BLACK MOUNTAINS - 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, recording 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.
Where the sheep are
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. (These blocks are located inside larger areas the AZGFD designates as Game Management Units 15B West, 15C North and South and 15D. GMUs are used by the AZGFD to help manage wildlife and hunting.) Heimann hikes into each 25-square-kilometer block, spending an average of four hours per hike, and records 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 with the Miner staff photojournalist 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.
The hike begins
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 5 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 (lions like to hide the carcasses of their prey in heavy brush to feed on later).
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." It wasn't much - 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 37.3 percent of those blocks, or 22 out of 59. This has included tracks, 18 scat samples and four scrapes.
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.
But the hikes are not without their reward, either. She has enjoyed her time outdoors, immersed in the beauty of nature while gaining glimpses into the lives of its wild residents.
One time she found a lion kill and was able to observe where the cat had lain in the sand and rested.
The studies continue
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 a separate action, hair from lion scat will also be used to determine what prey the lions are eating. Each year, the survey will be reset and blocks revisited to gain further insight into lion habits and movements.
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. These studies will help ensure the survival of mountain lions, bighorn sheep and other wildlife species which call these mountains their home.
If local residents believe they have found mountain lion sign while hiking through the Black Mountains, they are encouraged to photograph the evidence (use a ruler or other object for size reference in the photo if possible), mark the site with a GPS if they have one, and report it to the AZGFD at (928) 692-7700.
Leave the sign where it is found so that scientists can visit the location and study the area in depth.