Another Jaguar Makes a Run for the U.S. Border

A wildlife camera in Arizona captured a photo of only the second jaguar known to be roaming the U.S.
The jaguar photographed by a camera trap on Dec. 1. (Photo: Courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department)
Dec 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Move over, El Jefe. There’s a new cat in town.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that a male jaguar was spotted on Dec. 1 by a camera trap in Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains. It was the second sighting of a jaguar in the past year, something that could have an impact on recovery efforts for the endangered species.

The other jaguar, also a male, nicknamed El Jefe, first appeared in Arizona in 2011 and has been photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Until now, El Jefe was thought to be the only jaguar living in the United States.

Wildlife officials believe the jaguar is new to the area, and not one of four other jaguars that have been spotted on the U.S. side of the border since the 1990s. Most of the jaguar population is clustered in a reserve about 120 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico, although its range reaches north into Arizona and New Mexico and once covered most of the Southwest.

“Based on our photo analysis of the spotting patterns, it’s likely a new individual, but we’d like confirmation from other experts,” said Mark Hart, a spokesperson for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“It’s important to be cautious on this, because this is an important issue in southeast Arizona for a variety of constituencies, from the environmental community to the ranching community,” he said.

The sighting’s significance “depends on who you talk to,” Hart said. “From our standpoint, it’s exciting but not surprising. We know that every five years or so a male comes up from Sonora and roams around Arizona. This is the sixth jaguar in recent history since the 1990s.”

Rob Peters, senior southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the new sighting could affect efforts to increase the jaguar population in the United States and protect its critical habitat.

“What it tells us is that we’ve got good habitat here for jaguars,” Peters said. “It means that conservation efforts in Sonora, notably by the Northern Jaguar Reserve and its partners, are paying off in conserving that population enough so that some excess jaguars are coming up here.”

“A jaguar can set up housekeeping and survive for years in the United States," he added. "We know this from El Jefe and also from Macho B,” a male that had been spotted in the area for 13 years until 2009, when he was snared by state wildlife officials, tranquilized, and fitted with a tracking collar. Within two weeks, Macho B developed kidney failure and was euthanized.

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Peters said the borderlands are teeming with white-tailed deer, pig-like peccaries, and other jaguar prey. “If the U.S. is truly willing to support their recovery, I think they’ve got a good future,” he said.

But the future for U.S. jaguars—despite excitement over the new arrival—remains in question.

First, there is border fencing. Some 600 miles of physical barriers block wildlife migration between the two countries, including at least half of potential jaguar crossing areas, according to the Jaguar Habitat Campaign.

Donald Trump’s proposed border wall would make the crossing nearly impossible, environmentalists say.

Other challenges include a proposed power transmission project that would cut through jaguar movement corridors and a proposed copper mine in prime jaguar habitat.

Meanwhile, areas set aside for jaguar conservation are under threat.

In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated nearly 1,200 square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border as critical jaguar habitat. But livestock and agricultural interests in New Mexico are fighting that decision in federal court, calling it “unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious.”

Mike Senatore, vice president for conservation law at Defenders of Wildlife, an intervener in the case, said he was concerned that the incoming Trump administration might try to settle the lawsuit. The new sighting will have no bearing on the case, he said.

But it could affect a new draft jaguar recovery plan that should be issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service later this month, Peters said.

“I think the identification of this new jaguar underscores that jaguars can survive well and want to reestablish habitat here,” he said. “We’re hoping that the draft recovery plan lays out a realistic path toward true recovery, meaning a viable reproducing population here in the U.S.”

Fish and Wildlife officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department, which opposed the federal critical habitat, apparently does not consider jaguar recovery a top priority.

The department’s Hart noted that no female jaguars have been sighted in the United States for decades. “No breeding is going on,” he said. “We don’t feel that southeast Arizona is critical to recovery of the species. We feel those efforts should be focused on Mexico, where breeding occurs.”

One option, translocating females across the border, is highly controversial, especially given what happened to Macho B.

As for El Jefe, he has not been spotted for many months. It’s possible he has evaded cameras, or he could have returned to Mexico.

“Maybe he got tired of looking for females up here,” Peters said.