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On the Trail of Mountain Lions

by Melissa L. Lamberton
  
  

I’m walking a ragged margin of water and earth. The creek cascades over granite and coils in round pools, carving a narrow passage through the mountains. At times the trickle disappears entirely, and only ruffled rows of leaves, stacked neatly end-to-end, indicate the path of the water. I take a step, squelch into mud, and hesitate. I can see the rounded toes of a fox, a cloven deer print, and there, the sharp imprint of a cow’s hoof filled with a crescent of water.

Bobcat tracks.
Bobcat tracks.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.
  
Coati mundi tracks.
Coati mundi tracks.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

But I’m looking for mountain lion tracks.

My sister Jessica disappears upstream with her handful of volunteers. I can hear their quiet conversation filtering back through the amber air. Jessica has been leading tracking workshops for Sky Island Alliance, a local nonprofit, for over a year. As I pause, taking a deep breath, I wonder why I’ve never tagged along before. In a few months I’ll leave Arizona with my new husband to start graduate school, and I feel an unexpected pang for those lost weekends that my sister and I might have spent wandering these mountains, the landscape of our childhood.

We’ve crossed the inexact elevation line where grassland gives way to oak and piñon. I look back. The wooded sides of the Dragoon Mountains slope down to a plain of brittle grasses, spiked with the upright spears of blooming agave. It looks empty of people, but I can see the pale scar of the dirt road we drove here, the glimmer of cars on the freeway. This is ranching country, although in recent years subdivisions seeking scenic vistas have sprouted along Interstate 10. Creosote grows rampantly, too bitter for even the tough-mouthed cows to eat.

The Dragoon Mountains belong to the Sky Islands, an archipelago of wooded ranges rising out of desert scrub. This pattern of low valleys and high mountains encircles southern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern Sonora. It’s a young, muscled landscape, straining restlessly against its geologic skin. Some 150 million years ago, tectonic plates began to squeeze up rocky ridges spiked with copper ore—the Santa Ritas, Whetstones, Huachucas, Mules, and Dragoons. As new corridors opened on the level plains, stately saguaros marched northward and black bears found their way south. This place is a collision of edges.

“Are you coming?” Jessica calls, and I move to join the volunteers—a retired couple, a few university students—clustered around a knobby oak tree upstream. It’s a steep scramble over the boulders and I’m embarrassed to discover I’m out of breath. Jessica taps on a bulky plastic box lashed to the tree trunk as I join the group. A baleful red eye gleams from the casing, and I hear the shutter click as Jessica leans into its line of view.

“This is the first camera trap in the Dragoons,” Jessica says. “It’s got a clear view of the stream, so we catch a lot of animals coming down to drink.”

She unlocks the camera to remove its memory card, slotting a fresh one into place. Developed by hunters and adapted for science, the cameras are triggered by movement. At her office in Tucson, Jessica will skim through the photographs looking for the telltale blur of pale fur or tufted ears. Blonde, curly-haired, and slender, she doesn’t look like anyone who tracks mountain lions for a living. Since graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in wildlife biology, she’s taken to haunting sportsmen’s stores for smelly lures and camouflage gear. “One more camera to check,” Jessica says, shouldering her backpack. “It’s another hour uphill. Remember to look for tracks.”

As I follow the group back into the streambed, I circumvent the camera’s line of sight. Downed trees breathe carbon back into the atmosphere, and the wet undersides of leaves molder into soil. A blue-cloaked Mexican jay rasps an alarm and falls silent. The spires of pine trees taper to the sky.
  

The Dragoon Mountains.
The Dragoon Mountains.
Photo by Mark Trinks, courtesy Sky Island Alliance.
  
Santa Catalina Mountains.
The Santa Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona's
Sky Island archipelago.

Photo by Wendy Mitchell, courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

The Sky Islands appear at a confluence of ecosystems—the ridge of the Sierra Madres to the south, the Rocky Mountains to the north, and the tangled margins of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, each with their own distinct flora and fauna. Four species of wild cats roam this region: mountain lions, bobcats, ocelots, and jaguars. Historically, these felines ranged widely in search of food and mates. But humans have introduced a new kind of edge into the Sky Islands: our own sprawling habitat of cities, roads, transmission lines, and trails. Straight lines, the trademark of civilization, barricade wild animals from wandering the full reach of their territories.

Rivers thread these shrinking squares of habitat together. Groundwater pumping and diversions have degraded most of Arizona’s streams, but mountain lions and other wildlife still lope through shallow channels that pass through sand and pavement. Jessica sets up cameras in arroyos and culverts, gathering evidence for how big cats use these corridors to move between the mountain ranges. The work has become even more critical since the wall between Arizona and Sonora chopped the region in half, curbing the exchange of genes that once occurred without regard to political borders.

