Archive for the ‘Media Stories’ Category


Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

How Trump’s Border Wall Could Block the Most Exciting Wildlife Comeback in North America: Jaguars are reappearing in the Southwest. A border wall would put an end to that.

By Jason Mark


“DAMN IT,” CHRIS BUGBEE SAID. The batteries in his motion-activated trail camera were dead, and Bugbee, a wildlife ecologist, hadn’t gotten as many photos as he had wanted for his wildlife census. That morning, he and I had driven 90 miles from Tucson to the Huachuca Mountains, rain lashing his truck as we snaked through Arizona’s high-desert grasslands. After parking at a remote trailhead in the Coronado National Forest, we made a three-mile hike up a steep creek ravine, along the way passing some of the hugest piñon pines I’ve ever seen. When we got to the camera trap that he’d placed on a small tree trunk, we found that the camera had taken only seven photos before shutting down: two deer, one squirrel, one gray fox, one set of legs clearly belonging to a hiker, several sets of legs wearing the military-issue boots of the U.S. Border Patrol, and one frighteningly large puma.

Most likely, cold had killed the batteries. Even though it was late March, the pines and firs on the slopes of the Huachuca Mountains were dusted with frost. There was no sign of what Bugbee and I weren’t technically looking for but most fervently hoped to catch a glimpse of: the jaguar known to biologists as the Huachuca male, spotted in the rugged mountain range on the United States–Mexico border in December 2016.

In the last decade, a string of jaguar sightings in the American Southwest has electrified residents of Arizona and New Mexico and fascinated people worldwide. Normally, efforts to recover threatened species require a great deal of time, money, and human effort. Think of the reintroduction of the gray wolf, translocated from the Canadian Rockies to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s and closely monitored by federal officials ever since. Or the California condor, nursed in captive-breeding programs until its numbers were large enough to return the bird to the mountains of Big Sur. The jaguar hasn’t needed any of this. Moving northward from the foothills of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the species is reestablishing itself in some of the territory it once called home. “They are here, and they are trying to come back on their own,” Bugbee said. “Without any help from us, they are coming back.”

Before meeting up with Bugbee, I had spent a few days backpacking alone through the Miller Peak Wilderness, a 20,000-acre preserve near where a trail camera located at Fort Huachuca—an army intelligence post—had captured a nighttime photo of the male jaguar. From what biologists had told me, there was a chance he was still in the area.

I didn’t have any romantic notions that I’d spot some sign of the jaguar, among the most elusive of midnight creepers. The Endangered Species Act outlaws any attempt to even track a listed animal. (Bugbee and his wife, Aletris Neils, have a wildlife-research organization called Conservation CATalyst, and they are allowed to set up trail cameras under Arizona Game and Fish Department regulations.) I just wanted to take the pulse of the place. As anyone who has spent time in wild areas knows, an apex predator changes the valence of a landscape, like salt added to a stew. To be in the company of predators, poet Gary Snyder once wrote, is “ecology on the level where it counts.”

Like other apex predators, the jaguar has become a symbol greater than itself, wrestled over by conservation groups, federal officials, state wildlife agencies, and academic researchers. Yet almost everyone—regardless of their take on how best to protect the jaguar—expresses awe over the species’ tentative recolonization of the Southwest. Traveling through the borderlands, I heard people wonder again and again at the jaguar’s return.

“It just really does my heart good to see that this animal is making a living in the southwestern U.S.,” Steve Spangle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field supervisor for Arizona, said. Tanja Linton, the media relations officer for Fort Huachuca, described base residents’ reaction this way: “Super stoked, super awesome. Just the rareness of it, the coolness of it.” Randy Serraglio, the Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me, “Jaguars are, you know, they are just very sexy.”

But awe alone isn’t enough to recover a species. The return of the American jaguar, thrilling though it may be, is precarious. Roads and ranchettes interrupt migration routes between its mountain territories. A pair of proposed mines—a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, a silver mine in the Patagonia Mountains—would obliterate prime habitat. Then there’s President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. If it were ever completed, it would eliminate any future chance of jaguars migrating from Mexico.

“Restoring the jaguar to the Southwest has the potential to be the conservation success story of the 21st century,” Bugbee said. “We are at a major crossroads right now, especially with the border wall. We have to decide: Do we want our native big cat back or not?”


A JAGUAR’S SPOTS ARE AS DISTINCT as human fingerprints. Biologists compared coat patterns to identify the seven different jaguars that have prowled the United States over the past 20 years. Jaguar spots were how wildlife officials were able to distinguish Macho A, the big cat that set off a camera trap in 2001, from the unnamed jaguar that a mountain-lion hunter treed in the Peloncillo Mountains five years earlier. They were how scientists knew Macho A from Macho B, who was killed in a botched attempt to radio-collar him, and how they’ve kept tabs on El Jefe (a.k.a. the Santa Rita male), the cat that Bugbee made famous with a 41-second video that went viral in March of last year. The jaguar’s spots were how biologists knew that the cat caught last November on a Bureau of Land Management camera trap in the Dos Cabezas Mountains, 60 miles north of the border, wasn’t El Jefe—and how they know that the Huachuca male is his own self and none of these others.

