A True Bear Wallow

By Franklin Lane and Deborah Huie

One of the most overlooked sky islands in the Pimería Alta is the Whetstones. While many people have visited Kartchner Caverns on the eastern slopes few have explored beyond that. Just south of the entrance to Kartchner is an unimproved road leading into French Joe Canyon. There is a small sign out on Highway 90. You’ll need high clearance and either Four or All-Wheel drive but it’s worth the effort. The road ends at the mouth of the canyon and there is some terrific dispersed camping among the oaks. No facilities! A hiking trail takes you further into this secluded canyon and, with a little bushwhacking, all the way to Apache Peak. This is the highest point in the Whetstones at 7,714 feet. It’s about 12.5 miles round trip. The Spanish called this range the Sierra del Babocomari, an Opata word that still describes a river to the south of the range that is a tributary to the San Pedro. Starting in the mid nineteenth century the name ‘Whetstone’ started appearing on maps. Supposedly because of deposits of a very hard, fine-grained rock (Novaculite) that could be used for honing knives etc.

A sign post stands in front of an open field of grass. The sign reads, "Hunting Closure. No prairie dog hunting. Black-tailed prairie dog reintroduction area."

Deborah Huie, Cohort 1 (all photo credits), and I have been volunteering together with the University of Arizona Spotted Cat program since 2015. We’ve retrieved film from trail cameras in the Santa Ritas, the Huachucas, and now are monitoring the Whetstones for jaguar and ocelot. We have a camera along the western slope that requires about an hour 4-wheel drive to approach and then a short hike. The drive passes through a very cool black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) restoration site located on the historic Sands Ranch.

The approach road and hike itself offer some spectacular scenery of the high grasslands to the west toward Sonoita and south toward the Mustang Mountains. On Saturday, October 2, we checked our cameras for the first time since June. Those fabulous rains of the 2021 Monsoons have completely transformed the area. It is more stunning than ever.

In June, before the monsoon rains, a spring that we monitor was dominated by cattle. Apparently it was the only water around. Since the rains the cattle obviously drink elsewhere and we didn’t have any on this film. Humorously, the SD card this time was about 80% pictures of three distinct black bear individuals, (Ursus americanus) wallowing in the spring throughout the hot days. Although, as you can see, only one of them was actually black. We also had one good mountain lion shot which tells us its suitable habitat for other cats.

Feel free to contact the authors if you’re interested in more details about exploring this part of Southern Arizona.

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