On her first day as wildlife coordinator for Sky Island Alliance, flipping through photographs, Jessica discovered a spotted blur, legs bent in motion, tail horizontal, all parallel stripes and dark rosettes—a male ocelot. Listed as endangered, these slender cats have almost vanished from Arizona. Jessica wrote a press release announcing the first proof of an ocelot in Arizona since a car killed one on a highway in 1967—and the first record ever of a live ocelot. Sky Island Alliance never released the location of the camera that snapped the picture. The organization’s mission includes educating the public about the value of big cats, yet it couldn’t risk eager hikers and sightseers crowding into fast-vanishing habitat, stamping new trails, and disrupting the daily routines of wildlife. Or worse, poachers eager to claim that glossy pelt.

Big cats are rare and elusive. Every now and then, one paces past a camera trap with its tail curled quizzically, all muscle and noiseless paw. Mostly, camera traps record other kinds of wildlife—red cardinals like ornaments among the trees, bristling tribes of tusked javelinas, mule deer moving with wary grace. Butterflies can trip the camera’s switch. So can flash floods, filling a series of frames with an immensity of water before the view turns black.

The photographs become a record of the everyday comings and goings in the margins between wilderness and civilization. A cottontail freezes, eyes wide in the darkness, and moves on. A few frames later, a fox runs in the opposite direction, a bundle of fur in his mouth. A tendril of canyon ragweed trips the camera on a windy day. Then rain darkens the sky, drops shine on the camera’s lens, and the ragweed explodes in riotous green. Everywhere life is vibrant, voracious, clawing out an existence from hard desert ground.
  

A black bear captured by a hidden camera.
A black bear captured by a hidden camera.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.
  
A ringtail captured by a hidden camera.
A ringtail captured by a hidden camera.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

Minnows dart away, quicksilver, as my boot slips into the water. I stop to examine the wavy lips of a mushroom grafted onto a tree. The dark soil sparks with quartz and rosy sandstone. Just ahead, a well shaft disappears into the ground, cradling shadows. I peer inside, but darkness buries the bottom.

We’re deep in the mountains now, but still stumbling upon the indelible marks of human presence. The Dragoon Mountains are rich with history. Centuries ago, collapsed volcanic calderas and tectonic plates fashioned an intricate labyrinth out of stone. Apache sentinels once kept watch from the towering red pinnacles at Cochise Stronghold. Then Anglo settlers arrived with cattle, railroads, and stagecoaches, cutting pale lines in the ground. Timber fell to feed the smelters of gold and copper mines. The Dragoons are a tattered remnant of Wild West culture, whittled away by the modern West’s drive for development. A long legacy of human use has yet to destroy the region’s marvelous diversity, but that danger is omnipresent.

We’re nearly to our destination when I find a paw print, wide as my palm, pressed cleanly into mud. “Jessica,” I call, “what kind of track is this?”

The volunteers double back and gather around. Four splayed toes, a round central pad, faint pinpricks of claws. One of the volunteers leans close. “Mountain lion,” he proclaims. “I’ll bet we have a photo on the camera.”

Jessica shakes her head slightly, tracing her finger over the track. “It’s canine, not feline,” she says. “See how you can trace an X through the center? It’s big for a coyote…. Probably somebody’s dog.”

Dutifully I consult my handheld GPS for the track’s location and measure its length with a tiny ruler. Jessica flashes me a smile and says, “Good eyes.” But I’m disappointed. I imagine a Shepherd mutt trotting alongside its owner, flushing wild turkeys from the grass.

I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild, but like most people who live on the edge of a desert city, I’ve likely come close to one without knowing it. Jessica and I used to wander the steep volcanic slopes of the Tucson Mountains, a saguaro-spiked range that shelters our childhood home. Now the cameras she sets up there capture the nighttime rambles of mountain lions on the same trails where hikers and bicyclers appear in droves in the morning. She photographs four-wheeled trucks crunching through remote desert arroyos and boys on ATVs cutting tracks through the delicate, spongy skin of cactus. In a three-year project in the Tucson Mountains, Jessica recorded over 2,000 pictures of people but only 36 images of mountain lions.

Around sprawling cities like Tucson, the margin between wilderness and civilization shrinks to a saw-toothed line. Trapped male lions fight and kill each other for space. They no longer encounter females from distant locations, limiting the flow of genes from one population to another. Worse, hungry mountain lions sometimes appear in suburbs or among cattle herds, where the big cats are poisoned or shot.

