Story by: John Trent
Though they are often feared -- but rarely seen -- by humans, mountain lions play an integral role in many of Nevada’s ecosystems. They prey on native animals such as mule deer and bighorn sheep, as well as introduced species such as wild horses and domestic livestock. On occasion, this predation can influence the populations of these species, which can, in turn, impact habitat characteristics.
Knowledge concerning this relationship between predator, grazer and ecosystem is scarce, and there is still much to be learned.
In an effort to better understand the predation patterns of mountain lions in the Virginia Range, scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) have embarked on a study that will track a collared mountain lion.
The tracking program will help scientists plot the mountain lion’s range, as well as note the type of prey it seeks. The Virginia Range, located on the southeastern flanks of Reno, encompasses parts of Washoe and Lyon Counties as well as Storey County. On Dec. 11, a 125-pound, 6-foot-long, 7- or 8-year-old female mountain lion was trapped, collared and released to help initiate the project.
The study is part of a larger examination by scientists from CABNR regarding the behavioral effects of using contraceptives with the area’s wild horse population. Scientists are interested in determining if contraception and fewer foals can lead to prey switching by animals such as mountain lions.
David Thain, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine in CABNR as well as state extension veterinarian for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, says the study will do much to improve the scientific community’s understanding of mountain lion behavior.
“It’s an important study because we still don’t have a clear idea what the cats in our local mountains are doing,” Thain said. “It’s hard to get a sense of them. By tracking them, we’ll be able to get a better sense of what they’re doing, what species they’re eating and whether they are crossing into the community or heading up into the Sierras at certain times of the year.”
CABNR graduate student Meeghan Gray and a team of other researchers and wildlife experts established the trapping area in a remote area of the Virginia Range. The team trapped the mountain lion, sedated it with a tranquilizer, measured its size, estimated its age and fitted the animal with a Global Positioning System (GPS) telemetry collar that will allow the team to track its movements through the coming months.
“This is part of an ongoing project looking at the behavioral effects for contraception of wild horses,” Thain said. “The data that we have indicates that there are probably only a few mountain lions in the Virginia Range. Since we’ve been lucky enough to catch and track one, the data that we have should increase dramatically. The collar will be able to capture four points a day and at night we’ll have the capability to upload all the information, so that we can continually follow where the cat was before.”