Biologists say the jaguar (Panthera onca) is either a small big cat or a big small cat. Adult males typically weigh around 160 pounds, about the size of a large dog. Yet the jaguar possesses an outsize strength. A jaguar is squat, with short legs, a broad chest, and a cinder-block head. “Built like a fireplug,” we’d say if it were human, the fullback of the Panthera genus. Its jaw is more proportionately powerful than any of the other roaring cats’, the result, one biologist speculates, of having spent a critical phase of its evolution eating sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Central America. The jaguar’s signature kill method is to attack from above and twist the head of its prey to break its neck. The jaguar then crushes the prey’s skull and eats the face and tongue, which it considers a delicacy. “The jaguar puts the animate world on edge,” A. Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold, wrote while studying the big cats in northern Mexico in the mid-20th century.

The jaguar is also distinguished by its stealth. A lion cub will walk straight across a room toward its destination; a jaguar cub, in contrast, will lurk at the edges of a room, using whatever cover it can find. Even in places with significant jaguar populations, people rarely see them. Zookeepers say that, in comparison with other big cats, the jaguar is “unreliable” and “untamable.”

The Olmecs of Mexico—the foundational culture of Mesoamerica—built their religion around the jaguar. Shamans and medicine men were believed to be were-jaguars, and the Olmecs revered people with Down syndrome, who were thought to be the result of a sexual union between a woman and a jaguar. After the collapse of the Olmecs, jaguar veneration lived on with the Mayas and, later, the Aztecs, whose fearsome shock troops were called the Jaguar Knights.

Mention the jaguar and most people imagine a jungle cat prowling the rainforests of the Amazon or the mountains of Central America. Today, most of the 60,000 or so wild jaguars in the world live in the tropics, but the animal’s range once included what today is the United States. Biologists say that the jaguar likely roamed a territory that stretched from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Well into the 19th century, the animal was not uncommon in the West. Sam Houston, the founder of the Republic of Texas, had a jaguar-skin vest that was among his prized possessions. The Comanches of the lower plains liked to use its pelt to cover their arrow quivers.

The jaguar’s extirpation came at the hands of the usual culprits: habitat loss from logging, mining, and cattle grazing; sport hunting and persecution by ranchers; and the decades-long, U.S.-government-funded campaign to wipe out predators of any kind. For a while, jaguars held on in the jagged uplands of Arizona. The last known female was shot in 1963 at Big Lake in the White Mountains, a subalpine conifer forest 175 miles north of the Mexico border.

The areas that the jaguars roam today are known as the Sky Islands. These are a chain of some 40 distinct mountain ranges that stretch from the Mogollon Rim of Arizona and New Mexico southward, across the international boundary to the upper reaches of the Sierra Madre. The Sky Islands are an archipelago of vibrant forests amid a sea of desert. From the summit heights, it feels like you’re floating on a waterless ocean. From the desert plains, the Sky Islands look like another world entirely—green-clad, snowcapped cloud magnets.

The Sky Islands are still a harsh and arid environment, but the extremities of the desert are tempered by elevation. Agave-dotted grasslands give way to Gambel oak and dogged juniper, which fade into slopes of Mexican piñon and rise to heights covered in ponderosa pine, white fir, and aspen. The Sky Islands are an ecotone, a liminal space between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the junction of the southern Rockies and the Sierra Madre.

The islands exist as a pathway, and a refuge, for migratory birds and animals. The Coronado National Forest, which encompasses most of Arizona’s Sky Islands, is a biodiversity hot spot and contains more threatened or endangered species than any other U.S. national forest. Some 500 bird species—about half of all the bird species found in North America—have been reported in the region. Backpacking through the Miller Peak Wilderness, I saw plenty of sign of gray fox and black bear. At dawn, the desert forest was so full of birdsong that I thought I had awoken in a jungle.

“The biodiversity of this region can be explained just looking at what regions we are connecting,” Sergio Avila, a conservation research scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, told me. Born in the Mexican city of Zacatecas and now a U.S. citizen, Avila is wiry and intense, with a black ponytail and a knack for turning statistics into sound bites. “We have a lot of animals that move through these corridors, and that’s the case of the jaguar and the ocelot, and the Mexican gray wolf, and, historically, the grizzly bear.”

The handful of jaguars in the United States have come from the Mexican state of Sonora, where there’s an estimated population of 120, many living in or near a protected area called the Northern Jaguar Reserve (even as the jaguar was extirpated from the United States, it maintained a toehold in northern Mexico due to fewer human pressures there). Jaguars, like other big cats, are intensely territorial. When the cubs reach about two years old, the males leave their mother’s home territory to carve out their own range. If there’s already a dominant male in the area, adolescents are forced to disperse to avoid having to fight for turf. Some of those wandering jaguars have hopscotched from one Sky Island to the next until, unbeknownst to them, they have crossed a politically charged boundary.

Of course, had there been a continuous, unbroken border wall like the one that Trump envisions, the jaguar’s roaming would have stopped right there.

