I am standing next to a tranquil, spring-fed pool in northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountain range. Lush grasses sway below a cliff glistening with life-giving liquid. In a nearby tree, two elegant trogons – gorgeous subtropical birds adorned in white, red, and green – settle down for the night. We’ve convened at the only reliable water source for miles around.
Jaguars have been here, too. These big, rosette-splashed cats have stood precisely where I’m standing. I’ve seen their pictures, taken by motion-activated cameras that monitor wildlife drawn to this shady oasis. Yet despite immediate appearances, I am far from any jungle. Indeed, cacti, mesquite, and rocks dominate the hardscrabble brown landscape beyond this incongruous splash of green. I’m in a hot, arid mountain range that has vastly more in common with desert than rainforest.
So why am I here? Because this is where the infinitesimal population of US jaguars almost certainly comes from – and if they stop breeding in this corner of the Sierra Madre the species will likely lose its precarious Southwest foothold forever. I’ve been writing about jaguars for over 20 years, following their saucer-sized paw prints from US borderlands south to Panama’s Darien Gap. On this balmy evening my journey has taken me deep into the Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona and New Mexico.
The presence of jaguars in the United States would likely surprise most Americans, who may reasonably assume that Panthera onca, the biggest felid species in the Western hemisphere, is exclusively a jungle critter. While it’s true that most of the estimated 15,000 remaining jaguars are, indeed, found in the Amazon and other tropic zones, they also have been part of the natural order in the US since long before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. The majestic cat is a holdover from the millennia when it and other megafauna – including now-extinct mastodons and giant sloths – roamed a cooler, wetter, and largely human-free North America. Smaller than its ancestors, modern jaguars nevertheless rank among grizzly bears, mountain lions, and timber wolves as the New World’s most formidable predators.
Except they are no match for the wiliest predators of all: humans. Over the past two centuries, jaguars have been eliminated from more than half of their historic range, which spans the US Southwest and Central and South America. Today, they are listed as “near-threatened” on the IUCN Red List.
In Teddy Roosevelt’s day jaguars roamed across most of Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon, into southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, and over the Río Grande into the Big Bend of Texas. But about a hundred years ago, US jaguars were targeted for extermination as part of a government-sponsored program of livestock-predator removal. Bounty hunters were paid to eliminate all large carnivores, including wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions, another of the four so-called “big cat” species. The grizzlies and wolves were wiped out – though wolves have been reintroduced, they are struggling to gain a foothold here. But mountain lions and a few jaguars survived.
This northernmost jaguar is so rare and so secretive that almost no one ever sees one. During the past 136 years, fewer than one hundred jaguar sightings have been confirmed in the US, virtually all in the Southwest and most by trophy hunters accompanied by scent-trained dogs. For decades, jaguars were thought to be extinct in the US, but in 1996 two of these cats were treed by hunters’ dogs. Since then, a total of five individuals have been verified: two in southwestern New Mexico and three in southeastern Arizona. A sixth was spotted just across the border in Sonora.
Donnie Fenn is one of the lucky few who has seen a jaguar. An Arizona hunting guide specializing in mountain lions, Fenn was on a mountain lion hunt hike five years ago with his 10-year-old daughter and an adult pal when his trained hounds got a whiff of a large feline. Chasing the baying canines, Fenn was surprised to see them tree an adult male jaguar, which soon bolted. The chase was on. After pausing to call state game officials, Fenn mounted a mule and followed his dogs to a second tree, where he took numerous photos and a video of the “snarling and roaring” black-spotted gold cat before it again escaped. Later, at a news conference, Fenn marveled at “the sheer aggressiveness” of the animal and “the power it had.” It was, the outdoorsman said, “unreal.”
Historically, the jaguar is as at home in the Southwest as the roadrunner and saguaro.
The jaguar – nicknamed El Jefe (The Boss) by Tucson school children – is still around. Since he wandered a bit farther west from the Whetstone Mountains to the Santa Rita range a few years ago, research cameras have photographed El Jefe often an hour’s drive south of Tucson. A 41-second compilation of video clips became an overnight media sensation last February – played over 22 million times – following its promotion by environmentalists advocating for US jaguar conservation.
“We’re trying to preserve habitat for this cat,” explains Chris Bugbee, a biologist for Conservation CATalyst, the Arizona nonprofit that, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, released the El Jefe video in February. Bugbee correctly points out that, historically, the jaguar is as at home in the Southwest as the roadrunner and saguaro cactus. “It’s entirely possible that other jaguars may be here [in the Southwest currently].”
