Game track: Arizona, Sonora install cameras to monitor large animals along the border

Cesar de Leon of the Sonoran game and fish department checks a camera before installation. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

Cynthia Soria of Arizona Game & Fish confers with Carlos Ballesteros (center) and SAGAHRPA’s Cesar de Leon on where to set up more game cameras. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

EL RANCHO LAS AGUILAS, Mexico – It’s late afternoon on this 10,000-acre spread in northern Sonora, within sight of Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains.

On a steep, oak-covered hillside, Cesar de Leon and a colleague from the Sonoran game and fish department are clearing away brush with a machete and hand saw.

“Before installing the camera, we need to do a little cleanup to prevent the vegetation from setting it off,” he said.

With the help of a cable lock, bungee cord and some well-placed sticks, they got the game camera in place and shot a test image.

That camera is one of 30 they recently installed on the ranch as a part of an inventory of large species that range across the border, including mule deer, bears, mountain lions, pronghorn and jaguars. Thirty more cameras soon will be placed at another Sonoran ranch. The project represents the first time that SAGAHRPA – the Spanish acronym for Sonora’s game and fish department – has had access to private ranches for such installation. The cameras came from the Arizona Game & Fish Department, which is a partner on the binational project.

Shandira Romero of the Sonoran Ecology and Sustainable Development Commission secures a game camera to a tree. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

Unlike Arizona and much of the American West, where states or the federal government control most land, almost all of Sonora is privately owned. That means buy-in from ranchers and other landowners is critical for monitoring large species. Without game cameras, such monitoring can be time intensive and less effective.

“With the support of landowners,” de Leon said, “we haven’t had any obstacles when we wanted to enter the properties and work on these types of projects. Because we talked to them about the benefits that they can have.”
For Luciano Leon, owner of Las Aguilas, those benefits were obvious.

“I like wildlife, biodiversity,” he said.”And (the cameras) are the only way to know what we have on the ranch, to use it in the best way, not in a predatory fashion.”

He also hopes to eventually be allowed to conduct big-game hunts on the property, and the game cameras will help him establish that populations of certain species are high enough to do so.

Cyntha Soria, a biologist for Arizona Game & Fish who accompanied her Mexican counterparts to several installation sites, noted that the territories of many species span the border. Having access to game cameras in both Arizona and Sonora could help her agency better understand those animals.

“That data is going to benefit all of us,” she said. “It’s going to benefit the owners, the land owners, as well as the state of Sonora and the state of Arizona as well.”

The recent installations are by no means the only game-camera systems in Sonora. A number of border ranches have allowed researchers and nonprofits to set up camera traps. David Hodges has been involved in efforts to conserve borderlands species for many years. He applauds the recent installations.

“Just because there’s already a lot of cameras out there doesn’t mean we can’t learn more,” Hodges said.

Back at Las Aguilas, Soria and her colleague, Shandira Romero of the Sonoran ecology commission, are putting the final touches on the last game cam of the day.

Getting the correct angle took a bit, but they eventually got it pointed the right direction. After gathering up all their gear, Romero smudged some dirt on the camera, to cover up its color and smell.

“The animals can be mischievous,” Romero said. “And new smells and colors get their attention.”

The binational team then walked back to their waiting truck, leaving the camera to quietly document any animals that cross its path for months to come.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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