“A barrier would block corridors. It would block valleys and block corridors from lower elevations to higher elevations,” Avila said. “It’s like you’re used to waking up and going from your room to your kitchen, and then imagine that one morning you don’t get access to your kitchen.”


CHRIS BUGBEE HAD SET UP three wildlife cameras, so after the bust with the first, we kept going. With a bitter-cold wind coming from the plains far below, Bugbee and I headed northward. (To protect the jaguar from people who may wish it harm, Bugbee and I agreed that I would keep geographic details vague.)

In front of us, on a long leash, was Bugbee’s tracking dog, Mayke. A caramel-colored Belgian Malinois, Mayke had flunked out of a Border Patrol drug-detection program. Bugbee adopted her while working as a field technician on the University of Arizona’s jaguar study project and trained her to detect jaguar and ocelot scat. Mayke had been Bugbee’s key partner during the time he monitored El Jefe for the university’s project. Together, they captured dozens of pictures of the Santa Rita male for the university’s research as well as the daytime video footage that, after he left the project, Bugbee released in collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The footage of El Jefe was seen by as many as 100 million people, and it made the animal a star. A local brewery called Barrio Brewing Co. named a craft beer after him (the Santa Rita Jefeweizen), and a giant mural was painted in downtown Tucson in his honor. But within the small community of people focused on jaguar conservation, the video sparked controversy, with some people fearing the footage could draw hunters to the area. As we hiked through the pines, Bugbee—who gets Boy Scout–earnest when talking about jaguars—said he had no regrets about releasing the footage, even though it had complicated his and his wife’s dealings with the university.

“I had a very close relationship with El Jefe—I wouldn’t have done anything to endanger him,” Bugbee said. El Jefe hadn’t been seen for months when he released the footage, and Bugbee and other biologists believed he had split for Mexico.

We arrived at a meadow. Bugbee unlocked his camera from the trunk of a tree while keeping an eye on Mayke; during a previous visit to the Huachucas, she had treed a mountain lion, which sliced her face and left a long scar beneath her right eye. Bugbee checked the camera display.

The news wasn’t good. The high winds on the mountain ridge had bent the tall grasses of the meadow so often that they kept triggering the camera’s motion sensor. The photo scroll was monotonous: meadow meadow meadow meadow meadow. Every 40 images or so, there was something that was not grass. Deer. A bird, blurred by the motion of flight. Packs of coatis, a raccoon-like character with a long snout and a long tail. No jaguar.


FROM THE SUMMIT OF MILLER PEAK, the spine of the Huachuca Mountains tapers to Yaqui Ridge. There’s a parking lot at the Montezuma Pass trailhead, and from there it’s an easy two-mile hike to Mexico. On the morning I set out backpacking, the trailhead was busy with Border Patrol activity: a half dozen agents preparing to make their rounds, a pair of heavy-duty trucks mounted with rotating surveillance dishes.

Before heading up Miller Peak, I made the short detour to the border, hiking past stands of cholla pregnant with yellow buds. After about 40 minutes, I came to a barbed-wire fence and a five-foot-high, silver-painted obelisk that read, “Boundary of the United States/Treaty of 1853/Re-Established by Treaties of 1882-1889.” The wires were spread apart, making a passage sufficient for a big cat, or a clutch of humans. On the north side of the fence, there was tall grass and cacti; on the south side, tall grass and cacti. Canyon towhees flitted back and forth.

President Trump’s talk about building a “big, beautiful wall” from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico obscures the fact that about a third of the southern border is already bisected by barriers. From the southern foothills of the Huachucas, I was able to see the various types of border-security infrastructure currently in place. To the east of Yaqui Ridge lies the San Pedro River valley. The green curve of the river is split by a plumb-straight, rust-colored fence, 20 feet high and made out of bollards—steel columns set close enough together to prevent passage but far enough apart that the Border Patrol can see what’s happening on the Mexican side. To the west of Yaqui Ridge lies the San Rafael Valley. There, the border is guarded by what are called “Normandy barriers,” named for the type of obstacles the German army set up on the beaches of northern France during World War II. Normandy barriers are designed to block vehicles but leave room for anyone traveling on foot to hop over or crawl under.

The Arizona-Mexico border is 372 miles long. Of that, 123 miles are guarded by bollard fences, and 189 miles have Normandy barriers or other types of vehicular obstacles. The remaining 60 miles is land that is either too steep or too rugged for easy construction.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity—along with many wildlife biologists—say that the existing border infrastructure is already causing significant harm to desert ecosystems. “What’s going on at the border is more than just the wall,” Avila told me. “It’s the roads, the access roads, the helipads, forward operating bases, all of that. When we talk about the environmental impacts of the border wall, we have to talk about all of those things.”

In 2005, with the September 11 terrorist attacks still fresh in the public mind, President George W. Bush signed a homeland-security measure called the Real ID Act. Among other things, the Real ID Act gave the secretary of homeland security the power to waive any federal laws—including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act—if they are found to be in conflict with border security. So when border construction threatens the habitats of species ranging from the pygmy owl to pronghorn to bighorn sheep—or when contractors building a new segment of wall through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge spill concrete into the river habitat of one of the country’s few populations of Yaqui catfish and Chiricahua leopard frogs—there’s little recourse. The Border Patrol has built roads through designated wilderness areas and has been spotted tearing across the desert landscape in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Surveillance towers can disorient bats with their radar and their lights. (See “Collateral Damage,” below, for more on at-risk border species.)

