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Part IV – An Unlikely Partnership. Lessons from Tucson

I’m in Tucson for the month to explore the subject of bighorn sheep and visit with relatives. We’re staying in a rental house nestled along the base of the Santa Catalina mountains. In years past, I’ve explored Tucson’s general area, but I’ve never had a prolonged stay within the city proper.

Tucson has a beautiful backdrop. Besides being cradled by the Santa Catalinas, which rise up to 9000 feet, its eastern border is Saguaro National Park East, and its western border is the National Park West. Other smaller sky islands dot Tucson’s surrounding. The foothills of the Catalinas are filled with stately Saguaro cactus, like tall multi-armed soldiers guarding the mountain itself. The main two lane artillery, Catalina Scenic Highway, pushes ever upward through numerous ecosystems, from desert scrub through pine-oak woodlands and finally to Mt. Lemmon and a subalpine forest. The mountain, so close to a city of half a million people, is a playground for cyclists, equestrians, climbers, hikers, ORVer’s, campers and even target practitioners. What stood out for me amidst the beauty of the landscape was the development that’s skyrocketing. Trophy homes and golf courses clasp the edge right up to the public lands. Suburbia surrounds the National Park. The desert floor is a sea of traffic and homes between the surrounding mountain ranges.

Hiking in the Catalinas

Desert bighorn sheep once roamed freely from range to range across the desert floor. Called a metapopulation, this allowed the sheep to search for precious water sources, food, and escape habitat from predators. The Santa Catalinas can only support about 120 bighorns, a tiny population vulnerable to genetic decline, drought, and disease. But with connections to other populations in surrounding ranges, these sheep could exchange genetics, ensuring their survival. Walk-abouts are built into the hard-wiring of bighorn sheep, in particular males, for this very reason.

This scenario was what populated the Sky Islands of southern Arizona for thousands of years with bighorn sheep. Through market hunting, disease from domestic sheep and habitat destruction from livestock, the population decline probably began slowly with the Spanish in the early 1600s, only to fall steeply in the 1800s with the influx of miners and settlers into the area. But bighorns persisted in the Catalinas while other nearby ranges winked out, probably because of the diversity of habitat and how large the range is compared to others.

Some of the Sky Islands surrounding Tucson

Joe Sheeley grew up in Tucson. As a boy, he watched bighorns on the mountains, fascinated with their agility, spryness, and ability to negotiate even the toughest terrain. But by 1996, the Catalina bighorn herd had disappeared. The Arizona Game and Fish was sending biologists to Pusch Ridge, the favorite escape haunts of the sheep, to periodically scout for sheep, yet they always came up empty. New rules were created with the hope if there were sheep they could be protected: No dogs on Pusch Ridge trails; no hiking off-trail during lambing season. Yet no lambs, rams or ewes were ever seen.

Sheeley is the former Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society president. With the influx of new disease science, in hindsight he has his own theory of what happened.

“In the late 1980s a ram made it all the way from the Superstitions to the Catalinas.”

“The Superstitions are east of Phoenix. That’s a long trek,” I commented.

“Those sheep that had been transplanted from the Kofa mountain range to the Canyon Lake Superstition area had yellow ear tags. That’s how we know where he came from. In my opinion, there is no telling what that ram came into contact with in his journey to the Catalinas. I really believe he ran across hobby domestic sheep or goats, and I think that herd got infected with disease and died off very quickly.”

Superstitions to Tucson

In the 1970s and 1980s, game agencies, fueled by money and demand from hunting groups along with the awareness of the steep losses of bighorns across the West, began intensively translocating Rocky Mountain and Desert Bighorns into their once native ranges. Arizona Game and Fish (AZGF) was no exception. Ramping up reintroductions across the state, they had done extensive evaluations of historical ranges, analyzing water availability, quality of habitat, domestic sheep density, human development, expansion and escape potential. They rated ranges on a scale, then came back and looked at even finer details such as vegetation, and diversity of wildlife. Those that rated highest were the first translocations. Although the Catalinas were of highest quality, the mountain was put on the back burner for relocations.

