The Comeback Cat
Jaguars have critical habitat set aside for them in the Southwest. But is it enough for the predator to recover?
Jaguars are returning to a portion of their historic range in the southwestern United States, having surmounted numerous obstacles along the increasingly militarized US-Mexico border. Yet whether this mysterious carnivore will be able to make a full comeback is in doubt as the animal faces continued hostility from many humans.
Photo by Eric Kilby
In March — under a court order prompted by lawsuits and petitions from conservation organizations — the United States Fish and Wildlife Service designated 760,000 acres (or 1,164 square miles) of remote backcountry in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” to allow for the jaguar to expand from its population center in northern Mexico.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest cat in the world after lions and tigers, recognizable by its golden coat speckled with black rosettes and its impressive roar. The animal once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon and as far west as Southern California, but was extirpated from the US in the early twentieth century after cattle ranchers appealed to the US Biological Survey (the precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service) to eliminate the predator, considered a threat to livestock. Much like the wolf, the jaguar was hunted until none were left.
Reports of the jaguar’s return to the United States began in 1996, when two separate cougar hunters reported seeing a jaguar in two different mountain ranges in southern Arizona. A year later, in 1997, the jaguar was officially listed as an endangered species after years of petitioning by Tony Povilitis, a conservationist associated with a group called Life Net Nature. Between 2004 and 2007, researchers at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona spotted leopards on three occasions.
Povilitis and other conservationists believe that the USFWS has not gone far enough to recover a species that was hunted by the agency’s own precursor in what Povilitis calls “the great kill off.” He says the recovery plan should include all of the jaguar’s former range, including north of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, an area with plenty of what jaguars require for survival: water, prey, and cover. The current habitat designation stops at Interstate 10, which fails to allow for connectivity across the landscape.
Michael Robinson, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, agrees. He says the current habitat areas fails to provide a “scientific roadmap for ensuring that the jaguar population recovers sufficiently to allow the [government] to eventually delist the cat in the US, as stipulated by the [Endangered Species Act].” Robinson describes the USFWS’ current species recovery plans as “a minimalistic, unambitious approach.”
Polivitis and Robinson say the narrow range won’t be able to ensure the jaguar’s long-term survival as the climate changes and human activities alter the landscape. Povilitis points out that the conservation strategy the FWS is developing “merely seeks long-term survival of the jaguar within its northern range, which is almost entirely in Mexico.”
“They [the federal agencies] need to look at biological corridors and habitat linkages, this should be a priority,” Povilitis said. “This is more bureaucratic fancy footwork to get out of the responsibility to recover an endangered wildlife, an endangered spotted cat.”
The USFWS concentrated its efforts close to the Mexican border to ensure connectivity from its core population 130 miles to the south while considering the biological and physical features of the landscape suitable for jaguars, without consideration of restoration of the jaguar’s historic range.
When determining where to draw the lines for the designation, the FWS only considered verifiable accounts of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico that go back to 1972, when the jaguar was listed as an “internationally imperiled species” under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the precursor to the Endangered Species Act.
Political factors might have been at play in the USFWS’ decision not to designate a larger range. The Arizona Department of Fish & Game opposed the critical habitat designation, alleging that the state has insufficient habitat suitable for the jaguar. It also says the designation is not based on sound science.
The Arizona wildlife authorities also played a role in the 2009 capture and eventual euthanization of Macho B, a male jaguar that was lured into a snare using female scat collected from a captive jaguar in estrus. The team that caught the cat took samples and snapped a radio collar around its neck, subjecting the animal to considerable stress that led to kidney failure.
Researchers at the University of Arizona are trying to monitor jaguar locations and movements with 240 paired cameras positioned in the same remote areas used by mountain lions, bear, and drug smugglers. USFWS and the Department of Homeland Security are funding the $800,000 research project. The researchers say no more jaguars will be trapped for the sake of outfitting them with radio collars.
Povilitis said there’s already a lot known about the jaguar and its range. He argues that a better use of limited private and government would be to invest in the “human dimensions” to find ways to reduce the widespread fear of predators.
“We have to look at what’s happening on the ground,” he says. “Housing developments, mines, more road construction. There’s a gauntlet of highways and poaching. We have to look at the cumulative effects of a climatically challenged world. What do we mean by recovery of jaguar in the US?”