Public lands like the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and Coronado National Memorial are kept wild thanks to federal laws. But when the Real ID Act came along, said Dan Millis, coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands program, “federal law goes out the window, and here come the bulldozers.”

Although the wall was the original sail powering Trump’s political ascent, the idea has run into headwinds since he took office. Democrats in Congress have pledged to do everything they can to stop wall construction, and lawsuits have already been filed. During spring budget negotiations, Trump was just barely able to get enough money to invite contractors to begin building wall prototypes, now under construction in California. Not a single U.S. representative from a border district—Republican or Democrat—is in favor of the border wall.

While environmental groups are unanimous in their disdain for the wall, the border militarization has, in one strange irony, benefited jaguar conservation. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security granted several million dollars to the Fish and Wildlife Service for environmental mitigation to offset damage caused by border security. That money funded the University of Arizona’s jaguar study program, including the placement of 300 remote wildlife cameras—the same cameras that made El Jefe famous.

The frequency of jaguar sightings since the cameras were deployed raises intriguing questions: Are we seeing an increase in jaguars in the United States, perhaps as a result of climate change driving them northward? Or did the cameras just show a population that was here all along?

Avila believes that the jaguars never left, and that their “comeback” is actually a case of new technology being employed by scientists and environmentalists intent on studying a fragmented landscape. Thanks in part to border militarization, there are more eyes on the landscape than ever before.


IN DECEMBER 2016, less than three weeks after the first sighting of the Huachuca male, the Fish and Wildlife Service released its Jaguar Draft Recovery Plan. The document, some five years and 500 pages in the making, concluded that, since none of the jaguars captured on camera seemed to be female, conserving the population of jaguars north of the border should be a secondary concern to protecting jaguars in Mexico. Conservation groups complained that the plan ignored the possibility of introducing female jaguars into the United States, similar to what was done successfully with gray wolf reintroduction. In addition, the designated critical habitat boundaries failed to include territory more than 6,000 feet above sea level or north of Interstate 10, even though the female jaguar killed in 1963 was 2,000 feet above and 100 miles north of those lines. For a plan crafted by a U.S. agency, it put most of the responsibility for jaguar conservation on Mexico while putting little emphasis on north-of-the-border conservation tactics, like building wildlife-friendly road crossings.

The jaguar recovery plan also contained surprisingly few mentions of the border wall. While it noted that “trans-border connectivity . . . is an important component of jaguar recovery,” it did not discuss the fact that a future border wall would slice across five of the agency’s six critical habitat areas. Conservation groups—already annoyed that they’d had to sue the Feds to develop the plan in the first place—were unimpressed. Defenders of Wildlife said the plan “would do little to recover the jaguar in the United States.” The Center for Biological Diversity blasted the agency for concocting an “extravagant and ultimately Sisyphean project.”

In response to these criticisms, Spangle, from the Fish and Wildlife Service, told me, “We focused on the most important areas, and I think we did it right. We are going to put what few eggs we have in the area where the jaguars are breeding, which is in Mexico.” When I asked Spangle about the border wall, he directed me to the agency’s formal statement, which says the USFWS won’t offer an official opinion on the wall until other federal agencies or Congress asks it to do so.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity’s Serraglio, the plan dismisses the need to give the jaguar as much range as possible so that the north can serve as an escape route should conditions become less hospitable in the south. “Real recovery, under the Endangered Species Act, is not just increasing the number of individuals of a species. It’s also increasing the number of places where they can be found on the landscape,” Serraglio said. “We need to allow the population to expand geographically as well as numerically.”

What is true for other endangered species is also true for the jaguar: There is no recovery without connectivity. By cleaving the landscape in two, the border wall would violate a core axiom of wildlife conservation and foreclose any future for the American jaguar. Separation is how an animal goes extinct—first its population gets fragmented, then it winks out. The wall would, for the first time, make the Sky Islands truly isolated from one another.


BUGBEE’S LAST CAMERA WAS SOUTH of us on the mountain ridge. The sun had melted the frost in the treetops, and I could spot the spring blooms on the white firs—little puffs of pink on every branch tip. We marched a couple of miles until we reached the spot: a crook in the trail where a notch in the cliff face drained the heights, forming a seasonal seep. Nearby was a pine just the right width for a camera rig.

Bugbee started to scroll through the images. The scenes were mostly the same as on the other two cameras: squirrel, fox, coati, deer. As he raced through, I tried to spot myself, having passed this very place while exploring the wilderness. Instead, the camera viewfinder filled with a massive mountain lion walking the trail just after dawn. “That’s a big tom,” Bugbee said, clearly impressed. I looked at the date and time. The lion had passed the place a scant eight hours before I had.

Bugbee kept scrolling. Squirrel, fox, deer. Then Bugbee’s thumb stopped. There he was: the Huachuca male.

