We are conducting surveys, monitoring, and research on cougars (puma, mountain lion) on the Ladder Ranch in south-central New Mexico. Here, cougars are of particular interest given their effects on state-endangered desert bighorn sheep and other valuable big game. These projects are also resources for training and education, most notably through the Cougar Field Workshop.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

After downloading the cougar pictures from the camera, I expanded my search for tracks and found these about 1/2 mile from the camera site. In addition to cougar tracks there were fox, coyote, rabbit, bird, deer, and javelina tracks around this water hole.

It seems the flashing camera was too much of a disturbance to this reclining cougar; within a minute it was rubbing its face on the camera (note the white whiskers on the left side of the photo); the next minute it was gone.

The next two photos show a very relaxed cougar, possibly one that has just recently eaten.

Apparently, the flash got this cougar's attention.

FINALLY, after nearly four months of searching for tracks and checking remote cameras there is a cougar on the mountain. These photos were taken last night from 7:52 to 7:55 p.m. on the top of the mountain, with a remote digital camera purchased with a Research and Professional Growth grant from Furman. This appears to be a female or a young male.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The ram eventually joined this groups of 3 other rams, 2 ewes, including one of our radio collared ewes, #23, and #23's lamb of this year. Number 23 can be seen just at the top of the mesquite branches to the left.

I did manage to see a few of the bighorns, including this class IV ram as he pursued one of our radio collared ewes.

Perhaps the most significant find of the trip was this western ringnecked snake (Diadophis punctatus). Contrary to it's common name this individual lacks the distinctive ring around the neck. It appears that this species has not previously been documented for the Fra Cristobal range.

The sandy wash at the bottom of the canyon is primarily where I searched for cougar tracks. I also searched under small shrubs and trees for cached cougar kills. Cougar often prefer to travel in the narrow washes with it's associated brush and taller vegetation for concealment. The mammal diversity in the canyon was apparent from the abundant tracks I did find: coyoted, gray fox, cottontail, jackrabbit, kangaroo rat, skunk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and what I believe was javelina.

Here is a view of the primary route of travel, Mine Canyon, which bisects about 1/3 of the range north to south.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your perspective) no sign of cougar was found on the hike. However, it was still a productive effort. Here are a few hightlights beginning with the view from the top of the Fra Cristobal range where the trip began. Elephant Butte resevoir can be seen to the southwest.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Today I'm taking a two day hike over the mountain range to look for cougar sign and sheep. Hopefully, there will be some good photos and news of cougar sign to report when I return.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I have been seeing a variety of snake species on the roads in the morning as I make my rounds looking for cougar tracks and radio tracking the bighorns. This morning I found this unusually dark western diamondback (Crotalus atrox) and had to try for a picture. Sometimes not enough can be said for a good zoom lens!

To continue with a description of Sarah's work, she tackled a combination of tasks. First, she produced a summary report that outlined the kills and movements of a cougar previously collared with a GPS collar on this project. Second, she worked with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to produce a habitat model for cougar management for the state. This project is ongoing. Finally, she began work on a collaborative project with the Turner Endangered Species Fund which will examine habitat selectivity of bighorn sheep relative to kill sites and habitat selectivity of cougars. The picture above is a map generated from 3 years of data on bighorn ewe distribution during the lambing season, January through June and is the sort of data that Sarah will be using for her analysis.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

To catch up on events from the summer, here is a brief summary of the participation of two Furman students, Megan Pitman and Sarah Galloway. Megan spent the summer in New Mexico assisting with the radio tracking of bighorn sheep as well as searching for cougar sign. Her primary work however was a research project in which she examined the effects of bighorn habitat selection on vegetation. This work will help us determine the number of bighorn sheep that this mountain range can support. The picture at left is a map produced from the data Megan collected. Essentially, what it shows is that the plant communities on the mountain differ strikingly across bedrock type. There are two basic types here, limestone and granite. The limestone supports more desert adapted species, creosote (LATR) and ocotillo (FOSP), while the granite supports more grasses (annual grasses - AG, perennial grasses - PG). This pattern in plant distribution could have significant implications for where sheep spend their time, particularly during the lambing season, which may in turn affect their vulnerability to predation. Sarah Galloway is examing those sorts of questions...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hognosed snake(Heterodon nasicus) playing dead.

