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.

Friday, February 29, 2008

We have a very exciting recent development. For several months we have been trying to gather enough baseline data with cameras and collars to test the idea that the home ranges of wild cougar can be modified using artificial scent posts. On Friday of last week, graduate student Megan Pitman and TESF biologist Chris Jones placed tiger urine along a frequently used travel path of our collared male cougar. The large yellow dot indicates the location of the scent marker. This cougar was collared in April of 2007 (See April posts). Ten months of data collection has revealed that this cougar has a long narrow home range along the Rio Grande floodplain. Immediately following the application of tiger urine this cougar seems to have taken a long detour to the west. Note the four red dots marking the cougar's location after the application of scent. While we must be cautious of our interpretation at this stage, and while there is the nagging possibility that we are seeing another ill-timed satellite error, these are the most promising results we could have hoped for at this point.

To our considerable relief, the collar is functioning as it should. Here is a map of the cougar's movements between the 19th and the 29th of this month. The green star indicates the location where she was collared and the red star indicates where she was last located. There is likely a kill located within that cluster of red dots to the northwest of the green star.

We followed our cougar a short distance to make sure that she successfully made a shallow stream crossing. Above, Harley points out some VERY fresh cougar tracks to workshop participants. Harley reckons these tracks were made by a groggy, 70 to 80 pound female cougar within the last 5 minutes. He really is that good.

After collaring, measuring, and doctoring our cougar, we paused briefly for a group photo of the workshop participants before reviving her. Ranch manager Steve Dobrott, center with brown hat, blue shirt and sunglasses, did the honors of injecting the sedative antagonist, and more importanly, directing the waking cougar away from the group.

Our cougar catcher, Orvel Fletcher, chats with Jack Childs of the Borderlands Jaguar Project. Jack is the author of "Tracking the Felids of the Borderlands" and "Ambushed on the Jaguar Trail: Hidden Cameras on the Mexican Border (with co-author Anna Mary Childs).

Rex Martensen (far left) of the Missouri Department of Conservation takes paw measurements and calls them out to recorder, Megan Pitman (thoughtful woman with notebook immediately to the right of Rex)

"Retired" cougar researcher Harley Shaw, author of "Soul Among Lions" and workshop organizer fits a Telonics GPS collar (purchased by the Oregon Zoo) to our sedated cougar. Note the asymmetry in of the toes in the front paw and the distince three lobes in the heel pad, both excellent characteristics for identifying cougar tracks.

Two days after our work with Mike ended, and the first day of the Cougar Field Workshop, professional guide and hunter Orvel Fletcher managed to tree this female near the headquarters of the Ladder Ranch. Orvel, now 84, has been hunting cougar for over 60 years. This particular day, he made it seem easy, possibly misleading our workshop participants. Here the cougar is falling asleep after Ladder Ranch manager Steve Dobrott successfully darted her with an excellent shot.

We were successful in treeing some cougars, thanks to Mike and his dogs, but we weren't successful in collaring any cougars. The three we had seen on the rocks, and the two that the dogs eventually treed, were all cubs and too small to carry our GPS collars. Above is a 40 to 50 pound male. Although we didn't get out any collars on this particular excursion it was still an invaluable experience to watch Mike work with the mules and hounds and to watch the behavior of tracking dogs and cougars.

SUCCESS! - sort of. If you look closely at the center of the photo you can see no fewer than THREE cougars. At the end of the last day, ol' Stonwall, one of Mike's most serious hounds, had led the charge as the dogs trailed up these three.

Dry land cougar hunting is not for the faint of heart, and cougar research is not for the pessimist. On the fourth and final day spirits were still high. Here Mike is taking a coffee break, after several hours in the saddle, while we talk about the exploits of Teddy Roosevelt and Ben Lilly.

By 10 we'd found the fresh track of a big tom. The problem was that the south slopes had already started losing thier snow, making it very hard for the dogs to trail. With lots fast and slow trailing we made our way behind the dogs several miles to the upper end of Animas Creek, shown in the photo. We rode home in the dark, by moonlight.

A snow covered ponderosa pine at Hermosa.

On the third day we woke up to about 2 inches of snow on the ground - perfect for tracking and trailing, as long as it doesn't melt!

After listening to the hounds for several hours they disappeared. Mike figured they had disappeared into Marshall Creek, just to the west (left) of Castle Rock, seen here in the middle distance of the photo. Three hours of riding through falling snow later, we found out that Mike was right.

Here Mike leads the pack mule, loaded with coffee, chocolate, and our collaring equipment, along North Seco Creek.

We spent four days on mules in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness listening to hounds as they trailed. Above Mike, his friend and a guide himself, Greg, and Kate listen to the hounds in the distance.

During the week prior to the cougar field workshop, Kate Thibault and I worked with professional guide and outfitter Mike Root in an attempt to capture and collar a second cougar on the Ladder Ranch. Above is a large tom cougar track we found on our drive to meet Mike at Hermosa. The track is oriented with the toes to the left and the distinct three lobed heel to the right.

It turns out that our cougar had not taken a 50 mile stroll to the west. Subsequent notification by the data distribution service let us know that there had been a satellite malfunction on the particular dates in question. Our cougar soon showed up again at the north end of Elephant Butte Resevoir.