The image was captured late at night, but the animal was unmistakable. A long, orange cat, its spots blending into the darkness. I could see how its ears were cocked in rigid attention. I could see the way those short jaguar legs kept it close to the ground. I could see snow wreathing the rocks. There was an audacity in how ordinary it all looked. This wasn’t a myth or a relic—just an animal going about its business. I thought about my conversation with Avila the day before: The cameras on the land are making visible things that used to pass unseen.

A few months later, back home in California, I got to see some more photos. In May, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Arizona released a batch of Huachuca male pictures, the first made public since the animal was initially spotted. Looking at the photos online, I immediately noticed that four of the six photos were taken in daylight. This wasn’t an animal slinking about. This was an animal comfortable in its territory. A migrant, maybe, a solitary wanderer, but one that had begun to make a home for itself in the United States.

Then the time stamp on the two nighttime photos caught my attention—March 26. That was the very day I awoke on the slope of the Huachucas and marveled at a desert forest packed with birdsong.

I felt a shock of recognition: The jaguar had been there all along.

Jason Mark is the editor of Sierra and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.

Cat Fight

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Inside the Struggle to Save the Latest Migrants Crossing the U.S-Mexico Border

By Alan Weisman

To get to this place, you drive for miles over serpentine, unpaved roads that climb through oak and juniper forests in southeast Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains, then descend through canyons filled with cottonwoods, sycamores, fleabane, and flowering goldeneye until you reach four strands of barbed wire. Twenty years ago, an unlocked cattle gate opened from here into Latin America. Neighboring ranchers from both sides used it to trade livestock. I lived nearby at the time, and I’d drive through it down to Santa Cruz, a village surrounded by apple orchards, six miles below the border. No one ever stopped me, coming or going.

There was no other road for miles in either direction. But after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security scraped a wide and dusty one along the U.S. side, not without considerable difficulty in this up-and-down country. Between the new road and the barbed-wire cattle fence—its gate long gone—they installed miles of Normandy-style fencing: vehicle barriers, comprised of crisscrossed sections of welded railroad track, resembling a long line of metal Xs.

Northbound tire tracks leading to it confirm how easily Normandy fences are breached with portable ramps. The hard caliche soil doesn’t reveal other, softer tracks, but they’re here too. This 15-mile stretch of border, where the Patagonias meet Mexico’s Sierra San Antonio, is one of the few places where wildlife still pass relatively freely through the increasingly militarized divide between two nations. Fox, coatis, mountain lions, Mexican gray wolves, and even bears are among the creatures that can and still do squeeze between these rails.

A hundred miles east of here, in March of 1996, an Arizona rancher and hunting guide named Warner Glenn saw a new species—at least new to him. He was just over the Arizona line, about a mile into New Mexico and 10 miles north of old Mexico, when his dogs suddenly raced ahead of him. When Glenn’s mule caught up, he saw that they’d surrounded something feline. It was far bigger than a mountain lion, with huge yellow eyes and a fabulous golden pelt dappled with rosettes. Glenn dropped his rifle and grabbed his camera.

Six months later and 50 miles west of the Patagonias, a hunter in the Baboquiviri Mountains treed and photographed another jaguar. At least five more have been photographed since, including two new ones just this past year (individuals are identified by the patterns of their spots). The presence of these cats, which are believed to be migrating north from breeding grounds in Mexico, has thrilled wildlife biologists and captivated the public.

Found only in the Americas, jaguars are the world’s third biggest cat, after lions and tigers. Older males can top 300 pounds, more than twice the size of the slimmer leopards they resemble, and with which they share a prehistoric ancestor. Their formidable jaws can instantly kill prey as big as the 10-foot caimans and adult bears they silently stalk, pouncing from behind and crunching through their victims’ skulls. Unlike any other big American feline—mountain lion, lynx, or bobcat—they also roar.

Today only about 15,000 remain, mainly in the tropics. Once, Panthera onca roamed and bred as far north as the Grand Canyon, and from California to Louisiana. Then, after 1915, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started paying bounties on anything non-human that ate livestock, nearly one jaguar per year was shot in Arizona alone. Among the last was a female killed in 1963, in a spruce-fir forest above 9,000 feet. Predator controls, it was presumed, had effectively extirpated them in the United States. Now, their reappearance has ignited a furor over what protections they should have against development and the threat of a significantly fortified border wall.


To see where these recent feline immigrants were coming from, I headed 150 miles south into Mexico’s state of Sonora last August for a river trip organized by the Arizona-based Northern Jaguar Project. With its Mexican counterpart, Naturalia, the non-profit NJP had raised over $2 million to purchase 86 square miles in the northernmost known jaguar-breeding area in the Americas. The two rivers we’d be navigating—the wild, undammed Río Aros, which drains Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, and the Río Yaqui, into which it flows—form much of the reserve’s boundary.

