Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Window on wilderness

Guest Writer
My Tucson

My sister has an unusual job: She traps mountain lions. Not with nets and cages, but with film.

Every month or so, Jessica returns from the Tucson Mountains with digital film cards collected from cameras attached to trees in the desert.

Developed by sportsmen and adapted for science, the cameras are triggered by movement.

The University of Arizona Wild Cat Research and Conservation Project, funded by Pima County and carried out by citizen-scientist volunteers, seeks to determine if pumas still live in the Tucson Mountains and whether they move between ranges.

In the process, the project is building a database of wildlife behavior, including the kinds of species that live here, the food they eat and the families they raise.

These “camera traps” offer a glimpse into the wild desert we live in but rarely really see.

Javelina and mule deer move through the photographs with the easy wariness of animals who know no human is near.

A cottontail pauses, eyes wide in the darkness, and continues. A few frames later, a fox runs in the opposite direction, a bundle of fur in his mouth.

Butterflies can trigger the camera. So can flash floods, filling a series of frames with an immensity of water before the view turns black.

Size and scale become meaningless: Everything is interwoven in a morass of survival, from grains of soil to the largest carnivore.

Even the plants undergo savage cycles of life and death. A tendril of canyon ragweed, withering in the sun, trips the camera’s switch on a windy day.

In the next frame, rain darkens the sky. The ragweed explodes in joyous green, and the world turns vibrant colors.

But my sister isn’t looking for rabbits or ragweed; she’s hunting for wild cats.

Mountain lions (also called pumas, panthers and cougars) are fiercely territorial, and they range widely to seek out food or mates.

Barriers such as Interstate 10 and the Central Arizona Project canal are more than a nuisance to them; it’s like putting a wall between your bedroom and kitchen. Hemmed into smaller areas, mountain lions fight each other for space.

That’s where camera traps come in. Biologists place cameras near culverts and washes, looking for corridors that might allow mountain lions to thread a path through the increasingly urbanized desert.

Unlike capturing and collaring, cameras are a hands-off method for studying the behavior of big felines.

Jessica also checks camera traps for Sky Island Alliance, a local nonprofit, to track jaguars and ocelots in northern Mexico.

Jaguars still exist south of the border, but cameras have photographed only a few males in Arizona. One of those was Macho B, who was first caught on film in 1996 when he was about 3 years old.

He became a quiet, constant presence, appearing in photographs and fading into the wilderness again.

Last month, the Arizona Game & Fish Department inadvertently captured Macho B, so officials fitted him with a radio collar to monitor his movements.

When his movement patterns changed, they recaptured him 12 days later. Biologists discovered his kidneys were failing – not surprising in such an old cat – and he was euthanized at the Phoenix Zoo on March 2.

Macho B was the remnant of what was once a larger population. His loss underscores the need for thoughtful science, including non-invasive techniques that observe endangered species without interacting with them. This knowledge can help scientists protect jaguars and other species, without jeopardizing an individual animal?s health.

Beautiful and elusive, jaguars step gingerly around the edge of our knowledge. Sometimes, my sister says, their tracks appear in the mud only paces from where an untriggered camera lies hidden.

The more we learn about them, the better we can ensure they do not become the ghosts they so closely resemble.

The jaguar isn’t merely a magnificent symbol of wildness. Large carnivores live in regions where game is plentiful. Deer and rabbits, in turn, prosper wherever they can find abundant plant life, good soil and reliable water. The presence of large cats signals a healthy, functioning ecosystem, and their disappearance can start a cascade of problems.

Cameras traps are windows into the wilderness, allowing us to observe complex interrelationships in action. Humans are also part of this system, no matter how carefully we try to distance ourselves.

Horseback riders appear in the photographs, and hikers walk the same corridors where wild cats prowl. Once a researcher, making rounds, appeared only minutes after a sleek bobcat had his photo snapped.

Creatures crowd our desert backyard, though often they go unnoticed. We are not isolated from the landscape, nor is wilderness confined to preserves and national parks. It walks with us every day.

Melissa Lamberton is a University of Arizona student, poet and Tucson native.

E-mail: mllamb@email.arizona.edu

Camera traps offer glimpse into hidden world

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