SOUTHERN ARIZONA CRITTERS
Fires on Mt. Lemmon have destroyed a lot of habitat, and we’ll be experiencing some unusual animal behavior until things get back in balance. Read on to find out more about animals that you may encounter while enjoying Southern Arizona’s outdoors.
We are more likely to encounter mountain lions that are hungry, and if we’re not aware and careful, could become a meal for them. Lions have become a concern at Sabino Canyon a popular visitor spot in the urban fringe; there have been several sightings there, and the USFS could restrict or close access. Other areas bordering and on the mountain — Chiva, Bellota, Milagrosa, 50-Year, Oracle trails, Bobby — are also possible lion problem areas. But you could encounter a lion almost any place where we have trails here, so assume you are in lion country wherever you ride.
Realistically, the odds of encountering a mountain lion and being attacked are considerably less than getting killed as we drive to the trailhead. But as long as the possibility exists, it can’t hurt to take some precautions. Below are a few suggestions for avoiding becoming one of the few people attacked by a mountain lion.
- Don’t ride alone. The lower trails in the Golder Ranch area and Fantasy Island are probably pretty safe, but otherwise you should have a companion.
- Dawn, dusk and evening hours are prime activity times for lions, so avoid riding or be extra cautious then.
- Do not approach a lion! Back away slowly, and watch for signs that it may attack. (Often these are similar to their domestic distant cousin, your house cat.)
- Do not run from a lion; that is acting like prey, and an invitation to chase. Even if you are a track star you will lose the race.
- Do not bend over or crouch down. The mountain biker who was killed in Southern California, who was riding alone, was believed to be fixing a chain at the time of his attack.
- Make yourself appear larger by opening a jacket, raising your arms, or picking up your bike, and speak loudly and slowly.
- Throw rocks or sticks to discourage predatory behavior. If attacked, fight back with whatever is at hand and try to protect your head and neck. Use your bike as a weapon/barrier.
If you are out on the trails during “snake season” – roughly April through October, but warmer or colder temperatures can affect their movement – you have a good chance of seeing a rattlesnake.
Give them room and don’t mess with them and you should have no problem. For the most part, the rattlesnakes in Southern Arizona are defensive, not aggressive, and won’t strike unless provoked. Most snakebites are from people messing with them, usually men under age 25 who have been drinking.
On a bike it’s particularly hard to get bitten unless you fall and land on one. Off the bike, watch where you put your feet. Being alert and aware is necessary in the desert backcountry just as it is in any other backcountry environment. Rattlesnakes are more active in the evening and morning hours when temperatures are warmest, but in spring or fall they may be more active during the day. Again, it’s temperature- driven.
If you are really unlucky and do get bitten, forget all those old snakebite treatments; often, people do themselves more harm from the treatment than the snake does with the bite. The current medical advice is to get to an emergency room. And remember, not every snake bite transfers venom. You can be bitten and have no poison in your system.
Scorpions are nocturnal or diurnal, predatory animals that feed on a variety of insects, spiders, centipedes, and other scorpions. The larger scorpions occasionally feed on vertebrates, such as small lizards, snakes, and mice. As with most arthropods their activity is linked to temperature. Generally speaking, scorpions are active if nighttime temperatures are above 70-degrees F. They tend to be less active during winter and the hottest part of the summer during daylight hours. Only a few species of scorpions in Southern Arizona have a poisonous sting, and for a healthy adult the sting is painful but not life threatening. Common to Southern Arizona are the Stripe-Tailed Scorpion, Arizona Bark Scorpion, and the Desert Hairy Scorpion.
Tarantulas will emerge during the summer here in Tucson. The tarantulas here spend most of their time in underground burrows, but during the summer, the males emerge after dark to look for females. While some species of tarantula are very docile and make nice pets for anyone really wanting a pet spider, tarantulas are not without some formidable defenses. They have special, loosely-attached, highly irritating, urticating hairs on the top of the abdomen which they will brush with their legs if threatened. This causes a small, fine cloud of these hairs to be released, which can cause severe irritation to the mucous membranes of any mammal with it’s face very close to the tarantula. Tarantulas also have large fangs, and their bites can be quite painful, but not dangerous as the tarantulas here in Arizona are only mildly venomous. Luckily, tarantulas are not aggressive to humans and will only bite if handled improperly.
The Gila Monster is a stout-bodied lizard that grows 18 to 24 inches in length. It has black, orange, pink or yellow broken blotches, bars and spots, with bands extending onto its blunt tail. Its face is black, and it has small, bead-like scales across its back. It is named for the Gila River Basin of the southwestern United States. They are shy and retiring, only get above ground a couple of weeks a year, and bites are rare. The good news about a Gila monster bite is it takes time for them to work the poison in. The bad news is that once they latch on it’s hard to make them let go. As with any wildlife, enjoy observing them from a safe distance and you should have no problems.
You may encounter larger critters, such as the javelina, a pig-like animal (but not a pig; it’s a collared peccary). Peccaries have large heads and long snouts with thick coats of dark-gray, bristly hair and band of white hair (collar) around the neck. A mane of long, stiff hairs runs down the back from head to rump, where scent gland is located. Peccaries are not dangerous when left alone but an entire band can attack if one is wounded or pursued. Speedy and agile, they can drive off dogs, Coyotes and Bobcats. Javelina are slow-moving, casual animals unless frightened or threatened.
Black bears can be encountered in the higher mountains, so be aware. Other large animals that may be seen are bighorn sheep (extremely rare) and antelope.