The Northern Jaguar Project was founded in 2003 by ecologist and self-described “bio-gladiator” Peter Warshall, who edited both the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly, and his wife, Arizona historian and former rancher Diana Hadley, when a Mexican zoologist alerted them to a cheap ranch for sale in prime jaguar country. After Warshall died of cancer in 2013, Hadley has continued to run the operation from their Tucson home with the help of just one full-time staffer. With support from foundations, such as the Disney Conservation Fund, and from private donors—including a biologist on this trip, who tithed a portion of a windfall inheritance—NJP has purchased five former ranches that now comprise the reserve.

Now in her seventies, Hadley drove us the eight hours from Tucson—including an hour-long wait at the border for crossing permits—down a sinuous highway to Sahuaripa, Sonora, population 6,000. From there to the river launch, just 30 miles, took another seven hours over a vertiginous, rutted track intended for mules, which is intentionally left unmaintained to deter poachers. Not that many would attempt it: Eons of volcanic episodes created the Sierra Madre, leaving this landscape so corrugated that even cow-punching is precarious. The abundance of both predators and prey in this place, where Apache chieftain Geronimo often hid, owes as much to low human population as it does to high biodiversity.

We were headed by boat into one of nature’s most breathtaking collisions of geology and biology. High above the Sierra’s palm- and poinsettia-filled river canyons grow pine, madrone, and more than 200 species of oak. Bald eagles and military macaws, in the southern and northern extremes of their respective breeding ranges, nest on towering red cliffs. Conservation biologist E.O. Wilson lists this deeply gouged Madrean uplift, running from central Mexico into the southwestern U.S. borderlands, where it fragments into an archipelago of sky islands, such as the Patagonias and the Baboquiviris, among his three dozen “best places” on Earth.

Nevertheless, of the Sierra’s three apex predators, the grizzly bear was gone by the mid-20th century, and the Mexican gray wolf barely hangs on. But the third, the jaguar, not only survives, but may be expanding both its numbers and its range.

“In a place where a desert collides with pines, jaguars find plenty to eat: deer, peccaries, coatimundi, hares,” explained NJP biologist Miguel Gómez, a compact, lithe man in his thirties from Querétaro in central Mexico. Sheathing the machete he’d been using to clear the riverbank of amaranth for our first campground, he swigged from an unlabeled plastic bottle, which he passed to me. “We have pictures of them carrying skunks in their mouths.”

The camera traps that Gómez and his biologist wife, Carmina Gutiérrez, monitor here and on surrounding ranches have captured thousands of images and videos of jaguars, ocelots, pumas, bobcats, and their prey. One of those ranches had distilled the bacanora—Sonoran mezcal—we were sharing with two of our boating companions, both of them former eco-saboteurs with the radical environmental group Earth First!. In the 1980s, Todd Schulke scaled tuna-boat masts to unfurl banners protesting dolphin slaughter, while Mikal Jakubal perched in tall firs slated for clear-cutting and rappelled down dams to paint giant cracks on their faces.

Now in their graying fifties, the men hadn’t seen each other in decades. In the intervening years, Jakubal had descended from the trees and settled into the soil as a Humboldt County, California, licensed cannabis nursery owner. Schulke was still an active environmental warrior, but his tactics had changed. In 1989, he co-founded the Center for Biological Diversity, which, instead of breaking laws like Earth First!, used them as bludgeons.

Earlier that year, Schulke and two friends had been contracted to survey a spotted owl subspecies in New Mexico when they decided that their employer, the U.S. Forest Service, had no intention of letting some rare nocturnal bird stop timber sales. Wielding the Endangered Species Act with uncommon tenacity, they filed multiple lawsuits and eventually won enough federally designated critical habitat for Mexican spotted owls—which restricts activities or development that might threaten them—to practically halt industrial logging in the American Southwest.

Ever since, CBD lawyers have tormented U.S. federal agencies far more than Earth First! ever did, winning 83 percent of the 900-plus actions they’ve filed on behalf of imperiled plants and animals. The group is controversial, even among conservation organizations, for its hard stance, which often puts the needs of non-human species ahead of human priorities. Among their most celebrated successes was their campaign to get jaguars officially listed as an endangered species in the United States in 1997, despite the insistence of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the only habitat crucial to their survival was their breeding grounds in Mexico. Three CBD lawsuits later, the FWS was forced in 2010 to designate 1,200 square miles of southern Arizona and New Mexico as critical jaguar habitat, and to design a jaguar recovery plan.

Our chances of actually seeing one in the Northern Jaguar Reserve, we knew, were almost nil—jaguars are exceptionally furtive. But for a week we would see something even rarer: no other people, nor electric lights. Except for the occasional whir of Mikal Jakubal’s solar-charged drone, shooting 360º panoramas from 1,500 feet, we heard no mechanized din. Our phones were useless. Nor, amid melodious Sinaloa wrens and blue mockingbirds, were they missed.


“This used to be part of their native range. They’re reclaiming it,” said Chris Bugbee when, a week before I went to Mexico, I’d asked him why he thought jaguars were coming north into Arizona. Bugbee, a burly young freelance biologist, and Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate for the CBD, had brought me to America’s preeminent jaguar battlefield. “Male jaguars can wander 100 miles or more each year before returning to the breeding grounds,” he explained. “As conservation improves in Mexico, more young males need space to roam, until they’re big enough to challenge older males for mates.”