Jessica Moreno, a biologist with the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, another conservation group that closely monitors the region’s wildlife, contends that it is “very, very likely” that other unseen jaguars live on both sides of the border. She notes that at least one jaguar has been documented along the frontier every year since 1996. “It’s amazing that they show up here at all,” she allows, “but they do.”
Jaguars have survived in large part because they are exceptionally cautious, adaptable, intelligent, and solitary. Active mostly at night, they try to avoid humans, and can thrive in hot deserts and cool pine forests as well as rainforests and swamps.
El Jefe is no exception. His territory lies about 40 miles from Tucson, a metropolitan area of a million people, yet no one claims to have laid eyes on him since Fenn’s November 2011 sighting. Within these federally protected mountains, El Jefe feeds on deer, peccary, and smaller mammals; drinks from perennial streams; and sleeps undisturbed in nooks, caves, and crannies. He seems to have everything he needs.
Except for a mate. And therein lies the predicament of US jaguars.
photo by J. N. Stuart
No wild female jaguar has been confirmed in the US since 1963, when a hunter killed one near Alpine, Arizona. The apparent absence of a breeding population reinforces conjecture that all jaguars found north of the border since the Kennedy years were born in Mexico and moved north. (Like their mountain lion cousins, adult male jaguars are loners who prefer non-overlapping territories. Females are solitary, too, but don’t roam as far.)
“Until females are present,” Arizona State University biologist David E. Brown told me in an email, “jaguars in the US are at a dead end.” Brown, who co-authored Borderland Jaguars with Mexican biologist Carlos López González, believes south-of-the-border males “wander” from their birthplaces in part because they are searching for eligible females. “Not finding one, they keep going, [with] some of the animals entering the US.”
Can US jaguars recover from the decimation they suffered in the early twentieth century? The question is subject to fierce debate, as is the issue of what protections this charismatic “apex” predator might need from such threats as open-pit copper mines, the powerful cattle industry, and habitat fragmentation, which is probably one of the greatest barriers to jaguar recovery given that these territorial animals need large swaths of land to thrive.
Experts who wish to see jaguars return to the US agree that saving the northernmost jaguars means protecting and expanding the small breeding population of these cats that persists in Sonora’s Sierra Madre Occidental, a jagged spine running north to south from the international border. It is from this redoubt – about 125 miles from where Sonora, Chihuahua, Arizona, and New Mexico intersect – that El Jefe and his ilk almost certainly derive, and where I spent part of last February trying to understand what these wandering outliers are up against.
“This is the ecological heart of the northern jaguar population,” according to the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP), the nonprofit group working hardest to save prime Sonoran habitat. Since its 2003 founding, the Tucson-based NJP has documented more than 50 individual jaguars in an area where experts believe as many as 120 jaguars may remain.
Operating in partnership with the Mexican conservation organization Naturalia, NJP has established an 86-square-mile reserve in Sonora for the protection and study of jaguars. This protected area is believed to be critical for the animal’s survival in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern US because the Sonoran jaguar population, too, is seriously threatened by habitat loss, reduced prey populations, and hunting. (Although killing a jaguar in Mexico is illegal and punishable by fines or jail time, poaching and retaliatory killings by ranchers are seldom reported or prosecuted.)
The NJP addresses the issue of rancher-jaguar conflict head-on – and creatively. Recognizing that financial damages caused by the loss of livestock to jaguars is a concern (real or imagined) that dates back generations, its innovative approach is a model of community-oriented conservation. Such outreach and collaboration are essential to the group’s mission, since Sierra Madre residents have traditionally held negative attitudes toward jaguars and mountain lions. As in the US, a deliberate extermination campaign wiped out the last grizzly bears and wolves from the area decades ago.
Most importantly, NJP contracts with a dozen large ranches to pay for any camera-trap photos taken on these lands of jaguars, as well as mountain lions, bobcats, and ocelots. Dubbed Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Felines), the 55,000-acre effort involves placement of dozens of motion-activated cameras on these properties, which are monitored monthly by NJP’s “jaguar guardians” and scientists for evidence of cats and their prey.
“We understand that the local economy is based on cattle,” explains Javier Valenzuela Amarillas, a Sonora native and one of the NJP employees who checks cameras. “We respect that, and try to help ranchers and wildlife coexist.” Besides supplementing rancher income with cash (around $270 per jaguar photo), Viviendo con Felinos guardians suggest ways to minimize big cat depredation, such as keeping cattle away from areas frequented by jaguars and mountain lions. In addition, the NJP helps ranchers obtain Mexican government insurance policies that compensate cattle owners for proven livestock losses to jaguars.