Hintza in the Catalinas

AZGF had been doing relocations in low density population areas where people didn’t care or pay attention to their predator management policies. Clearing lions off of reintroduction areas beforehand wouldn’t fly in the progressive, environmentally-minded city of Tucson. Even the agency’s somewhat scaled-down predator policy for the Kofas would be highly controversial. The agency had to figure out a way to gain the public’s trust in order to put sheep back on the mountain. State game agencies garner their monies from hunting and fishing tags. Their primary support comes from hunters, the culture of game agencies tends to be hunters, and their primary audience is hunters.

Amber Munig of AZGF told me ““[The plan for the Catalinas] was unique because it was next to a large metropolitan area. And we knew there would be a lot of interest in how we would approach it and a lot of controversy in any kind of predation management we were to implement.”

To the agencies credit, they embarked on a bold idea—a working group comprised of a variety of stakeholders. They pledged to abide by the group’s plan, which would be adaptive depending upon if conditions were to change. Four environmental groups opted in, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Sky Island Alliance. On the other side were sportsmen, Arizona Game and Fish, and Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Disagreement abounded, but the biggest rift was the mountain lion strategy. As one can imagine, opinions ranged from doing no predator controls to clearing the mountain of lions in advance of translocations.

Reintroductions of bighorn sheep are typically done in three to four rounds of thirty sheep. A small herd of thirty sheep, neophytes to a new habitat, devoid of any resident sheep which can guide them to prime escape habitat, are exceptionally vulnerable to predation. In previous translocations, the AZGF usually took what they considered the safest, and easiest, way to give new introductions a leg up by “pre-treating” the area and raising lion quotas. By using a diverse Advisory Board that had to reach a consensus, a middle ground was guaranteed to be reached.

Every bighorn would be collared instead of the customary one out of every three bighorns. And no lions would be collared. Lions would be pursued and killed only after evidence showed they’d killed a bighorn, and the pursuit was to be cut off after five days. Females with kittens would be off-limits. Mortalities would be identified through the sheep GPS signal and only then would a pursuit be triggered. This was a complete turnabout to the Kofa AZGF plan where every lion in a wide net surrounding the refuge was collared, making tracking and dispatching easy.

The first capture and translocation took place in November of 2013. Thirty-one bighorns, seven rams and twenty-four ewes, were released. The captures came from the Trigo mountains near Yuma and the Plomosas near Quartzite. By the end of March 2014, sixteen sheep were dead, fourteen by lions. Because of the difficult terrain and the policy of no lion collaring, only three lions had been removed. Houndsmen had to run the lion off a kill to identify the offending lion. One lion went down a cliff face, too steep for the dogs to pursue. Some went into developed areas so the chase was called off. Although the local paper had done many stories on the Advisory Group’s plan before the initial translocation, and there had been several public meetings, the steep losses produced a public outcry on all sides. The Game and Fish held a public meeting in the spring. While the previous three meetings were lightly attended, this one was packed, with protesters holding signs outside the meeting hall.

“We went out of the way to make sure the public knew what we were up to,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity. “People tend to not pay attention to something like that until there’s a dead lion. Then everybody is keenly interested.”

Mark Hart, public information officer for AZGF, agreed the plan had already been highly publicized.

“We wanted to be transparent. The grand bargain was: Is it worth it to put bighorn sheep back on the mountain to lose some mountain lions. The mountain lion population was, in our estimation, quite healthy. Based on hunt data and field data prior to the project, we estimated 67 mountain lions in that mountain range and the one connected to it by a pass”

My month in Tucson coincided with the worst drought year in decades. Despite the lack of moisture, during my hikes in the Catalinas and surrounding ranges, I still observed coatis, mule deer, cos deer, and javelinas even with the heavy toll of human activity. The AZGF knew there was plenty of sufficient food for lions. Everyone had expected some losses, but losing half the sheep was a shock.

