Radio-collared Ringtail Is a First for Idaho Science

2014-04-06T11:45:00Z Radio-collared Ringtail Is a First for Idaho ScienceBy Virginia Hutchins Twin Falls Times-News

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.

Copyright 2015 Twin Falls Times-News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. TrappeR
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    TrappeR - April 14, 2014 8:06 pm
    I can understand the skepticism associated with the recent ringtail in southern Idaho. But in fact, ringtails are not new to Idaho and are a native species. Albeit rare, there are records going back to the 1960s. While ringtails are commonly thought of as desert species associated with steep rocky terrain, they occur in many different habitat types including forests, such as those found in southern Idaho. With southern Idaho being the northern extent of their range (with the exception of Oregon, where they occur further north in primarily forest habitat), they would be expected to occur in relatively low abundance. This, combined with the fact that they are nocturnal and highly elusive (even where they occur in high abundance, they are rarely seen), would make detections of ringtails rare, at best. Habitat models for ringtails developed for the southwest predict southern Idaho as suitable habitat (see Southwest Regional Gap analysis map at and some older range maps include south-central Idaho near the border with Utah and Nevada, as well as the southeast corner of Idaho and some of Wyoming. Ringtails are not threatened anywhere across their range and ringtail pelts are not highly desired by trappers.
  2. Falcon
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    Falcon - April 14, 2014 5:48 pm
    Can't agree with freetrapper more. There should be a hearing now!

    I'm getting pretty tired of agencies closing public land to protect some stupid animal under the auspices -- not Science -- of some perceived threat.

    Now, IDFG just released a non-native animal into the South Hills. How long until that animal "warrants" a land closure because it is "threatened with extinction" in Idaho?
  3. freetrapper
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    freetrapper - April 14, 2014 5:33 pm
    Since we don't legitimately have a population of ringtails in Idaho, can I make the assumption that IDFG just arbitrarily released another non-native species into the Idaho wilderness without so much as a single hearing on the "project"?

  4. Virginia Hutchins Staff
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    Virginia Hutchins - April 05, 2014 8:24 am
    Hawk's view, call Ross Winton at the Jerome office of Fish and Game.
  5. Hawk's view
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    Hawk's view - April 05, 2014 8:16 am
    For those of us with 'odd' tracks in historical areas of possible occupation, who do we contact?

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