As a result of these cooperative efforts, visiting Mexican biologist Miguel Gómez Ramírez told me, “the population of cats here is healthy and there are plenty of prey animals” for jaguars. Ramírez has monitored wildlife on the reserve since 2008. This part of the Sierra Madre boasts an unusual overlap of animals at the geographic edge of their ranges, including black bears and bobcats from the north plus military macaws and neotropical river otters from the south.
I am struck at how inhospitable this environment appears at first glance – and how dissimilar it is from the more southerly jaguar’s habitat. During the last days of a dry February, the desiccated hills are matted with thornscrub, an impenetrable maze of spiky trees, tangled brush, and prickly cacti. The few narrow roads are essentially equestrian trails, barely wide enough for a high-clearance vehicle to scrape through. Indeed, horses are the main mode of transport for those who tend cattle on the vast Sierra ranchos, which sometimes exceed 5,000 acres in size. Yet so elusive are resident jaguars that in the course of a lifetime a vaquero may encounter a single tigre – as the cats are known locally – or none at all.
“I’ve never seen one,” admits Adalberto Ezrré, former owner of the ranch where the jaguar-frequented spring is located. Now in his eighties, Ezrré sold his ranch to the Northern Jaguar Project last year and is pleased to support its mission.
Easy to overlook in the Sierra are steep, narrow canyons shaded by tall palm, oak, cottonwood, and sycamore trees. Perennial streams fed by summer monsoon rains deliver enough water to support a surprising variety of living things. One of Mexico’s last undammed rivers, the Aros, flows freely through these mountains, intersecting with the equally large Bavispe and Yaqui rivers. Without these waterways, the area’s large mammals would probably disappear. Underscoring this reality, Ramírez and I found mountain lion tracks in the soft sand of a Río Aros beach where jaguars and smaller cats often come to stalk thirsty prey.
Carmina Gutiérrez González, a fellow biologist who works with Ramírez at the reserve, expresses cautious optimism about the project’s future. “Since the NJP was started 13 years ago, a steadily growing number of private landowners have promised to preserve habitat and protect jaguars,” she says.
Besides the dozen ranches in the heart of jaguar country, several other properties between the reserve and the US-Mexico border have become informal sanctuaries. Little by little, Mexican ranchers, academics, and wildlife officials seem to be taking more interest in conserving Sonora’s jaguars. The overall goal is to provide a protected travel corridor between the known breeding population in Sonora and the designated “critical jaguar habitat” in Arizona and New Mexico. In terms of suitability, some experts believe there is more prime territory in the US than there is in Sonora.
North of the border though, efforts to restore jaguar populations are hampered by widely conflicting attitudes and actions of groups responsible for managing or conserving these big cats. Some conservationists question whether there should be any attempt to reestablish jaguar populations in the American Southwest at all.
New Mexico wildlife officials have been largely silent on the issue and Arizona’s Game and Fish Department downsized its involvement in jaguar conservation following the tragic death of Macho B, a southern Arizona jaguar that ranged within a 500-square-mile territory for nearly 13 years.
In 2009, Macho B was found caught in a foot snare in the Atascosa Mountains near the Mexican border. Arizona Game and Fish officials, who claimed the snaring was an accident, tranquilized the 16-year-old jaguar and fit him with a radio collar. But the old cat couldn’t withstand its injuries from the capture and had to be euthanized within two weeks. Later, one of the department’s contracted biologists admitted that Macho B had been lured into the trap intentionally.
The incident spurred a series of investigations and the eventual prosecution of two individuals involved in the capture. The department, embarrassed by the bad publicity, subsequently disbanded a multidisciplinary jaguar conservation task force and went on record opposing the designation of critical habitat for jaguars in Arizona.
Defending its decision, the wildlife agency echoes the conclusion of prominent zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of the New York-based wild cat conservation group Panthera, which funds several jaguar restoration efforts in South America. Noting that the number of US jaguars is tiny and their gender exclusively male, Rabinowitz insisted to me in an email last April that there is no area in the US essential to the conservation of the jaguar. Conservationists are better off, he suggested, directing their resources toward establishing jaguar travel corridors in parts of Central and South America where groups of such cats are cut off from one another by human development and habitat destruction.