With the GPS collars in place, managers could visualize where the sheep were moving. Sheeley says the first release site was based on his historic observations, but many of the sheep, unfamiliar with the mountain, headed for the high forests. Without clear visibility, good escape habitat, and naivete as to their bearings, they were easy pickings for lions. Luckily, the remaining sheep found the prime habitat of Pusch Ridge. There they thrived. In fact, at least five lambs were born in the spring with the herd stabilizing. No mortalities were observed for the next seven months. The advisory board had stood firm in their consensus on lions, even in the heat of controversy. With the good news, the second release was scheduled for November and another thirty sheep. This time using their generational genetic compass, those sheep headed for their kin right up to Pusch Ridge. Two more releases took place through 2016.

Hart tells me what he felt happened was some of the sheep came from mountain ranges where no lions existed.

“Most of the sheep came from the Yuma area, but one year we did take one-half of the allotment from the Superstition mountains. Those sheep did not fare well. One reason is they did not have prior exposure to pneumonia and a few of them got it and died. You can’t prove this scientifically, but what we felt was also happening was they were not as well adapted to the presence of lions as the Yuma area ones were. So the lions picked off a few.”

By the end of the project, eight lions were taken out over the four years of the relocation project. If there hadn’t been an advisory board representing a wide variety of voices, it’s almost certain AZGF would have resorted to clearing the area of lions before a second release commenced. As of fall 2020, seventy-five bighorns were on the mountain, the predator program retired in 2016. Lamb recruitment is almost 50% (typical is 25%), with many sightings of uncollared rams and ewes, indicating they were born on the mountain. Since the mountain only historically supported about 120 sheep, the Catalina bighorn herd is well on its way to success.

The Catalinas may be a model of how these relocations should be conducted. Game agencies are responsible for managing state wildlife, but wildlife, considered in the “public trust,” means all the public. A working group representing a variety of viewpoints is a good model for all wildlife agencies, especially on contentious topics such as predator management. Arizona Game and Fish should be applauded for going out on a limb and taking the chance. And they abided by the groups recommendations. When circumstances became dicey, they didn’t revert to easy knee-jerk reactions, but stuck to the plan hammered out by the advisory board.

Even so, the future of the Catalina herd is unknown. That herd along with others on isolated ranges in the desert Southwest, face a myriad of problems into the future. One of the biggest unknowns is the consequences bighorns will face with climate change and the drying of the West.

Tucson

Following a lion to find a kill

A few days ago I found a pile of freshly collected dirt and pine needles under a large fir. It had the obvious signs of the only animal around here that covers its scat–felines.

I pushed aside the dirt and found cougar scat, so fresh that it was obvious this cat had just killed and eaten.

cougar scat

Fresh Cougar Scat

In researching my book, Ghostwalker, expert cougar biologist Toni Ruth described to me a typical lion-kill scene—the cougar will drag his kill usually under a tree and cover it. This aides in hiding the smell to keep scavengers away and helps keep it fresh.

A deer can take several days to consume. The cat eats, sleeps and sets up a latrine nearby.  Sometimes cougars will just eat the organs and leave. They need the nutritious organs since they lost the ability somewhere in evolutionary time to convert carotenoids like beta carotene into Vitamin A.

cougar kill

Buck in velvet killed by mountain lion. Lion covered the kill after it had entered through the rib cage and eaten the organs

Armed with this knowledge, I began hunting around in an ever-widening circle looking for the kill site. Yet I found nothing.  Giving up, I walked into the nearby forest where a light wet snow still covered the ground from the previous evening. There I found the cat’s prints.

I backtracked the cougar, who had crossed through several properties. I found the kill, a young buck, close to a garage whose owners are absentee most all the year.

I could see the cat had entered through the rib cage (typical) and only eaten out the organs so far. I ran home and placed a trail camera at the kill site.

My home is amongst a small cluster of 6-9 acre properties, all bordering National Forest. The valley is a patchwork of a few large ranches interspersed with public lands.

