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Conserving Arizona's Resident Jaguars
by Marit Alanen
Photo Credit: Colin Burnett, Wikimedia Commons
On November 19, 2011, in a rugged mountain range just southeast of Tucson, Arizona, a local mountain lion hunter gazed in awe at the animal his dogs had treed. With its golden coat adorned with dark, distinctive spots, there was no mistaking the large creature perched high in the old mesquite tree—it was a jaguar (Panthera onca). The hunter snapped some photos to help officials identify the animal before calling off his dogs and leaving the area to observe it from a safe distance.
Although rare, events like this confirm that the elusive jaguar – the largest wild cat in the Western Hemisphere – still roams the desert Southwest. At least five individual jaguars have been observed in southern Arizona and New Mexico over the past 20 years. In 1996, within a six-month timeframe, two local hunters treed two different jaguars in separate mountain ranges in the Grand Canyon State. One of these jaguars, along with yet another male jaguar, was photographed in a third, adjacent mountain range from 2001 to 2009. Still another jaguar was photographed in New Mexico in 2006.
These magnificent animals once ranged into the U.S., from California to Texas, and possibly as far east as Louisiana. But the jaguar was pushed out of its habitat as the West was settled in the 1800s, and farming and ranching activities overtook the landscape. Predators, including jaguars, were seen as threats to livestock, and focused efforts were made by local, state, and federal agencies to control them. In fact, the Bureau of Biological Survey – which became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in 1940 – was responsible for controlling predators, in addition to studying birds and mammals, managing the nation’s first wildlife refuges, enforcing wildlife laws, and conserving dwindling populations of migratory birds. In 1913, bounties of up to $5 per jaguar (roughly $123 today) could be collected in some states.
Photo Credit: USFWS
In 1972, the jaguar was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, a precursor to today’s Endangered Species Act. Since predator control programs had been so effective at ridding the jaguar from the U.S. landscape, the species was only included on the list of foreign endangered species and therefore not given any federal protection in the U.S. It remained this way for nearly three decades until 1997 – a year after the two separate jaguar sightings in southern Arizona – when the Service extended the endangered status of jaguars throughout its range, including the southwestern U.S.
Today, jaguars are found in 19 countries, from the rugged mountain ranges of the southwestern U.S., through the swampy savannas or tropical rainforests in Brazil and Belize, to the dry forests in Argentina. These cats feast on a variety of creatures, including peccaries, capybaras, pacas, agoutis, deer, opossum , rabbits, armadillos, caimans, and even green sea turtles, for which they rely on their powerful jaws to crack through turtles’ skulls and shells. Jaguars are the only “big cat” in the Americas, meaning they are the only native species that can actually roar. Their spots (called rosettes because of their flower-like pattern) are like fingerprints to humans—each pattern is unique to an individual jaguar. They tend to be solitary and territorial, coming together only to breed.
Rangewide, the major threats to jaguars are habitat loss and illegal killing. Most habitat loss has occurred in the southern U.S., northeastern Mexico, northern Brazil, and southern Argentina. Deforestation rates in Latin America are especially high, and the clearing of timber and brush has caused jaguar habitat to become severely fragmented. Lack of cover also leaves jaguars exposed and vulnerable to human persecution. Ranchers often see jaguars as pests that prey on cattle and other livestock. Additionally, people compete with jaguars for prey, and so jaguars are frequently shot on sight, despite protective laws being in place. In some cases, jaguars are sold as trophies or for their fur or teeth. Ultimately, to recover the species, habitat must be protected and connected and the illegal killing of jaguars must be eliminated or at least reduced.
Photo Credit: USFWS
A number of countries throughout the jaguar’s range are taking measures to conserve the species and its habitat. The Service is working to address the primary threats facing the jaguar by collaborating with the bi-national (U.S. and Mexico) Jaguar Recovery Team to develop a recovery plan. The focus of the species’ recovery plan is on the Northwestern Recovery Unit, which includes portions of Arizona and New Mexico in the U.S., and parts of Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima in Mexico. With funding support from the Department of Homeland Security, the Service is implementing a number of projects to benefit the species and contribute to the recovery of jaguars in this unit. Projects range from a detailed study of the genetics of jaguars in the northernmost part of their range, to determining locations for road crossing structures to reconnect fragmented habitat, to installing wildlife cameras in 16 mountain ranges throughout southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico as part of a jaguar survey and monitoring project. There are also projects underway to investigate public sentiment toward jaguars. Many residents in both states take pride in this piece of their natural heritage, and there has been ample interest in a citizen science program where private citizens are trained to help monitor trail cameras and document the presence of the species. Scientists are now determining whether the development of a “Payment for Ecosystem Services” program would further engage citizens and private landowners and promote jaguar conservation in the U.S. borderlands region.
Biologists are pleased to report the jaguar that was first spotted in November 2011 remains in Arizona’s wilderness—his journey throughout a southeastern mountain range is well documented, with more than 100 images captured by trail cameras. The extended presence of this jaguar is an encouraging sign that conservation is improving conditions for the species in the Southwest, and it brings hope that jaguars will repopulate places where they've disappeared, adding their footprints to the landscape and their presence to the biodiversity of the Americas.
Marit Alanen, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service’s Arizona Ecological Services Sub-office located in Tucson, can be reached at email@example.com or 520-670-6150, ext. 234.
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