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Citizen scientists support big cat research in Arizona

Analeise Mayor Arizona Sonoran News

In December, wildlife videographer Jason Miller posted footage of a jaguar captured on his trail camera.

Photographing such an elusive cat is an extremely rare event, but in the decade since the University of Arizona Wildcat Research Center’s Jaguar and Ocelot Project began, its team of scientists Citizens monitored three separate jaguars and collected more than 200 photos and videos of the big cats.

Center co-coordinators Melanie Culver and Susan Malusa and their team use surveillance cameras to detect and monitor jaguars and other species in the state, helping researchers better understand population dynamics, habitat use and movement patterns.

“Our overall mission is to contribute to wildlife conservation,” Malusa said.

In addition to jaguar sightings, the center’s cameras have captured more than 70 species, 10 of which are threatened or endangered. The center’s archives include 3 million images.

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“Even though we are looking for our target species that we monitor through cameras – the jaguar and the ocelot – we collect data on each species,” Culver said.

The center shares its detections with the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and Arizona Game and Fish.

Using their data, the team can assess the impact of habitat fragmentation, roads and other human activities on wildlife behavior. Long-term data can also reveal changes over time in wildlife communities that may be affected by environmental changes.

The project was initially launched in 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security during construction of the border wall. Part of this Obama administration project included a conservation element, which is why they hired the UA Wild Cat Research Center.

“The government put money into mitigation,” Culver said, “and some of that money went to jaguars.”

The goal was to determine whether jaguars and ocelots were widespread across the Arizona landscape and whether the animals were migrating across the U.S.-Mexico border into the state.

When the contract expired in 2011, the funding also expired.

“It’s almost impossible to get continued funding for the same work,” Culver said. “If we didn’t have citizen scientists, we would be shut down.”

The great outdoors

Liz Taylor, volunteer coordinator for the UA Wild Cat Research Center, explores a lead with citizen scientist Tim Cook.

Courtesy of Eline van Nes

Culver said his center receives about $50,000 a year in grants to keep the project running, part of which goes to Malusa.

“We also have to maintain the cameras,” Culver said. “They get stolen, vandalized and break. So we have to keep replacing the cameras.”

Culver and Malusa, however, have an army of more than 40 dedicated citizen scientists who help with camera surveillance, tracking and data analysis.

The program attracts citizen scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a retired professional wildlife biologist or you’re brand new, we provide a lot of things you need and training,” Malusa said.

This training includes lessons on jaguar genetics and behavior, as well as discussions on the research permit process and regulations surrounding endangered species research. Volunteers also gain hands-on experience with the cameras and equipment.

“I will never forget the first jaguar photo we received,” said volunteer coordinator Liz Taylor. “Oh my God, I’m sure you’ve heard me screaming all over the world. It was great.”

Taylor and her husband John have worked with the Wild Cat Research Center for nearly 10 years, monitoring cameras in the Chiricahua Mountains.

“We’re both passionate about being outside,” Taylor said. “We do a lot of hiking and camping, but it gives us a purpose and it makes you get away from the house and all those electronic gadgets and get your butt out because you have work to do. It’s really cool.”

Citizen science changed Taylor’s outlook on life.

“We get to go to places we probably wouldn’t have found before, and we get to have some really great experiences with the creatures,” Taylor said.

Collaborative monitoring

Citizen scientists from the UA Wild Cat Research Center head to the field cameras.

Courtesy of Deborah Huie, UA Jaguar and Ocelot Project

As one of the team’s most experienced scientists and volunteer coordinator, Taylor is not only responsible for organizing other volunteers, but also for identifying potential new monitoring sites.

“I often sit at this computer and look at the topography, trying to figure out where we’re going to find corridors,” she said. “We know they like to move a certain way in certain areas.”

New target areas are determined based on factors such as habitat, terrain and distance from water or roads. The final step is to get the team into the field to set up the cameras and hope for a jaguar.

They operate about 80 camera sites across Arizona, and the cameras are checked by citizen scientists about every two months. To access surveillance cameras in more remote locations, some volunteers may have to travel several kilometers, while other cameras may be just a few meters from the road.

“The job is to make sure the camera works, retrieve the SD card, refresh the battery and do environmental cleanup,” Taylor said.

And this project doesn’t just require hard work from citizen scientists.

Taylor said cooperation is a key part of jaguar conservation, and breeders in particular are a vital part of that equation. Although all cameras are placed on public land, the team works with several ranchers bordering their sites to access remote areas via their properties and to use their knowledge of the landscape.

“Ranchers may be a little concerned, because if they have a jaguar on their land, they might feel like that might limit what they can and can’t do on their land,” Culver said.

However, their interactions with breeders have been extremely positive.

“I’m very interested in what they’re doing here,” said rancher Jim Riggs, whose family has farmed their land in Cochise County since the 1800s. “I think it’s great.”

“They (the ranchers) are so attached and in tune with what’s happening on the land,” Taylor said. “It’s just incredible.”

In return, the team shares its data and detections with ranchers, informing them of the wildlife species roaming their property.

“We make them an album every year of all the animals that have come across the cameras that are near their ranches,” Taylor said.

Culver said southern Arizona’s abundant ranch land also provides more than suitable habitat for jaguars.

“Here, they live very long and healthy lives. They wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a strong prey base and good habitat here, and I thank the breeders for that,” Culver said.

Culver said she also saw an opportunity to learn from the discoveries of other wildlife enthusiasts like Jason Miller.

“There is knowledge there that we can integrate into our project. Just like we incorporate historical observations,” Culver said.

The public has named three of the endangered cats in recent years.

Henry Brean / Arizona Daily Star

Arizona Sonoran News is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.


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