Along with that, I needed a better background in tracking. So I found one of the best trackers, Paul Rezendeshis book was my Bibleand hooked up with him as an apprentice for two years. That was great, because I was getting experience and building confidence in my tracking skills.”
He graduated from Marlboro in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree, and entered AUNE in 2007. He chose AUNE, he said, to learn more professional skills and more about research design, geographic information systems (GIS) and statistics. He also wanted to do research that included tracking as a research method.
Modern Technology and Traditional Craft
In 2005, he had started work on a tracking project for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and the Audubon Society in the northern White Mountains. The work, conducted along twenty miles of road, documented 8,000 crossings of twenty species of mammals and yielded a treasure trove of data that he was able to put to use at AUNE.
For his thesis, George wanted to study wildlife corridors through a focal species thought to be sensitive to habitat fragmentation. He chose fishers, a medium-sized member of the weasel family, as the subject. A GIS least-cost model showed that fishers would cross the road more often in places where there was a cover of conifers close by. Correlating the model with data from the White Mountain study showed that the model was correctfishers, as well as some other species like bobcat, crossed Route 2 where they were likelier to remain hidden. “The journal Northeast Naturalist has accepted his thesis for publication. So that’s a nice culmination,: George said. “One of my goals at AUNE was to contribute to the scientific community.”
AUNE opened up other doors for George. A practicum with the National Wildlife Foundation monitoring wildlife crossings in the Green Mountains turned into additional work after he left AUNE, then The Nature Conservancy contacted him to do similar work. For the past two winters, he has worked as a researcher for Normandeau Associates, a New Hampshire environmental consulting firm, looking for bobcat, lynx and marten along powerline corridors. Normandeau employee Sarah Burnham was George’s thesis advisor.
“Antioch has set me up with the professional skills to do it all how to work in an organization, how to conduct field research, how to prepare a nice finalized reportI’ve used all the skills that I learned here at AUNE.”
Tracking is part of George’s civic life, too. A member of the Hogback Natural History Museum, Marlboro Conservation Commission and Hogback Mountain Association, he was active in helping the town of Marlboro buy and preserve six hundred acres of land slated for development on Hogback Mountain. He has taken notes on wildlife over the thirteen years he’s lived in Marlboro, and used that data to show town residents why it was important to keep the land conserved as a town forest.