Mountain Lions, Humans A Dangerous Mix

GPS units help avoid predator conflicts

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Rim Country game officials are using high tech GPS devices and radio signals to learn more about North America's largest cat and most powerful predator.

The project to radio collar mountain lions was started about two years ago by the Arizona Game and Fish Department after a series of conflicts the animals had with humans near Tucson.

A.G. and F. Wildlife Technician Thorry Smith, who is stationed in Payson, said game officials realized they needed a firm plan for how to deal with the conflict problems created by urban sprawl and shrinking wildlife habitat.

Knowing of the problems, the Arizona Game and Fish Department directed Smith and wildlife biologists to purchase 20 spread-spectrum GPS collars that were to be fitted on mountain lions in both the Prescott and Payson areas.

Of those 20, six have been collared to mountain lions near Prescott and three around Payson.

July 21, wildlife officer Henry Apfel and Smith were able to collar a male mountain lion, estimated to be about two years old, near Pine.

Smith said they knew a lion was roaming the area because of some recent wildlife kills, including a deer.

The pair first captured the lion in a hair-triggered snare positioned on the outskirts of the tiny mountain hamlet. After capturing and tranquilizing the animal, he was collared and released unharmed in a more remote area south of Pine, Smith said.

The GPS devices in all the collared lions now communicate regularly with a satellite.

Periodically, Smith flies over the Rim Country and near Prescott in a single engine aircraft downloading data from the animals' radio collars.

He then relays the information to a geographic information specialist who will map the lions' past activities and recent movements.

The information learned from the radio collars will help biologists understand which cats have learned to not fear humans and which should be shipped to more remote locations.

"We know we have one in Prescott that likes to hang around a golf course," Smith said.

The information learned from the collars will also reveal what areas mountain lions simply pass through and locations where they live and hunt.

Although examples of lions attacking humans is not common in Arizona, there are examples of the cats doing so in California.

In 2004, a lion killed and ate a 35-year-old mountain biker in a wilderness area in Orange County, about a half-a-mile from a suburban home.

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Arizona Game and Fish Wildlife Technician Thorry Smith demonstrates the snare used to capture mountain lions for collaring.

A salon.com review of the book "The Beast of Garden" by David Baron, it says mountain lions attacking humans is completely understandable. "Why not? After all, we lured the big cats into our suburbs and taught them to view us as food," said the review.

"My book does indeed suggest that mountain lions have been lured into suburbia and have learned that humans pose no threat, making the cats potentially more dangerous," Baron said. "It is also true that a very small number of lions have attacked people as prey. However, I would not want to give the impression that most suburban lions view us as food. Thankfully, the vast majority do not."

Game and Fish officials estimate the state's mountain lion population to be between 2,500 and 3,000. It is also believed the animals reside mostly in rocky or mountainous areas.

Males can grow to more than eight feet long and weigh as much as 150 pounds. Females can grow to seven feet and weigh up to 90 pounds.

Smith points out that for the most part lions are quiet and elusive, but they are the state's top level predator capable of killing or seriously injuring humans.

The only times lions interact with humans is when they are looking for food, water or shelter, Smith said.

Food found near homes can include deer, rabbits, domestic animals and livestock.

Water can include a fountain, puddle or pets' water bowls.

For shelter, lions use cave-like areas beneath sheds, under unused buildings and in storm drains.

To report a mountain lion sighting, encounter or attack, call A.G. and F. during working hours at (602) 942-3000.

-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail mfoster@payson.com.

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