Most everywhere one looks is National Forest. A few miles directly west are the Absaroka mountains, the border of Yellowstone National Park. Deer are getting ready for their annual walk-about, following the green-up to the high country of Yellowstone.

They are a bit late this year as it’s been cold, green-up a bit late, and the snows still deep where they are headed, so bucks and does are still hanging around, many close to homes.

Sunlight in winter

The Basin in early winter from the pass. Public lands in all directions.

Another neighbor who owns a large horse ranch told me they’d spotted a young grizzly scouting their hay fields not far from this cat’s hidden kill.

It got me wondering if the bear would bounce the cougar off his kill. Cougars are subordinate predators, and bears kick them off their kills 50% of the time. A bear can smell a carcass up to 20 miles away. I was betting on the bear.

Grizzly

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

But I had other questions. First, this cougar seemed to be acting somewhat like cougars that live in urban-wildland settings–its latrine was about 1/4 mile away and not used over and over; it was coming and going to its kill, returning only under cover of darkness.

With most homeowners gone in early spring, I believe this cat would have acted different. But this is Memorial Day weekend, and some of the nearby vacation homes are occupied. Even the usually vacant property where the deer stashed the kill, the owners had come out from the east coast for the weekend. Additionally, noise factor on the dirt road for the holiday weekend was spooking the cat.

So I asked myself “Would this cat return to its kill to finish up or just be satisfied with the organs it already ate?” “Would the grizzly bear overtake it?”  I waited a few days and went to retrieve the memory card in the camera.

3:45 a.m. First visitor: A lone coyote stays for about 15 minutes

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First visitor to the kill site

4:30 a.m. Cougar shows up. Leaves 40 minutes later

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9:28 p.m. Cougar returns. Leaves and comes back at 2:15 a.m. next morning.

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IMG_0045

cougar burying kill

Here the cougar is re-burying it’s kill with its back legs.

So after the initial kill and eating the organs, this cougar has returned three times over the course of two nights. The bear apparently has moved on down the valley, more interested in grass and grains than meat. If this was fall, that bear would have definitely been on the carcass during hyperphagia.

Today was warm. This carcass was buried in a wet swampy area amidst trees. The flies were on it, but there is still plenty of meat. So now I wonder if that cougar will return again, even with the flesh beginning to spoil a bit. Or will the bear be back? Coyotes for sure, and maybe some wolves will come by as they are feeding pups now.  I added another camera that takes video, so, To be continued…

IMG_0001

Reviewing my photos. 3rd day and it is warm (63 degrees). The cougar wasn’t able to cover the carcass very well due to location and there are flies on it, but still plenty of meat.

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Sacred Sites and Mountain Lions

In the course of research for my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story  I learned of an unusual site in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument named Shrine of the Stone Lions.

Stone Lions

recumbent stone lions surrounded by a wall of stone with east facing door.

There are few examples of cougar rock art throughout the Western states, although more exist in the Southwest. But Bandlier’s Lion Shrine is not really rock art at all, but two recumbent lions carved out of individual pieces of volcanic tuff.

The carvings lie side by side and are close to life sized figures with a crude wall of boulders encircling them. To keep them off the grid of people’s attention, the National Monument doesn’t even refer to the lions on their website.

Local tribes consider The Stone Lions a sacred site. Pilgrimages are made even today by Cochiti and Zunis, who leave offerings around the shrine. Although it’s not known exactly what these unique carvings represent, speculation is this was a hunting shrine for ancient Puebloan peoples.

Not too far from this site, another single lion shrine lies outside the Park, its location on an obscure mesa kept highly secret. Like the Shrine of the two Stone Lions, this is also a recumbent lion surrounded by a stone circle.

Several years ago, the University of New Mexico used a helicopter to remove the lion and deliver it to the Maxwell Museum. Amid loud protests, the carving was returned to its original site, although the tail is now missing.

Bandelier

One of several canyons that needs to be descended and ascended on the 13-mile round trip hike

With finalization of Ghostwalker’s manuscript, I had a strong impulse to make the pilgrimage myself to the carvings. The hike seemed to embody the completion of my journey with the lion’s tale, but also a spiritual celebration of the animal. A final and fitting end to the book’s story.

