Mountain lion tracking

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 (executive editor of Overland Journal) 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.
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Our assigned transect for the weekend was only accessible by a difficult 4WD trail, so Sky Island Alliance asked us to ferry some of the trackers up the mountain. Our team of five piled into my Land Cruiser diesel and headed up at 6 am. Six teams in all spent the weekend surveying sections of trail for mountain lion and black bear tracks and sign; in all, 8 black bear track sets and 11 mountain lion track sets were logged. The data has helped the Fort get an understanding of wildlife numbers and movements over time. Here are some pictures:
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On our 1.5 mile-long transect, we found sign of one lion – a set of tracks heading downhill for 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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