TWIN FALLS, Idaho • A ringtail wearing a makeshift radio collar is on the move in the South Hills, giving biologists new insight into the elusive species’ range and travel corridors.
Trapped alive in a warehouse on the south side of Twin Falls on March 21, the female was the first Bassariscus astutus that southern Idaho scientists had alive in hand, said Ross Winton, a regional wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Released the next morning near Rock Creek in the South Hills, the ringtail ignored the open door of her cage for a few moments, barking, then dashed into the brush and disappeared. Her radio signal indicated that she moved a little more than seven miles in the next three days and gained 1,500 feet in elevation, moving up into the snow.
“For a 2-pound animal, it’s cruising pretty well,” Winton said.
The Elusive Ringtail
This tiny carnivore with big ears, pointed nose, long tail and striking facial markings is also called a “ring-tailed cat” but isn’t a cat at all. A member of the raccoon family, it eats rodents, birds, berries and insects and inhabits the rocky deserts of the Southwest and Mexico.
But the species can persist in an array of habitats, and its range runs north into the forests of southern Oregon, said Rob Lonsinger, a doctoral student at the University of Idaho.
In southern Idaho, sightings aren’t plentiful enough to draw conclusions.
“We have no idea what the population is,” Winton said. Whether abundant here or not, ringtails are “uncommonly encountered.”
They’re small, they’re nocturnal, and they spend the day in a den.
“Chances of people seeing them are very slim,” Lonsinger said.
The first Idaho documentation: a single ringtail specimen recorded in southeast Idaho in 1967. Then a ringtail carcass was discovered just outside Castle Rocks State Park in 2003, tracks believed to be ringtail were spotted in 2005, and a ringtail observation was reported in City of Rocks National Reserve in 2006, said a 2012 report published by Lonsinger, then a Fish and Game biologist.
Lonsinger did genetic work on Southwest ringtails for his master’s degree, and when he arrived in Idaho in 2010 he was intrigued by the lack of data here.
His report summarizes the results of 2011-12 camera trapping surveys at City of Rocks and Castle Rocks, meant to investigate the potential presence of ringtails. Remote cameras in 30 locations, scent baited with sardines, detected 30 species including 12 carnivorous mammals — but no ringtails.
Behind the front desk of Fish and Game’s Jerome office is a mounted male ringtail — much larger than the female captured alive last month — that was killed in a trap set for another animal in the Malta-area hills a couple of years ago. Fish and Game has heard reports of sightings in the Almo-Elba area, near Kimberly and around Rock Creek, said Kelton Hatch, regional conservation educator for Fish and Game.
Hoping for Data
So how did a female ringtail end up in the Gem State Paper & Supply warehouse last month? Winton’s guess is that it followed nearby Rock Creek.
He worried that the female might have been trying to move her young, but a visit to a local veterinarian confirmed the ringtail wasn’t lactating.
Moving quickly to avoid prolonging the ringtail’s captivity, Winton tracked down an old skunk collar from a Pocatello wildlife manager. The collar’s radio transmitter was out of juice, so he hacked it off and with epoxy added a radio transmitter from a used sage grouse collar. While the animal lay tranquilized on a veterinary table, Winton improvised a fit for his first ringtail collar.
Since the release, he’s made two excursions into the South Hills to track the radio signal, and he’ll continue to track the ringtail’s movements.
If the transmitter lasts until this time next year and the ringtail successfully breeds, Idaho biologists could learn something about the species’ preferred den habitat here.
“It was a huge perk that we got a female,” Winton said.
Lonsinger hopes eventually to determine whether southern Idaho has a longstanding ringtail population that has gone undetected, or a population that’s moving north from Nevada or Utah, or only individuals dispersing north to find mates. The latter of the three possibilities seems to him the least likely.
He intends to start a ringtail DNA database to determine whether Idaho’s ringtails are connected with populations in Utah or Nevada. So far, the collection of hair samples consists of two: one from the mounted male in the Fish and Game office, and one from the radio-collared female that’s exploring the South Hills.