Here in the Dragoons, hope still exists for wild spaces and open skies. But it’s a hope that relies on the vitality of mountain lions, which ecologists call “apex carnivores.” They live where they can find a healthy population of deer, rabbits, mice, and other mammals. In turn, these creatures indicate an abundance of grass, sprouting thickly from rich, strong soils. The ecosystem’s intricate workings dissolve when carnivores disappear. Deer multiply, overeating their food sources and trampling waterways. Soil erodes until it can no longer support lush forage. The grasslands that lured cattle ranchers to Arizona belong, in part, to mountain lions.
  

Mountain lion scat discovered near a trail.
Mountain lion scat discovered near a trail.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.
  
Mountain lion tracks.
Mountain lion tracks.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

I quicken my pace at the sound of falling water. Ahead, the terrain rises steeply, cradling the silver thread of the stream. The thin cascade of snowmelt will likely disappear as the season tips into summer. We take our time clambering over the lichen-mapped boulders. The air smells opulent with leaf mold and pine, and columns of sunlight play through the trees. I drop a pebble into a pool, the water tinted gold from tannins leached from fallen leaves. The ripples stretch outward and dissipate.

At the top of the rise, we stop to catch our breath and look around. The second camera trap blinks at us from the crook of an oak tree, aimed at the narrow route we just climbed up through the falls. Jessica removes the memory card, tilting the camera for a better view.

“This is one of our more remote locations,” she tells us as she searches her backpack for a fresh memory card. “But if the photos from the last few months aren’t promising, we’ll have to move it deeper in.”

For us, the camera marks the end of the hike, although the maze of mountains stretches onward into hazy blue distance. If we climbed a little higher, we’d see clear into Mexico. No one feels inclined to hurry, so we each claim a boulder and pull our squashed lunches from our backpacks.

“What kind of photos do you think we’ll get?” one of the volunteers asks Jessica as she opens a bag of tortilla chips to share.

“You never know,” she says. “We just set up these cameras last October. This will be our first data.”

We turn and scan the trees. The woodlands seem still except for chattering water and the bright flash of a bird’s wings. Often months go by before Jessica can check a remote trap like this one. At some sites, she adds a daub of scent to lure big cats closer, but the Dragoon Mountain cameras aren’t baited, leaving matters entirely to chance.

As the group breaks into conversation, Jessica confides to me that she dislikes bating cameras. Like the cameras themselves, baiting originated with hunters. Back at the house we share, to my dismay, a tiny bottle of bobcat urine sits on Jessica’s desk, rank-smelling even through the stopper. After she sprinkles “Canine Call” near a camera trap, she rarely has to renew it. Bobcats or mountain lions will mark the place with their own scent to renew their claim on the territory. If the bait mimics a fertile female’s scent, hopeful males will often return to the site months later, still searching.

Some scientists swear by baiting, insisting that it’s the only way to collect useful data within the limited time span of a study. Naturalists in Guatemala discovered that a musky brand of Calvin Klein cologne turns mature jaguars into catnip-crazed kittens in front of their video cameras. Jessica worries that naturalists ignore how baiting alters animal behavior, perhaps in lasting ways. She’s collected photos of foxes and bobcats rolling in bait, and once, a pair of skunks mating over the scented spot.

“I’m starting to wonder if baiting camera traps changes territorial patterns,” Jessica tells me, raking a hand through the dark leaf mold. “Especially for mountain lions. They get desperate looking for mates.”

A bobcat carries his rabbit prey, as captured by a hidden camera.
A bobcat carries his rabbit prey, as captured by a hidden
camera.

Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

The afternoon sunlight slants through oak and sycamore. The air turns dusky purple. Jessica announces that it’s time to head back and we gather our backpacks and Tupperware. I stand and stretch my cramped legs. A bird flickers from the nearest tree, too rapid for me to catch anything but a blur of white and grey. As the group starts down the trail in single file, I turn to look at the camera. Even unbaited traps, like this one, aren’t entirely isolated from the subjects they study. Jessica once showed me the twisted remains of a camera, its heavy plastic casing peppered with holes. She guessed vandals tried to crack it open. The film, intact, made the mystery clear: The red-and-black head of a Gila woodpecker loomed wide in a frame, one beady eye staring straight into the lens like Sherlock Holmes behind a magnifying glass. It had seen the red gleam of the camera’s sensor and tried to pry out the shiny bauble.