This outlook frustrates other wildcat conservationists like Bugbee and Moreno, who believe protecting every individual jaguar is important. They say it’s partly due to the lack of close study that no one truly knows how important Arizona and New Mexico are to the survival of jaguars in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. (Most jaguar research is conducted in such strongholds of the species as Belize, Venezuela, and Brazil.) Non-invasive research, including the use of camera traps and scat-finding dogs, has revealed much about El Jefe’s limited movements. But little of the landscape in Arizona and New Mexico’s potential jaguar range is monitored, says Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for protection of endangered species, too, has been a reluctant participant in the conservation effort. The federal agency initially neglected to list the jaguar as an endangered US animal on the assumption that the cat had been extirpated. In 1979, it admitted that this had been an “oversight,” but it took the agency another 20 years and two lawsuits to eventually list the species as endangered in 1997. Still, it refused to come up with an official jaguar recovery plan and the designation of “critical habitat,” as is usually required when an animal is listed as endangered, arguing that these weren’t necessary because the species qualified as foreign. Only after losing another series of expensive legal challenges in court did the agency finally designate 309,264 hectares of land in Arizona and New Mexico as jaguar critical habitat in 2014.
Soon after, the agency was sued by livestock associations, which labeled the designation “unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious.” As part of a seemingly inevitable back-and-forth, in August 2015 the Center for Biological Diversity once again countersued, asking that the critical habitat designation be upheld.
The USFWS has no plans to reintroduce jaguars, which probably pleases ranchers, but it has accepted Homeland Security funds to look diligently for the cats in the most promising Southwest jaguar habitat, all within 100 miles of the border. (The federal agency is required to pay for environmental mitigation to make up for damage from border patrol activities.)
Between 2011 and 2015, the agency financed an extensive study by the University of Arizona that used camera traps and trained “scat dogs” to seek evidence of jaguars in 16 New Mexico and Arizona mountain ranges. Despite taking more than two million photographs, the presence of only one jaguar – the ubiquitous El Jefe, first seen in 2011 – was confirmed, along with three ocelots, a second endangered cat species that has been recorded in Arizona more frequently in recent years. Funding of the project lapsed in June 2015, although volunteers continue to monitor four Arizona mountain ranges where University of Arizona cameras are still installed.
Meanwhile, despite its own verification of El Jefe’s presence, last May the USFWS announced that it would not let the only known jaguar stand in the way of proposed construction of one of the world’s largest open-pit copper mines in a remote part of the Santa Rita Mountains that’s frequented by the jaguar. El Jefe has left 13 verified scats and been photographed at a dozen locations in the Santa Ritas over the past four years. The agency contends that, with mitigation, the mine would not significantly impact jaguars or 11 other rare species found in the mountain range that’s internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot.
photo by Alan Schmierer/Flickr
Conservation and citizen groups are challenging the plan by Rosemont, a unit of Canada’s Hudbay Minerals Inc., to build the mine, arguing that such an operation would be environmentally irresponsible. Rosemont’s proposal is facing a series of legal delays and mounting public opposition that may doom the company’s plans. In late July, the regional office of the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended denial of an essential Clean Water Act permit for the Rosemont mine.
A bigger looming threat to jaguar recovery is the construction of a high, uninterrupted wall along the border, proposed by the Republican presidential nominee, which would likely destroy any chance of jaguars ever breeding north of the frontier. Crossing this line is already made difficult for both jaguars and their prey base by existing barriers, including the 18-foot-high, solid metal fence along sections of the Arizona-Mexico border, intense surveillance, drug trafficking, and the presence of busy highways parallel to the border along both the Mexican and US sides.
No one knows how many Sonoran jaguars may already be discouraged from crossing la frontera by near-constant vehicle traffic, bright security lights, and intense US Border Patrol activity.
While state and federal officials drag their feet on US jaguar protection and restoration, private conservation groups are stepping in to do the job.
Sky Island Alliance, for instance, is expanding the number of volunteers it trains on both sides of the border to use noninvasive means to identify and study jaguars, as well as their prey. Joining in this effort are a handful of US and Mexican ranchers who are allowing researchers to set up cameras and roam their lands. Alliance biologist Moreno is disappointed that government agencies aren’t doing more to promote jaguar recovery, but concedes that there are some advantages in nongovernment organizations such as hers being able to “move forward with less politics, red tape, and bureaucracy.”
Conservation CATalyst, for its part, continues to deploy a scat-sniffing dogs and motion-sensitive cameras in the Santa Ritas as part of the group’s ongoing effort to monitor the Southwest’s only known wild jaguar and other top-of-the-food-chain animals. Bugbee, the CATalyst biologist responsible for El Jefe’s viral video, is optimistic. He notes that several other jaguars, male and female, have been documented historically in the Santa Rita backcountry frequented by El Jefe.
Bugbee is among those who believe borderlands jaguars may have unique genetic characteristics that enhance their ability to survive in a decidedly non-tropical landscape. In other words, they may be the jaguars best able to cope with climate change. “It would be a shame,” he says, “to write them off.”
Richard Mahler lives in Silver City, NM, and is the author of The Jaguar’s Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat (Yale: 2009).
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