Into the Wild: Kingman researcher stalks Arizona mountain lions

A wild mountain lion, photographed remotely with a trail camera in the Black Mountains, west of Kingman. (Arizona Game & Fish Department/Courtesy photo)

A wild mountain lion, photographed remotely with a trail camera in the Black Mountains, west of Kingman. (Arizona Game & Fish Department/Courtesy photo)

An elusive cat stalks through the Black Mountains of Arizona. This master of stealth, the mountain lion, is like a phantom: rarely seen by human eyes and leaving little trace of its existence in the hardscrabble terrain it calls home.

However, one person makes her living in pursuit of this ghost, making observations and collecting evidence like a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Her name is Heather Heimann and she is a wildlife technician working for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, conducting a study of mountain lions in the Black Mountains west of Kingman.

This mountain range is home to the largest herd of desert bighorn sheep in the country. These wild sheep have experienced declines in recent years and biologists are studying impacts to the herd, including factors such as predation. The Black Mountain predator study aims to understand more about the mountain lion, its eating and breeding habits and movements through the range. This specific lion population has not been studied before and scientists hope to use what they learn to inform management of both lions and sheep in the future.

Heimann is conducting a survey in order to accomplish this. She sectioned off 25 square kilometer blocks through the Black Mountains, and hikes into each block, spending an average of four hours per hike, recording the evidence of lions, coyotes and bobcats that she finds. She looks for tracks, scat (droppings), kill sites and scrapes (markings left by a wild cat's claws, created for territorial reasons or when the cat covers up its scat like a domestic tabby in a litter box).

A recent hike in the rugged desert near Oatman provided a typical day's work. Heading from Kingman about 8 a.m., Heimann drove along the twisting roads near Oatman, passing historic Route 66 sites, gold mines, and a nonchalant herd of desert bighorn sheep to get to the day's survey area.

A winding canyon wash nestled between tall ragged mountain tops, the site was just the kind of spot Heimann likes to explore. A dry wash provides a natural travel corridor for both wildlife and the people seeking to learn more about its habits. Heimann proceeded to hike almost five miles up the canyon and back again, spotting barely perceptible tracks and other sign with a keen and experienced eye.

Early in the hike, she found some coyote scat and later discovered a bobcat trail leading from a waterhole. Some old bones lying along some thick brush were possible evidence of an old kill site, but it was too old to be sure.

When Heimann finds something of note, she marks the location on GPS, measures dimensions and photographs the evidence. But lion sign is the main attraction, and it was on the return hike that she finally "hit paydirt." There were not many - just a few tracks from a small mountain lion. First, one set of easily missed faint depressions in a sandy bank and then, later down the canyon, a clearer track on dirt. Finding sign in a brush-choked wash is something akin to finding a needle in a haystack, and tracks that were missed on the hike in were spotted on the way back out.

She commented on how she often finds tracks while heading out that she missed earlier in the day, perhaps due to changing lighting conditions. The small lion's tracks were a welcome find and duly recorded. Heimann has been working on the survey since April of last year and has completed 59 of the 99 designated 25 square km blocks. She has found lion sign in 22 out of the 59 sites.

It is demanding work. As Heimann put it, she has "been stared at by sheep, challenged by burros" and even broken her ankle, delaying her survey hikes while her foot healed. At one point during her recent Oatman hike, she found herself clinging precariously to a cliff face as she moved through a narrow canyon pass with only an old rusty pipe to perch on. One slip would have resulted in a fall - directly into a deep pool of water.

The survey is an ongoing one. When the survey hits its one-year mark this April, the collected lion scat will be sent to a lab in Canada which will analyze it to determine each lion's gender and interrelatedness to the others.

One question researchers have is whether the Black Mountains lions are a self-sustaining, breeding population or whether it consists mostly of individuals that move through from surrounding areas. Genetic tests will tell scientists where the lions originated. If scats come from some of the same lions, scientists will also learn something about how far they might travel through the range.

In addition to the lion project, AZGFD biologists are directly studying bighorn sheep, tracking movements of radio-collared sheep and making other observations that will increase understanding of the Black Mountain ecosystem and its wildlife.

JC Amberlyn is a reporter/photographer for the Kingman Daily Miner.

The Sedona Muses and the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) will present David Mattson, Ph.D., Research Wildlife Biologist, USGS, at their third 2013 lecture on Monday, March 11, 7 p.m. at the Sedona United Methodist Church, 110 Indian Cliffs Road and SR 179.

Mattson's subject is Mountain Lions in Our Backyard. He will describe the behaviors and distributions of mountain lions living on the edge of cities like Flagstaff, Tusayan, and Sedona, highlighting the surprising lack of conflict as well as factors that can increase the usually low risk of threatening encounters or attacks.

Information will also be presented on how to safely manage a close encounter with a mountain lion if and when such an unusual occasion occurs.

Tickets: $6/MNA members, $7/non-members at Weber's IGA in the Village of Oak Creek, Bashas' in Sedona, by calling 928-284-2875 or at the door the night of the lecture. Proceeds benefit the Museum of Northern Arizona.

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