We were standing at a highway overlook in the Santa Rita Mountains, a range northwest of the Patagonias and halfway to Tucson. Before us lay an old ranch, Rosemont, amid a medley of outcropped ridges and intricate foothills overlain with a juniper-dotted grassland. Behind them rose the saw-toothed Santa Ritas. This stunning spot—a patchwork of private and Forest Service land—sits at a crucial juncture of three wildlife corridors, Bugbee explained. From late 2012 to October of 2015, Mayke, a female Belgian Malinois sniff dog that Bugbee trained, had repeatedly found scat nearby from a male jaguar, which camera traps had now photographed more than a hundred times.

It is also the exact site of what will be America’s third biggest open-pit copper mine—unless the Center for Biological Diversity and its many partners in protest can stop it.

The mine’s developer, Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals Inc., acquired the mineral rights to Rosemont in 2014, when it purchased the Augusta Resource Corporation—also Canadian. In the U.S., these companies have ancient law on their side: the General Mining Act of 1872, signed by Ulysses S. Grant to attract white settlers to the West. It allowed the original developer of the site to acquire mineral rights to more than 2,000 acres at a price unchanged since the law was enacted: $5 an acre. For the Rosemont mine, Hudbay plans to dig a hole more than a mile across and a half-mile deep. Besides obliterating a priceless view along an official Arizona scenic highway, opponents charge that the mine will stack tailings hundreds of feet high over five square miles of National Forest.

Just eight miles away is Madera Canyon, home to 250 bird species, among the most visited attractions in a state where, according to a study commissioned by Arizona Game and Fish and the Tucson Audubon Society, wildlife-watching earns $1.4 billion annually.

“Imagine how many tourists and birds they’ll get with a mine blasting under lights all night, and ore trucks clogging the scenic highway,” said Serraglio, stroking his goatee. “Even worse, digging the pit will create a cone of depression that the water table will be drawn toward like a straw. Springs will be dewatered, or simply buried.”

Serraglio pointed to a line of tall cottonwoods seven miles to the east, bisecting a vast, grassy valley.

“That’s Cienega Creek. It’s not just life support for 12 endangered species; it provides 20 percent of Tucson’s natural groundwater recharge. That straw will suck it right down. Instead of water, Tucson will get mining dust.”

For a while, the endangered and federally protected spotted cat roaming the Santa Ritas seemed like the key to stopping the Rosemont mine—which, over several years and multiple owners, had spent millions on public relations, and was promising hundreds of high-paying construction jobs in an economy where nearly one-fifth live below the poverty line. But when a hunter’s camera captured the unmistakable tail of a jaguar so unexpectedly close to town, the CBD saw its own publicity opportunity, and invited a Tucson middle school whose mascot is the jaguar to hold a naming contest. The winning name was El Jefe, Spanish for The Boss—coincidentally also the nickname of Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, who has tried for years to get the 1872 Mining Act repealed.

The timing was perfect for a heartwarming jaguar story in the city’s backyard. Arizona was still reeling over a jaguar scandal from 2009, when an aging male named Macho B was snared, darted, drugged, and collared by researchers working for Arizona Game and Fish. Wounded during capture, the jaguar developed an infection within days, and was finally recaptured and euthanized by the Phoenix Zoo.

In a cascading public-relations disaster, a whistleblower revealed that female jaguar scat was used to lure Macho B to a snare permitted only for lions and bears. Even the euthanization was botched, as a postmortem later suggested the jaguar wasn’t suffering from kidney failure but merely dehydrated. Deeper organ and skin analysis, which might have confirmed the cause of death, had been nixed by Arizona Game and Fish in order to preserve his pelt for mounting.

Macho B’s trapper, a contract biologist, was convicted of a misdemeanor for taking an endangered animal. Officials from both Arizona Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who, court documents revealed, had encouraged the illegal capture, weren’t prosecuted. An exhaustive investigative series on the Macho B cover-up in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star described a virtual cat fight among wildlife agencies to see who could nab an American jaguar first—with the presumption that juicy federal study grants would inevitably follow.

“Which keeps happening,” Bugbee said. “Big carnivore studies do bring out the carnivore in scientists.”

He should know. Bugbee’s alliance with Randy Serraglio could have cost him his career. That all started with a $771,000 jaguar study grant in 2012 from the Department of Homeland Security—ironically, to determine the extent that its border wall impedes the free flow of protected wildlife. The award went to the University of Arizona’s Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center, presumably because Arizona Game and Fish was too tainted by the Macho B debacle. When the university then hired some of the same state and federal wildlife personnel who were implicated in the Macho B affair, the controversy continued.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed by a noted jaguar expert, Alan Rabinowitz, argued that spending money on jaguars in the U.S. was wasteful, as the absence of females belied that they actually reside here. The editorial shocked Arizona biologists, who believe that Rabinowitz, chief executive officer of a tropical jaguar conservation program, feared competition for funding, though Rabinowitz denies it. Geneticist Melanie Culver, lead investigator of the University of Arizona study, pointed to research showing that, with tigers, long-distance dispersing males are always the first arrivals in a new population, because females with cubs stay close to known food sources.

