Official effort, aided by volunteers, followed populations in Huachucas
By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona - Published: 06.07.2009
FORT HUACHUCA — "Hold it! Hold it!" Sue Morse cried out early Saturday as she and eight companions hiked up the Huachuca Mountains.
She stopped the group at the sight of a mountain lion track: four paws, one pad, inscribed on a rocky, sandy dirt road snaking up Split Rock Canyon. It was hardly the first time that ecologist Morse and other wildlife lovers have spotted lion tracks in the rocky, cliff-laden hillsides inside the U.S. Army post. But it was one of the last times — at least in an official effort.
This sunny, mild weekend in the lower reaches of the Huachucas marks the 20th and final annual go-round for the oldest wildlife-tracking count in the state and one of the oldest in the country.
The Fort Huachuca Mountain Track Count started back in 1989 as mainly a bureaucratic mission, aimed at helping the Arizona Game and Fish Department develop a better way of counting the state's elusive cougar population. It ended — in the year that group leaders had long planned it to end — as more of a model of science for average citizens. They have poured into this luscious area of canyons and manzanitas some 20 to 30 strong each year, coming from California and Colorado and Massachusetts to spend a weekend scouring dirt roads and firebreaks for lions and black bears.
In the end, the tracking effort also has shown the persistence of this lion population in the face of population growth that has slowly ringed the Huachucas, said Morse and Sheridan Stone, a wildlife biologist for the fort who, like Stone, was one of the track count's co-founders.
Sierra Vista's population has grown from 26,000 in 1980 to about 44,000 today, and the city and surrounding unincorporated areas contain about 72,000 people total. Yet mountain lion tracking results have changed little overall during the past 15 years, despite year-to-year fluctuations.
On Saturday, trackers encountered 10 different sets of lion tracks on the first day of a two-day venture. That's as many sets of tracks as the group encountered in both days of tracking in four of the past nine years. The largest total was 20 sets of tracks, found in 2006. Black bear track numbers have also fluctuated without clear trends, bouncing from four sets of tracks found in 2000 to 15 in 2002 to five in 2008 to six on Saturday.
This range is core habitat for the lions and bears, Morse said, due in part to the continued presence of corridors of open land linking the Huachucas to other ranges. The lion habitat remains unfragmented — not yet dominated by people, she said.
"You find bears and cougars, a residential presence, over multiple years — not just passing through," Morse said as she sat under a juniper tree shortly after finishing the count with her group — one of eight groups of trackers who fanned out across the Huachucas this weekend. "They leave scent marks; they have kittens. It's too hard to support a family when you are on the move."
While the numbers have had ups and downs, that's been more of a reflection of the availability of prey in a given year, Morse said. In the worst of the drought years, there was a drop in the numbers of deer that the lions and bears both eat.
The track count has drawn together people from various personal, professional and political backgrounds, said Stone, Morse and Janice Pryzbyl of the Sky Island Alliance, which in recent years has taken over the count. There have been Earth First members and avid lion hunters, Morse said.
Morse's group included a librarian from Denver, a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts, a Florida wildlife commissioner, a Los Angeles-based veteran wildlife tracker and part-time journalist, and two Boulder, Colo.-area teachers of wilderness skills to girls and women.
"There's a great opportunity to find common ground and how to do this well in promoting conservation," said Morse, a Vermont resident who in 1994 founded Keeping Track, a national, nonprofit group that teaches people to record evidence of wildlife habitat in their communities. "All you have to do is get out on the land and start seeing tracks and habitat, . . . and it empowers us to take a stand."
The idea of using the tracking to monitor lion populations never really panned out, said Harley Shaw, a retired Arizona Game and Fish Department lion specialist. He was the third founder of this tracking effort and is author of a book about lions called "Soul Among Lions."
It was an imprecise tool, letting biologists document the presence of lions and perhaps track numbers from year to year, but not providing much additional information, said Shaw, who didn't attend this last session and now lives in Hillsboro, N.M., east of Silver City.
"I felt the value of it was, we were able to mix activists, lion hunters and biologists and get them talking to each other, even though they didn't always agree," Shaw said.
For one of Morse's trackers, Laurene Wapotich, a self-trained naturalist and outdoor educator from Colorado, the allure of the count is the opportunity to peer into the daily lives of these elusive cats.
"I've never seen a lion in the wild, and this may be the closest I ever get to it," added Mary Sweeney, another Coloradan in Morse's group. "There's something magical about seeing the tracks."
Just the fact that the wild animals can live in these mountains without stoves or refrigerators shows that somebody can still live off the land, Wapotich added.
"There's something still untamed and uncivilized out there in the wild," she said. "They'd do fine if we'd just leave them alone."
Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org