After a spectacular sunrise at Eagle Rock Canyon, I encountered a number of snakes. A western diamondback (Crotalus atrox) which had been unfortunately hit by a car, a desert patchnosed snake (Salvadora deserticola), a western hognosed snake (Heterodon nasicus) which promptly played dead, and a glossy snake (Arizona elegans). All of these snakes were encountered within about 10 miles of road.

The collars, once deployed on a cougar, will produce data such as is seen here on the map. Four times daily a GPS device will record the cougars exact location. This will allow us to determine precisely such aspects of the cougars ecology as habitat preference, distance traveled, routes of travel, and location of kills.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The telinject pistol with barrel.

Here we have the Telinject pneumatic dart pistol, without the barrel, we use to deliver the dart. The CO2 cartridge is used, via the regulator, to provide about 2 to 3 pounds of pressure to fire the dart.

At left you can see some of the equipment used to administer the immobilization drugs for handling a cougar for collaring. We are using a combination of ketamine (2mg/kg) and medetomidine (0.075mg/kg) with an antogonist of atipamezole (0.3mg/kg) as recommended by "Handbook of Wildlife Chemical Immobilization International Edition". The drugs are delivered via a pneumatic dart that causes minimal trauma to tissue during injection. The dart contains two chambers, front and back. The front chamber contains the chemicals for immobilization, while the back chamber contains pressurized air. As the dart needle is inserted into a large muscle (usually the back of the thigh) a silicon sleeve is pushed aft on the needle, allowing the pressurized air to inject the ketamine/medetomidine combination into the tissue. The dart on the far left is a practice dart for perfecting your marksmanship.

As previously mentioned, Furman has purchased a Lotek GPS 4400 M Argos collar for the project. The collar has both VHF and GPS capability. The photo shows this particular make and model of collar. GPS fixes will be transmitted to the Argos system and then relayed back to TESF. The collar is currently programmed to record 4 fixes every 24 hours, giving us the cougar's location to within ~ 4m, with differential correction, as it travels through the New Mexico landscape. These data will provide us with an uncommon look at the ecology of one of North America's most inspiring and controversial predators. Now all we have to do is capture a cougar to collar! More on that coming soon...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Rain, rain, and more rain seems to be the mantra here on the Jornada del Muerto this year, usually one of the dryest regions of arid New Mexico. Returning from the mountain this morning I slipped and slid all over the road but managed to avoid the ditches (mostly). All the collared sheep were located and, as far as could be determined, are happy and healthy. Here you see a picture of our one radio collared ram taken with a remote digital camera in June. It is usually quite difficult to get within sight of this fellow on foot so we were glad for the opportunity to view him on camera.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A significant portion of the day yesterday was spent reviewing the operation manuals for the Telonics TGW-3580 GPS collars shown here and reinitializing the collars. These two collars were purchased by the Turner Endangered Species Fund for the cougar research. A third collar, purchased by Furman University, has been ordered and is on its way. As the opportunity to collar a cougar is a rare one, and the equipment (especially these GPS collars) represent a significant financial investment, it is critical to be as well prepared for the eventual cougar capture as possible. Today, the manuals were reread and the collars retested to ensure that when the time comes for deployment, everything goes as well as it can. (Notice I didn't say perfectly.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Perched atop this piece of lava rock is a packrat (Neotoma sp.) of which there are actually several species in the U.S. and Mexico. One of the problems we had with this particular camera is that the infrared sensor, which spreads out in a cone from the camera, had too much of this lava rock in its field of "view". The result is that we obtained many pictures of mid-day hot lava rock and not much else - not to insult the noble packrat.

This is a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) stopping for a drink at the mountain top water catchment.

About 7 and 1/2 hours were spent today bumping and bouncing over the rain-rutted roads to reach our remote digital cameras. Unfortunately, several of our cameras didn't function as well as we would have hoped. However, we did obtain a few pictures. As promised here are the highlights. The first one is of Zeke testing the sensitivity of the camera while trying to decide whether or not to chew on it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Since we're on the subject of the remote cameras, here's a recent picture of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) taken with one of our Trail Mac cameras.

Summer is turning to fall here on the Armendaris. Temperatures were in the 70's for most of the day, following a few days of rain and drizzle, uncommon weather for this area. Tomorrow I will be conducting the regular checking of our remote digital cameras. These cameras are of three types: Trail Mac, Vigil P-box, and Cuddeback. I'll be sure to post any good photos we obtain.