Bandelier

Walking inside one of the many canyons on the way to the Shrine

I was in SW New Mexico last March for several weeks exploring the Gila, so on my return to Wyoming I traveled to the town of Los Alamos which is near Bandelier.

Since the exact location of the Shrine is not on the Park’s website, I went to their visitor center the day before to inquire as to how to get there. The Park employee told me they no longer reveal anything about the location because the Puebloan peoples do not want others making non-traditional offerings or desecrating the site.

Since I had a rough idea of where to go, I boarded the dog in Los Alamos and took off for the rugged 13-mile hike. In the process, one has to descend through several canyons and no water along the way.

I took several quarts of water and stashed them for the return trip. I’m not a strong hiker, so I considered this a long arduous hike and prepared some minimal items in case I had to stay overnight.

Stone Lions

Looking inside from the door

The Shrine sits about a mile from a ruin named Yapashi Pueblo, considered at minimum over 1000 years old. Anyone visiting this site must approach it as you would any ancient temple or church–with respect, honoring, and never take anything from the site.

A wall of large stones set upright ring the carvings with a door facing east. The carvings themselves are so old and weathered that one can barely make out the lions. In fact, I read one account that believes one is a lion and the other might be a jaguar.

At the time of the carvings, both animals lived in the area. Offerings of turquoise chips laid over the carvings are the visible sign of native pilgrimages.

Bandelier

Remains of Yapashi Pueblo

Stone lion Shrine

Good view of the remains of the wall enclosure

The visit to the Shrine of the Stone Lions felt like the final chapter of all my efforts in writing Ghostwalker. I spoke with dozens of individuals, conducted over fifty interviews, and read mounds of newspaper clippings and scientific articles.

Yet the hike and visit to the Shrine captured my initial impulse–the respect and love for this magnificent, powerful animal.

TrishCarneyBAPP small.jpg

The Ghost Walker

What if you could hike into the British Columbia Selkirk range, and find a place where no hunters, trappers or people ventured all winter long. Where wolf packs, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, moose and deer were abundant. You then packed in, by canoe, a store of supplies for your winter stay of six months, then carried these bit by bit to a wide meadow edged by timber you had scoped out beforehand. Before the snows arrived, you’d build yourself a small cabin, reusing mostly old timbers from an ancient miner’s cabin. Then you’d explore the countryside before the snows set in, and build yourself two or three shelters in various parts of your new found wilderness where you could spend the night if needed after spying on mountain lions for several days.DCIM100MEDIA

 

This is exactly what R.D. Lawrence, Canadian naturalist and writer did in the late 1970s. His goal? To study pumas in a direct and deep way. In order to make sure he had located an area where there were pumas, he first hired a small plane to fly the countryside, while he leaned out the side door, using his binoculars to spy at least one big cat that had its territory there. When he spotted one, he took out his maps, charted a course and territory, and spent an entire winter living on just the rations he took into the wilderness, and his wits. He tracked and trailed mostly at night using moonlight. He’d take a pack and spend days and night beyond his small cabin he built, using the lean-to shelters he stashed around the mountains.

Thompson Cabin

He found an old miner’s cabin and used the wood to construct his own shelter

And during the course of the winter, he found a male tom and a female. He watched the male many times make kills, then sat 100 feet away while the cat fed. He heard the female caterwauling in the night when in estrus, calling for the tom. He found the female’s den, climbed to a hill with a week’s worth of food, then sat and watched her three kittens play outside the den.

cougar-with-kits

One night, after trailing the tom cougar for hours in moonlight against snow, then watching him unsuccessfully make a kill, a fierce storm came barreling in. Lawrence was fighting the wind and blinding sting of the snowfall, trying to make it back to his cabin. The storm grew wilder and he was tired and cold. He decided he needed to make a shelter quickly by digging in the snow. He searched for an appropriate spot and found a small rise where he could make what he thought would be a snow cave. As he began digging, the snow fell away and a small cave was revealed. So relieved to find such a perfect shelter, he left his pack and crawled inside, when he suddenly felt some breathing in the back of the cave. He flashed a light, and found he was inside a grizzly den, with a bear that was waking up and angry to be disturbed.

