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Tracking cougars in southeastern Arizona

Cougars, or mountain lions, are elusive and so they are rarely seen in the wild. When biologists need to find out information about their lives - even how many there are in an area, and how they move around their territories, which are very large (as big as a hundred square miles) - in the past the only options were expensive and invasive (for the animal) radio tracking collars. But 20 years ago a group in southeast Arizona started testing out tracking on Fort Huachuca, by Sierra Vista, as a way to learn more about lions, as well as black bears. It has been a successful way for biologists and land managers to compile information about the animals, and an even better way for "citizen scientists" to become trackers and help out conservation efforts.

On Friday and Saturday Jonathan and I were volunteer team leaders for the 20th Fort Huachuca Mountain Lion Track Count. We have been involved with this project for 14 years off and on. It is one of the longest-running wildlife tracking programs in the country, and this was the final count, according to founder Sheridan Stone, the fort biologist. Sky Island Alliance, a non-profit conservation organization in Tucson that works on wildlife linkages throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico, coordinated the event. We have taught wildlife tracking skills for the organization since 2000 (and I was the executive director for several years).

Our assigned transect for the weekend was only accessible by a difficult 4WD trail, so our team of five piled into my Land Cruiser diesel and headed up the mountain at 6 am. Six teams in all spent the weekend surveying sections of trail for mountain lion and black bear tracks and sign. The data has helped the Fort get an understanding of wildlife numbers and movements over time. Here are some pictures:

That's me showing off some mountain lion scat (poop!).

Jonathan on the trail.

The rough road required the team to pile into my Land Cruiser diesel (note the cheetah spots).

Lunch break - me, Hanna, Rachelle, and Ron

The view from under the pinyon tree.

On our 1.5 mile-long transect, we found sign of one lion - a set of tracks heading downhill from about 200 meters. The tracks were hard to see because the wind had been high all night, scrubbing the dirt and disturbing the tracks. In the photo, the track is hard to see; it is between the two and four on the bottom ruler - it is about 2.5 x 2.5 inches, a smallish lion, probably a female. Below is a track from another field session; the large main pad and three lobes at the bottom identify it as cat, and the size as cougar.

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