Track doctor traces true tales

By Margo Whitmire
As a boy in eastern Wyoming, Jim Halfpenny developed an early infatuation with the wild. After discovering Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Animal Tracks and Hunter Signs” at the library when he was 8 years old, Halfpenny began scouring the nearby wilderness for animal evidence. As a young teenager, he stood mesmerized at his first glimpse of a black bear loping across the Laramie Mountains.
“I was out there alone, and here was this creature of romance,” Halfpenny said.
Halfpenny, 63, wasted no time turning his reverence for the natural world into a successful career. He began teaching animal tracking classes when he was just 18 years old. Today, he is a noted author, scientist and outdoor educator. An OWAA member since 2007, Halfpenny travels the globe teaching tracking clinics as president and co-owner of A Naturalist’s World.
Based in Gardiner, Mont., the ecological education company offers a range of classes from basic mammal tracking to rare species snow tracking. A former research fellow at Boulder, Colo.-based Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Yellowstone and Wyoming winter programs, Halfpenny spends a lot of time testing old wives’ tales associated with animal identification.
“In general, you find there’s a lot of mythology associated with tracking that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny,” he said.
Many myths were considered fact when Halfpenny worked as a licensed hunting guide in Wyoming before attending college. Listening to other guides and outfitters talk about track identification, he realized that some of them were “full of crap,” Halfpenny said. “As a person who studies scat and scatology, I can talk about crap.”
Halfpenny made a point to learn the science and techniques of tracking with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in botany and ecology from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate in biology, ecology and mammalogy from the University of Colorado. His 1986 “A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America” was the first field guide to explore the gait patterns of animals and what can be proved by looking at how they move through the landscape.
Halfpenny specializes in professional-level tracking courses for agencies, like the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources, that use tracking to gather evidence about endangered species. These courses focus on how to read the whole story of a track, including gait, footprint and signs like scat piles, claw marks, fur, scent and urine stains.
We’re in an arena now where you’ve got to be good and accurate and you’ve got to collect quality evidence that will hold up in court,” said Halfpenny.
Wildlife photographer Michael Francis urged Halfpenny to join OWAA after the two published the book “Yellowstone Bears in the Wild” in 2007. In addition to his outdoor skills, Francis was impressed by Halfpenny’s affinity for bear food.
“He would dig up a plant, explaining that that the bears like to dig this up in the spring, and the next thing you know he’d wipe it off on his pants and stick it in his mouth,” Francis said.
There was also the time Halfpenny took Francis to a black bear den and “pretty much got stuck,” Francis remembers. “It was a very tight fit for Jim, and I got quite a few amusing pictures of him stuck in that den.”
Halfpenny has shared his expertise and experiences in numerous books and videos including the “Scats and Tracks” book series. He wrote his first book, “A Climber’s Guide to Vedauwoo,” while stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War. With extensive field knowledge of Vedauwoo, as well as a collection of photographs and old cairns, Halfpenny felt an obligation to share and preserve the information. “I was stuck in Vietnam, worried it could be lost with one bullet there,” he said. “So I bought a typewriter and I sat there and I wrote.” He sent drafts from the war zone to Jan Mathiesen in the U.S., who helped publish the book.
Halfpenny’s career is unique from most doctorate folks, said Francis. “He’s not teaching at a university or researching just one animal.” While some people in academics tend to isolate themselves, Francis said, “He’s really a people person and works with the general public really well. He’s into a little of everything and he’s got a vast knowledge.”
Halfpenny owns A Naturalist’s World with his love of more than 20 years, Diann Thompson, who coincidently shares a name with his childhood tracking mentor, Thompson Seton.
“We met in a dentist’s office when she was 11 and I was 13,” he said.
They reunited many years later when Thompson, a registered nurse, took care of his aging parents and they saw each other during Halfpenny’s visits to the hospital. Thompson co-produced the videos “Living With Ice Bears,” “A Celebration of Bears” and “Tracking Elk for Hunters” with Halfpenny, and the two travel together for A Naturalist’s World tracking clinics.
With more than 40 years in the field, Halfpenny still feels that teenage excitement when he sees an animal in the wild. “The romance is still a part of it, definitely,” said Halfpenny. “I’d call it love.” ◊
Margo Whitmire grew up in California, where she spent most of her life until moving to Missoula in 2008 for a graduate degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from California State University, Sacramento, and worked as a music editor for Billboard Magazine.  Her intern duties include crafting Character Sketch articles, compiling Supporting Group News Tips, News Briefs, Bookshelf items and Outdoor Market listings. Contact Margo at

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