BY BILL HESS
Published on Sunday, June 03, 2007
FORT HUACHUCA — Just where do mountain lions wander on this Southern Arizona Army post?
For nearly two decades, a group of volunteers from throughout the United States and one of the post's wildlife biologists have been trying to find out by tracking the movements of the elusively shy and fairly solitary mammal, also known as a cougar, panther or puma in different parts of the Western Hemisphere.
The project isn't census taking.
The object of the tracking is to tell if the animals are on the fort, using it as a territorial base, said Janice Przybyl of the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, a sponsor, along with the fort, of the monitoring program.
Although mountain lions are primarily tracked, evidence of black bears is also gathered. The signs of other animals also are not ignored.
Sheridan Stone, one of the two post biologists, said people may be surprised to know that, from an environmental standpoint, there are not that many mountain lions on the fort or even in the Huachuca Mountains.
Volunteers are used to help track the animals. Some come from Vermont and have been doing so for years.
"We're a nonprofit group," Przybyl said of the Sky Island Alliance. "We partner with other groups."
This weekend nearly 30 volunteers are taking part in walking through some of the fort's wilds — some areas that are a comfortable walk, and others that are rugged.
"Every year we gather up an incredible group," Przybyl said.
A base camp, mostly of pitched individual tents, has been set up on either side of a road in Split Rock Canyon, an area not too far from the Old Post Cemetery.
Much involved tracking
Besides tracks created by an animal's paws, evidence of territorial markings — scratching on trees or signs — and "scat" — fecal droppings — are also looked for.
And GPS readings are taken wherever there are signs of the cats or bears.
A trained tracker can determine if the signs are fresh or perhaps days or months old, Przybyl said. Of course, trackers are seeking fresher signs to provide the most current documentation of activity.
On Saturday, a set of mountain lion tracks — probably a female with a juvenile accompanying it — were spotted and tracked off and on for about three miles in part of Split Rock Canyon, Przybyl said.
While the two cats went in one direction, there were signs of a black bear going in the opposite direction during those three miles. Przybyl said it didn't appear the animals met during their travels. The mountain lion tracks appeared to have been made less than a day earlier, while the bear prints were older.
The post is a nearly perfect lab for tracking "because of its protected areas," Przybyl said.
The number of fire breaks on the post, which people driving four-wheeled vehicles use, also is an advantage for tracking, Przybyl said. The breaks create a better layer of compacted soil, which leads to being able to see prints better.
The disadvantage is that sometimes vehicle tracks eliminate the signs of animal footprints.
Volunteers generally can determine the importance of whatever tracks they come upon.
"We're still cutting (finding) good signs," she said.
For 20 years, Stone has made it part of his mission to ensure the fort's wildlife are protected.
While some of the volunteers were walking a trail in Split Rock Canyon, he and others were in Tinker Canyon, not far from Garden Canyon. His group found evidence of mountain lion activity.
Although he is a wildlife biologist, Stone said it has taken years for him to be able to identify the different prints, especially when some are similar.
Each volunteer was given copies of "Southern Arizona Mammal Tracks," a Sky Island Alliance product copyrighted in 2001 by C.C. Hass, highlighting the general type of front and rear prints for 36 animals.
Whenever a set of prints is discovered, a measurement device was put on the ground, a photo was taken and an entry made in a log.
Prints size helps establish the animal's potential size.
When it comes to mountain lions, they need different size areas to roam, based on the animal's sex, Stone said. An adult male needs about 150 square miles, while a female about 40. Based on those numbers, if a male mountain lion had all of the fort property of about 110 square miles as its roaming area, only one of the big cats would claim the post, while three to four females would.
As humans need shelter and food, so do mountain lions, black bears and other species, Stone said. They need a place to keep out of the elements and somewhere to obtain edibles. For the animals, it is the open areas on the fort and the mountains. For humans, it is a house and a store.
A male mountain lion can weigh about 160 pounds, while an adult female can tip the scales up to 120 pounds.
Since the fort is part of terrain male and females claim, there could be more males and females on the fort, when other regions, such as the Chiricahua, Dragoons, Mule, Mustang and Whetstone mountains and close by Mexico, are included in the territory.
Population hard to know
Although no population count has been taken, Stone estimated that six to eight mountain lions — two males, two to four females and the remainder kittens — use Fort Huachuca as part of their range, Stone said.
But the number, Stone said, is not important. What is important is if the area providing shelter and food is acceptable to the mountain lions.
The cats generally do not hunt humans as prey because they are wary of the two-legged mammals, Stone said. Incidents of mountain lions attacking people are rare and usually are attributed to the animal being young or protecting its kittens.
Stone said people should not be afraid of sharing the environment with mountain lions, but they should be watchful and not allow children to wander off.
"There is always some need for supervision," Stone said.
Unfortunately, the human reaction when there is an incident involving the cats is to hunt and kill the animal, as happened a couple of years ago when a mountain lion leaped out of a bushy area near the post's Wren Arena and snatched a baby goat after a child had left the area, Stone said.
People who enjoy hiking or running on the fort, should do their activity in the middle of an unimproved dirt road and never without a partner, he said.
As for the black bear population, Stone said last year's problems with the animals in the civilian community led to a culling, by either removing trouble animals or killing them.
He estimated there were about 40 bears in the Huachuca Mountains in 2006, but that is down. According to recent news report, a troublesome bear is currently being hunted in the Huachuca Mountains off the post.
A full grown male bear can reach a height of 6 feet when standing and weigh up to 300 pounds, Stone said. A female can reach up to 5 feet tall and weigh about 275 pounds.
While it may seem area mountain lions and black bears are large, they are smaller in the Southwest than they would be in more northern areas, where they have to have more fat during the winter.
While the event started off seeking information about mountain lions and has grown to include black bears, the rest of the story is the fort's role in protecting all wildlife, he said.
"We do good work here and having volunteers (the trackers) helps to tell the fort's success story," Stone said.
SENIOR REPORTER Bill Hess can be reached at 515-4615 or by e-mail at email@example.com.