I take a deep breath, greedy for this mountain air, this stillness. At the foot of the waterfall, my sister dips her hands in the stream and shakes free a shower of sunlit drops. With sudden certainty, I know I don’t want to leave Arizona. Anywhere else will feel like exile, a mistaken migration away from the only place I’ve ever called home. Yet for all my childhood rambles, I’m a trespasser here. This dry and rugged landscape, blue-veined with water, belongs to wildlife more than it ever has to me. Of course, we cannot eliminate our contact with wilderness, no matter how we try to hold it at arm’s length.

I trail after the group. The world around me is hushed, invisible. I know that my presence here, benign as it might seem, leaves ripples in the natural workings of this world. We cannot eliminate our contact with wilderness, no matter how we try to hold it at arm’s length. When humans interact with wildness—to ranch or mine, even to study it with the objective lens of science—we transform it.

The Sky Islands are not protected under any law. They are fragmented by highways and suburban sprawl, scarred by ATV trails and backcountry roads, mined for copper, poisoned by the pollution—light, noise, smog—that cities exude. This is where mountain lions still slink on the edge. We can map lines between wilderness and civilization, but those clear borders don’t exist. I wonder whether in that dangerous and remarkable meeting of edges we can learn something about coexistence. 

Halfway down the mountain, I pause at a strand of barbed wire wrapped around an oak tree. A rancher might have strung this here a decade ago or more, but whatever cows it hemmed are long gone. The tree continued growing. I touch the wire that cuts deep into the bark, but it’s inseparable now. Stepping over the snarl of barbs, I continue downward, following the creek. The oaks and pines give way to grass. In a moment we’ll abandon the streambed and strike out for the road.
  

Mountain lion captured by a hidden camera.
Mountain lion captured by a hidden camera.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.
  
Mountain lion exploring near the hidden camera.
Mountain lion exploring near the hidden camera.
Photo courtesy Sky Island Alliance.

Spring blooms in the desert with fierce beauty. Then summer drops like an anvil. Busy with packing and wedding plans, I tuck away my journal and forget about the hike in the Dragoon Mountains. Four months at graduate school in Iowa leaves me with a heavy ache for the Sonoran desert, its circlets of mountains and bright, broad plains.

On my first visit home, I ask Jessica, “Anything on those Dragoon Mountain cameras?” We huddle in front of her laptop to relive the preceding spring.

I’m not surprised when the first photograph on the lower camera displays two hikers with their dogs. I wonder if one is the same dog that left the paw print, wonder if the scent of his bounding passage will keep scurrying mammals crouched in their dens for hours.

Jessica clicks forward. The green timestamps at the bottom of the photos parade by. On February 19, a three-point buck crosses the rivulet of water, his coat mottled brown. On March 10, another mule deer trips the lower camera, this one female. Then a rock squirrel in mid-leap, four legs splayed wide. A grey fox with a reddish belly, lips curled back in a toothy grin. A ringtail gripping the trunk of the nearest tree, eyes shining in the camera’s flash, dwarfed by his huge striped tail. A clump of grass in wind. A butterfly.

“There,” Jessica says, pointing.

The digital numbers on the bottom of the photo read March 21. It’s almost one in the morning, and silky night fills the frame. The mountain lion paces downhill, fur gleaming, the graceful question mark of his tail nearly sweeping the ground.

We linger a moment over the photo, and then Jessica clicks forward. The mountain lion—almost certainly the same one—returns at 2:41 a.m., black-tipped ears tilted back toward the camera’s click.

As Jessica flips through the next dozen photos, I think about the chattering crowd of volunteers she led through the woods. How we walked those same trails, left our footprints pressed in the mud along the creek. A black bear brushes so close to the camera only his massive furry ear appears. A javelina herd snuffles through the leaves on petite hooves. Squirrel in daytime. Grey fox, later that night. Then—mountain lion, pacing out of the frame of the upper camera on the morning of March 27. A month of photos later, we see him again at the lower camera. Red soil sticks to his upturned paw.

Even to Jessica’s expert eye, it’s hard to tell if one mountain lion, or many, are crossing and re-crossing in front of the cameras. Science likes to name and categorize, but often all the years of data come down to a simple truth. Big cats still roam in the Dragoon Mountains. And I recognize each snapshot for what it is—a gift, a rare glimpse into wildness.

    
 

Melissa L. Lamberton is a freelance science journalist and poet from Tucson, Arizona. She is working on an essay collection about rivers, water policy, and the ethics of desert living. This article arose out of a column published in the Tucson Citizen.
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Resources
 
 

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona Wilderness Coalition

Interactive Map of the Sky Islands

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance

Sky Island Action Center

Sky Island Alliance

"Sky Islands of North America: A Globally Unique and Threatened Inland Archipelago," by Matt Skroch, Terrain.org Issue No. 21.

 

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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