Tucson trail cameras help track cougars and other wildlife

The ghostly gray figure of a large animal appears and nonchalantly climbs the steps of a house in the mountains of Tucson.

You can’t see his face at first, but there’s no doubt what it is. The long feline tail with the black tip betrays the creature.

This video footage of a healthy adult mountain lion was captured on a trail camera earlier this year – part of a small uptick in such sightings that likely has more to do with how wildlife is monitored these days as how many animals are actually there.

Four mountain lions have been recorded so far this year at a home in the Tucson mountains.

Henri Brean

State wildlife officials say the increasing use of trail cameras and doorbell security cameras in Tucson homes is changing the way Arizona Game and Fish monitors urban wildlife, especially the notoriously shy mountain lion. .

“It makes our job easier,” agency spokesman Mark Hart said.

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Images from the public can tell wildlife officials not only where an animal is, but also whether it poses any risk to people.

“With cougars, it’s all about behavior,” Hart said. “If it’s just passing through, that’s what cougars do. What we are always looking for is threatening behavior.

Hart said Game and Fish doesn’t use trail cameras extensively in the field, so public footage provides useful data to wildlife managers that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

One thing they learned recently: Cougars are much more common than Tucson-area residents might think.

“At the start of the summer, they were coming everywhere,” Hart said. “We had one staring at his reflection in the pool at the Dove Mountain resort.”

A few months earlier, a Loews Ventana Canyon Resort surveillance camera captured footage of a young lion striding past a back entrance, triggering the automatic doors. Luckily, the startled lion ran away from the building instead of inside.

Jerry Rowlette shows photographs he took using trail cameras around his home on the west side of Tucson. Rowlette has set up 20 cameras around her 3-acre property to capture wildlife roaming the night.

Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

Camera craze

Hart said they typically get 80 to 100 mountain lion sightings a year, but without photos or video, it’s unclear how many of those sightings are actually lions. Increasingly, reports are now accompanied by visual evidence.

Sometimes photos or videos are sent directly to Game and Fish. Other times, the agency is tagged when the images are posted on social media.

Occasionally, Hart, who is also in charge of the agency’s social media accounts, will come across the images himself while browsing Facebook or the NextDoor app.

He said he shares timely photos and videos of large predators like bears and mountain lions whenever he finds them to remind people that the animals are there but are generally nothing to worry about.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare, and there are no records of anyone being killed by one in Arizona.

Hart said the use of trail cameras in the area seemed to be accelerating after “the jaguar excitement” about 5 years ago, when a few of the elusive cats were spotted by remote cameras in mountain ranges just north of the Arizona-Mexico border.

The cam craze “has really taken off in the last couple of years,” he said, perhaps fueled by the increasing number and quality of trail cameras on the market or by people looking for something to do during their pandemic closures.

Javelina captured by wildlife camera on Jerry Rowlette’s property west of Tucson.

jerry rowlette

Doorbell cameras and other home security monitoring systems have also grown in popularity, and these also occasionally pick up wildlife activity.

When a young black bear took a four-day walk through Oro Valley in mid-August, doorbell cameras and other footage helped wildlife officials finally capture the animal and rescue it. release safely into the wild, Hart said.

Most of the time, however, the images of large predators, especially on the outskirts of Tucson, do not warrant any action.

“We live in the urban-wild interface, so any sighting that occurs is to be expected,” Hart said.

lion at the door

So what about the cougar filmed climbing the steps of a house in the mountains of Tucson?

This footage was captured in early February at Jerry Rowlette’s house in the Trail’s End neighborhood, a few canyons north of Gates Pass.

“I’m in there watching NatGeo, and there’s a lion sniffing the front door,” Rowlette said. “That an animal of this size can live among us is just amazing to me.”

Jerry Rowlette set up a camera pointed at an area where wildlife typically crosses his property west of Tucson at night. Rowlette has 20 cameras around her 3-acre property to capture wildlife.

Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

The retired Raytheon director started tinkering with surveillance cameras about eight years ago. Now he has around 20 settled around his steep 3-acre property.

Most are off-the-shelf cameras, but he’s also built three wildlife camera traps that use DSLR cameras, infrared motion sensors and multiple flashes to capture professional-looking portraits.

At the moment, two of these camera traps are positioned around a pile of fractured rocks near his driveway, where they regularly collect gallery-quality images of gray foxes, javelins, owls, bobcats and coyotes with the lights of Tucson behind them in the distance. .

Bird captured by Jerry Rowlette’s wildlife camera west of Tucson.

Pictures of Jerry Rowlette

Rowlette said the animals didn’t even seem to notice the camera clicking or the flashes going off.

“I don’t know if they just think it’s one more thing in this world that they don’t understand, like heat or lightning or whatever, but they don’t mind,” he said. he declares.

Rowlette and his wife have lived in Trail’s End for about 25 years, but he said it wasn’t until he started setting up his cameras that he came to appreciate all the wildlife around them, especially after nightfall.

Jerry Rowlette talks about the cameras around his home on the west side of Tucson. Rowlette has set up 20 cameras around her three-acre property to capture wildlife roaming the night.

Pictures of Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

“I couldn’t believe what was there at night. It’s amazing,” he said.

Now, he spends hours each day swapping camera memory cards and browsing through hundreds of photos and videos collected the night before.

“I have hard drives full of stuff. I mean if it’s a windy day, you think, ‘Oh no.’ You have to go through all these motion-activated footage, and there’s nothing there,” he said. “I could do worse. It keeps me away from Vegas I guess.

Over the past six years, Rowlette has captured eight mountain lions on cameras outside her home. He has captured footage of four of them since February alone, including a pair of lions that walked across his steps together in early August.

The big cats have also appeared on the cameras of some of its neighbors.

“I don’t take out the trash at night anymore, that’s for sure,” Rowlette said with a laugh, “but really, they don’t want anything to do with us.”

Until now, he has never seen a cougar with his own eyes.

“I don’t know where they go during the day, maybe in higher areas to stay away from people,” Rowlette said. “They’re just invisible.”

Or at least they were.


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