B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
NOBODY HAS TO ask me twice to go track mountain lions.
When Sky Island Alliance spokeswoman Susan Brandes sent word about biologists seeking volunteers to help track mountain lions and bears in the Huachuca Mountains, I promptly dropped the phone and packed my bags. Something about large predators just gets people's blood flowing, though not always in a congenial fashion.
Ranchers and their cohorts in the federal government succeeded in eliminating the Mexican gray wolf from the forests of the southwest in the 1970s. Fortunately, similar attempts with mountain lions failed. Wildlife biologists suspect lion numbers have remained stable, despite the efforts of Animal Damage Control and the Bubba patrol.
Today, a more ubiquitous, if less organized, threat looms on the horizon. Ranchettes and suburban sprawl have begun assailing the gates of American Wilderness. Determining what effect this growth will have on large predators is why some biologists have begun tracking these animals
As things stand, many of the high retreats where mountain lions and bears live remain under federal ownership and, more or less, protected from sprawl. The problem is rooted in the private land in the lowlands between these preserves. If these areas become heavily developed, the critters on the mountains become isolated. None of the mountain ranges in southern Arizona has the mass to sustain independent populations of bears or lions. In order to maintain genetic diversity, these animals must travel to other mountains.
Biologists call southern Arizona's mountains sky-islands because they are separated from each other by a "sea" of desert. In order to ford these expanses of desert, creatures like bears and lions use special routes, or corridors. These corridors have the right components of cover, water and other requirements that permit inter-mountain travel.
Most humans don't enjoy even looking at a place like Rancho Vistoso much less going through it. Imagine being a bear and having that monstrosity between you and your date. It's enough to encourage celibacy, which is exactly the problem.
Members of Sky-Island Alliance, a group of scientists, environmentalists and interested folk, recognized the importance of these corridors and wanted to help determine where they run so we can protect them. Former Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist Harley Shaw, professional tracker Susan Morse and Ft. Huachuca Game Branch Manager Sheridon Stone have been maintaining records on lions in the Huachucas for five years. Shaw knew of the Alliance's interest and enlisted their help for this year's survey. The Alliance members join volunteers from the Phoenix Zoo, who have worked on the survey during the past two years.
Together this band is conducting a track and sign survey of the area. Track and sign uses low-tech methods to gain an idea of population numbers and movements of animal species.
Basically, trackers go out and look for tracks, scat (poop) or markings left by the subject animal; the calling cards of the wild. This type of survey can't determine exact numbers or even the sex of the animals, but it can determine if an area is being used. Some trackers believe they can discern specific animals by taking precise measurements, but Shaw takes a sidelong view of such procedures.
"The less technical we can keep it," Shaw says, "the better off we are. We are here to gather some general information rather than being scientifically perfect. We're trying to cover a lot of country and get an overall picture."
Keeping the proceedings within the realm of the average citizen suits Susan Morse just fine. Morse, a renown tracker from Vermont and an old friend of Shaw's, firmly believes involving local citizens in wildlife observations. Having laymen learn the basics of tracking and getting them to start taking records of wildlife movement in their own area promotes wildlife conservation and helps create a baseline of movement history.
"Species conservation," Morse says "starts with habitat protection and doesn't wait for animals to become endangered. By then it's too late. With no habitat, their numbers can't rebound. That's just common sense."
Official government agencies, Morse says, are constrained from acquiring comprehensive information about critical habitats. Geographic jurisdictions or political games limit what they can do. There are talented and dedicated people within land and animal management agencies, but they're operating in an increasingly political environment that concerns itself less with sound management and more with power plays, Morse says. Getting the public involved by doing things like track and sign surveys encourages them to start influencing the process to move toward long-term stability.
"Relying on politicians to take care of it is suicide," Morse says.
For that reason Morse helped create and is the executive director of "Keeping Track," an organization dedicated to finding and protecting wildlife corridors and encouraging public involvement.
This afternoon Morse leads a trip along a road looking for sign. One of the volunteers notices some faint markings in the ground and calls Morse over. After making us walk around the track and look at it from all angles, the group concludes it belongs to a bear. Morse confirms our notion.
As we hike up the road, we continue finding the bear's tracks. A couple miles up the road, Morse takes us into the woods and shows us a "babysitter" tree. Mother bear will have her cub climb up a tree for protection while she sleeps or goes foraging. Morse has come to this tree for years and noted new bear claw marks keep appearing. Bears learn a great deal about survival from their mothers, including the locations of good babysitter trees. Many generations of bears will use the same tree, the knowledge passed from mother to cub. A distinct trail has been worn at the base of the tree by years of bear travel.
Comparing the healed scars on the tree to the fresh ones, I think about the generations of cubs who used this safe haven. With every new building or road, we come closer to a day when there will be no more new claw marks. What a terrible exchange it will be if someday we have a plague of half-acre ranchettes, but no descendants of these Huachuca Mountain bears.
Contact Susan Brandes at the Sky Island Alliance, 1-520-323-0547, for more information on upcoming projects. For more information about Keeping Track write RFD 1 Box 263, Jericho, VT, 05465, or call 1-802-899-2023.
Cutline: Cub scouts: Tracker Susan Morse points out claw marks on a "babysitter tree" while a volunteer marks the tell-tale trail. Photo by Kevin Franklin.
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