Grizzly Bear

This is a wonderful book of what are now bygone days. Today its hard to find anyplace in this crowded world where not only such a wealth of wildlife lives, but lives undisturbed all winter long. And the world of the traditional naturalist, living in the field, using traditional methods of observation, stretching the limits of his or her human endurance, has been replaced by the techno-gizmos of GPS collars and computers.

Well written, engaging, I recommend Lawrence’s The Ghost Walker for every wildlife lover’s library.

Spirit of the Mountain

I’m not, in general, a ‘cat person’.  First, I’m allergic to cats.  And more than that, I’ve never understood cats, their aloofness, nor their behavior.  But it seems the tables have turned for me, because I’ve become fascinated with the wild cats around here–bobcats, cougars, and the illusive lynx.  Bobcat sign has become quite rare these days with the heavy trapping.  Bobcat pelts sell for up to $1000. And good luck seeing a lynx or their tracks.  One old timer tells me she saw one several years ago by my mailbox, but I haven’t heard of any reported sightings around here. But cougars seem to be abundant.

I put my trail cam on a ‘scrape’.  Males will mark their territory with scrapes, usually under a big old conifer.  Its also a scent post to attract females.  If you can find a scrape, that seems to be your best bet of seeing cougars, as well as other animals.  The study that’s going on in Yellowstone Park had footage of a grizzly bear lounging on a cougar scrape for a full day!

Actually, I placed two cameras on this scrape but the movie one malfunctioned, so I put together a ‘video’ from the stills of my Reconyx. You can see exactly how this big male makes a scrape by twisting his hind back and forth.

This male, it turns out, was accompanied by a female.

male and female cougar

male and female cougar

First the male marks, then the female came and scented it using her vomeronasal organ located on the roof of her mouth.  Those of you who have cats, have seen your pet smell something then raise their head to take the smell into that organ.

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn

 

Female cougar checks out a scrape

Female cougar checks out a scrape

Without trying much, I seem to be running into cougar sign.  Maybe the class I took with Toni Ruth in January helped key me into how a cougar thinks, what it does, and where it goes.

I’ve seen many old cougar deer kills that have been neatly covered, but nothing is left except the legs which they don’t eat.  Cats are always very neat and tidy.  They drag their kills to cover, like under a tree or hidden behind rocks is typically where I’ve found them.  And they pile brush up in a circle to cover their kills.  This keeps them fresh and reduces scent.  Also, the hair of the deer is plucked.  Bears will cover their kills but they are messy and use a lot of dirt and sticks.

Old cougar kill.  There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

Old cougar kill. There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

On a short hike in a distance valley miles from where my trail cam sits,  I found a fresh deer kill with snow tracks leading to it.  I’d never found a fresh kill and I knew that this lion was somewhere in the neighborhood, probably watching me. But I wasn’t worried about the lion.  I was worried about bears, so instead of investigating I scouted the entire area first, then backtracked.  Bears will defend a found carcass while I knew that a cougar would not.  All that had been eaten was the heart, and the kill looked hastily covered.  Possibly Koda and I had disturbed the cat, although maybe not because it was the middle of the day. You can see the puncture wound at the neck in this photo.  I hoped to catch a glimpse of the cat, but no luck.  I asked Toni Ruth in her five years of studying cougars at Yellowstone National Park, how many times she saw one, apart from when she used dogs to track and collar them.  With thousands of hours of tracking in the field, she’d only seen them three times in five years!  I myself have never seen a cougar, only their sign.

Cougar killed deer.  You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Cougar killed deer. You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Although cougars have large territories, my trail camera sits in a valley far from houses.  A nice plus today in retrieving my trail cam.  As Koda and I were almost to the car, I heard a Great Gray Owl.

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill