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Continuing with Mike Kelly, 64, volunteer coordinator and conservation chair at Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. Friends focuses on Peñasquitos Canyon, leading interpretive walks, maintaining trails, helping out, and, when called upon, tracking wildlife, often to prove the presence of animals in areas on the cusp of development.

Kelly has been with Friends for 23 years. The outfit has had a tracking team since 1993 and offers free or very cheap tracking classes to the public, ranging from beginner to intermediate to advanced to “tracking intensive.”

I wanted to know what happens to the information trackers gather.

Kelly says, “The data can be used to protect or conserve a wildlife corridor.”

“So, you could say to a developer, ‘We’ve got X amount of deer here. Don’t build the big box.’”

“We did that recently,” Kelly says. “Camino del Sur is being extended from Park Village Drive, in Peñasquitos, north to [Highway] 56. It’s going to go through a very pretty canyon with some very good habitat. At first it was designed without a wildlife undercrossing. The tracking team studied this canyon for a month and documented the different wildlife species using it. Turns out, we underestimated how used the corridor was.”

“What did you find?”

“Bobcat, coyotes, fox, deer. We knew there was wildlife presence in the canyon and that the wildlife was moving up onto Del Mar Mesa, but we didn’t know how much it was used. So, based on that information, a wildlife undercrossing has now been designed into that roadway exactly where wildlife are currently crossing.”

Go, bobcats. “If I was a greedy real estate developer, I’d tell you, ‘Well, we don’t know how many animals are going to use that undercrossing. Could be just one. Why should I spend my money on one deer?’ How would you reply?”

“Actually, that has happened,” Kelly says. “In Carmel Valley there are a series of small properties just south of 56. And there is an important wildlife corridor coming out of [Los] Peñasquitos Lagoon. Believe it or not, the wildlife pass underneath the I-5 and 56 flyovers very comfortably. We did prove — and it wasn’t just us — we had more than track and sign studies; we had abatement statements and tracking beds and eight or nine infrared cameras that took pictures of wildlife using the corridor. And we had ten years of data on file with the Department of Fish and Game.

“When we got to the meeting, developers said, ‘Okay, you win, we’re convinced there is wildlife movement there. Let’s take a look at the design and figure out how we can accommodate it.’ What we found was not something that was going to stop their project, but it did influence their design.”

“Is that a typical encounter with real estate developers?”

“Yes, I would say so.”

Real estate developer. Chrysler car dealer. Who would you pick for a brother-in-law? Mushing on, “Is tracking also a sport?”

“Oh, definitely. Some trackers in San Diego are world class, have been certified internationally,” Kelly says. “There’s an international federation of trackers; it’s a combination of professionals and amateur citizen trackers. You’ll find professional biologists going through training programs. In fact, some of the local biology consulting firms put their people through our program.

“But, for a lot of folks, it is a sport. Unlike what we do on surveys, where you’re not following the animal, the sport of it is actually tracking the animal, trying to see the animal itself, not just its track or sign.”

I say, “Is anybody good enough — like in the movies, where the Indian tracker is stepping over rocky ground, gets down on one knee, looks around, then tells the cavalry captain seven men were walking this way, they broke into three groups, one man has a limp, and so on. Is anybody that good?”

“Yeah, there are people that good and a couple of them are local,” Kelly says. “Barry Martin [San Diego Tracking Team founder] just came back to town. He was up in the Pacific Northwest, helping test and evaluate trackers. There are three levels of certification. Somebody like Barry can look and see a compression, where you don’t even have a full track, just a very light compression on some very bad surfaces. He’s been at it a long time, and he’s very good. But, there are people who are better than him.

“You can spend quite a bit of money going to tracking schools in different parts of the country. We were the first one in San Diego County. I think there was one other program that used citizen scientists, a program in Vermont run by a wildlife photographer. We were the first in California and, I think, second in the nation to have this type of program.”

Contact Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve at penasquitos.org or by way of Mike Kelly at 858-342-8856.

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