GCNP — They've been found from Canada all the way down into the Patagonia region of Argentina. In some areas, people refer to the large, powerful cats with the slender bodies and long tails as cougars or pumas. Here at Grand Canyon, we call them mountain lions.
This mountain lion was discovered at Grand Canyon by wildlife biologists, who took tissue samples for DNA analysis.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of encounters between human beings and mountain lions. As a result, an ongoing three-year project at Grand Canyon National Parks has been studying the animals in the human environment.
"An increase in the frequency of mountain lions attacking humans has heightened concerns of managers in areas where mountain lions and people coexist," said Elaine Leslie, wildlife biologist at GCNP. "Although mountain lions are present throughout Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado Plateau, little is known of how they use these parks and monuments."
Leslie refers to increased pressure on lions from hunting, poaching and habitat reduction. Therefore, parks and monuments are believed to be not only refugiums but also reservoirs for their populations.
"Knowing how and when mountain lions use these parks and park habitat, especially those areas frequented by park visitors, may provide the information needed to reduce the potential for mountain lion-human interactions," Leslie said.
The project is being funded by the Grand Canyon National Park Small Grant study funded by the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation with donations by Rick Flory of Earth Friends and Sandy Kravitz of Arizona Community. The study is being called "Mountain Lion-Human Interactions at Grand Canyon National Park: The Effects of Human Use Areas on Mountain Lion Movements, Behavior, and Activity Patterns."
"Obtaining information of wild animal populations has been a long-standing logistical problem," Leslie said. "However, the ability through noninvasive techniques to detect and analyze animal sign in the wild is becoming an integral part of wildlife research and management."
Mountain lions are among those carnivores difficult to study. Leslie said these types of animals are generally secretive and costly to capture and DNA samples from field-collected hair, tissue and feces can yield insights into their ecology.
Leslie said the study has shown that DNA sampling and analysis of genotypes has been an effective, low-cost method of keeping track of individual lions. From that information, biologists can also identify kinship and make minimum population estimates.
"This study is beginning to provide a framework for other parks particularly on the Colorado Plateau ... with similar habitat types, to obtain information regarding their mountain lion populations in order to preserve an integral component of the ecosystem while providing for visitor safety," Leslie said.
Grand Canyon has become a national leader in the collection of mountain lion data, since many other parks have little or no budget to study the animals.
The project has begun to document movement patterns of mountain lions near areas of human use within GCNP. Although seldom seen by visitors, Leslie said simply the presence of large carnivores contributes to the richness of the visitor experience, but there have been concerns.
"A recent increase in the frequency of attacks on humans by mountain lions have led to human safety concerns in areas where humans concentrate in mountain lion habitat," Leslie said.
"Changes in the distribution and abundance of prey, mountain lion hunting behavior and movement of humans into areas traditionally occupied by mountain lions, have been advanced as factors contributing to increased human-mountain lion incidents,” she added.
Mountain lions are the sole remaining large predator in the Southwest, aside from reintroduction efforts for the Mexican gray wolf in the eastern portion of the state.
As such, the lions play a unique role in park's natural systems, Leslie said, adding "they are the ecoregion’s only remaining natural predators of adult mule deer, elk, desert bighorn sheep, and recently, javelina."
National parks, which offer security from hunting and are generally stable habitats, tend to attract animals such as deer and elk and the predators that feed on them. The habituation of deer and elk to humans and their structures has often resulted in them living among people. And along with that, comes predators.
"Increasing elk numbers on the South Rim may have contributed to a shift in dispersion of mule deer and elk toward higher human density areas," Leslie said. "This past year, we have frequently documented sites where mountain lions have killed deer on the North and South Rims of the park, including the developed zones adjacent to campgrounds, schools and residential dwellings."
Wildlife biologists are assessing the risks to humans of mountain lions being in residential and visitor-use areas. Based on the spatial and transitory patterns of the animals within the park, Leslie said tbey've been able to come to some conclusions.
"For example, it is possible mountain lions use developed areas only at night and retreat to secluded areas during the day when humans are most active," she said. "There appears to be an influence on lion behavior resulting from loose and feral pets and habituated and abnormal concentrations of large prey species in and around the developed zone."
Leslie added that because lions are predators and are fully capable of killing a human, it's their inclination to assume a hazardous or lethal possibility in any lion behaviors that they do not understand or are unable to interpret.
"Information collected during that past eight months has proven that mountain lions use not only the residential area, but areas adjacent to and in the campgrounds, rim trails and other areas of high human use as habitat," she said.
"Therefore, we should attempt to manage those conditions that predispose or are conducive to lion encounters and that could escalate into human injury," Leslie added. "Data from this research will enable the Park Service to establish scientifically-based recommendations for management that will help ensure visitor safety and resource protection."
Anyone who observes mountain lions or their tracks are asked to call the Park Service dispatch number at 638-7805.