“But eventually,” Culver said, “if the original population is at carrying capacity and the new habitat is viable, females follow.”

More important, she said, was how natural selection works. “At a population’s edge, individuals must adapt to different pressures.” As conditions in the core breeding area change, she added, “their genes may suddenly be more desirable to the rest of the population. By hanging onto individuals at the fringes as well as the core, you hang onto the most diversity.” With species adaptation now happening in hot, drying climates, Culver reasoned that jaguars everywhere may benefit from this expanding population, including the pioneer males braving Arizona’s desert.

This theory was underscored by evidence from some of her project’s 240 motion-activated cameras, placed in 16 mountain ranges, which began capturing images of other smaller but equally beguiling spotted cats: ocelots. No ocelots had been recorded in Arizona since 1964, but they’d now photographed five since 2009. One of Culver’s graduate students at the time, Aletris Neils, who’d been following research on the northward movement of opossums, coatis, and javelina—in response, she suspected, to climate change—added ocelots to her list.

When Neils learned that her mentor needed a sniff dog to collect jaguar scat for genetic testing, she mentioned that her partner (now husband) trained them. Chris Bugbee was studying alligators in the Everglades when he met Neils, who was studying crocodiles at the time: instant love. Although reptiles were his passion, felids were hers, and he followed her to Arizona for a graduate program that annually took her to study African caracals. He’d been working contract biology jobs and training dogs to avoid rattlesnakes when the university hired him to find jaguars.

After that first sighting of El Jefe, he focused his search on the Santa Ritas. Using Google Earth, he identified tight canyons where a young male jaguar passing through could be easily camera-trapped. He and Mayke discovered that, unlike mountain lions, which mark territory with mounds of droppings, El Jefe discreetly left his scat high on rock ledges, just as young tigers hide their presence until they mature into alpha males. He watched over three years as El Jefe accumulated weight and muscle in the photos and, eventually, videos, which he’d also begun collecting. He was amazed when time stamps from two cameras revealed that El Jefe had traversed half the entire Santa Rita range in a single night. But after October of 2015, when the cameras stopped seeing a jaguar, came the dread that El Jefe had been taken by a hunter—but also the hope that he was en route back to Sonora, ready to mate.

That fall, Bugbee and Neils attended a wildlife conference in Sumatra, where he showed videos of El Jefe. Afterward, Sumatran biologists, who’d seen half their forests converted to palm-oil plantations, asked him what his government was doing to preserve jaguar habitat. He thought about the Forest Service, which had already issued a preliminary permit (finalized this June) for the enormous mine at Rosemont, just a half-mile from where they’d once recorded a jaguar, an ocelot, a bobcat, and a mountain lion in a 27-hour span: the only place in America that could claim all four.

“Nothing,” he replied.

That night he made a decision.

The university’s Homeland Security funding had ended. Until more appeared, he was volunteering his time. All his requests to let the public see videos of El Jefe roaming the forests and streambeds threatened by the mine had been rebuffed by the university and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the project videos were gathering dust. Out of frustration, Bugbee had been placing his own field cameras. He knew who to call.

On the evening of February 10th, 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity threw a “Night of the Jaguar” party at a Tucson craft brewery, featuring a new beer: Jefeweizen. Bugbee’s 41-second video montage of El Jefe had people cheering and writing checks to CBD. It became an Internet sensation. El Jefe was soon on NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS’s This Morning. In many media interviews that followed, Bugbee explained why it was crucial to use what they’d learned to stop developments like Rosemont from destroying prime habitat for such a precious, endangered animal.

Melanie Culver saw it as a betrayal, since Bugbee had been asked to wait until the videos were posted on the FWS website. “I believe he felt that they wouldn’t have made as big a splash. He wanted to put those videos out there, which wasn’t within the volunteer agreement that he had signed, or the permit regulations. He really crossed a lot of boundaries.”

The following week, the University of Arizona jaguar team took back his truck keys and research permit, and removed his name as an author of their final report.


Pushing back his straw sombrero, Alfredo Ezrré thumbed through the photos that Miguel Gómez had printed: for June, four mountain lions and two jaguars; for July, a bobcat, two mountain lions, and three jaguars—a female who appeared twice, and her cub. He grinned as Gómez pulled a wad of bills from a manila envelope. “Gracias!”

Ezrré’s ranch is one of several surrounding the Northern Jaguar Reserve that have joined its Viviendo con Felinos—Living With Cats—program. In exchange for not poisoning or shooting wild felines, as ranchers once routinely did in order to protect their stock from predation, nor allowing hunting of their prey, participating ranchers earn 5,000 pesos (about $275) for every jaguar photographed on their land, 1,500 per ocelot, 1,000 for pumas, and 500 for bobcats. Should the same jaguar appear multiple times, they get paid for each photo.

Nearly $170,000 has been awarded over a decade: It’s NJP’s biggest expense after land acquisition—and also its most effective. If jaguar numbers are increasing, Diana Hadley told me, it’s due as much to Viviendo con Felinos as to the reserve itself. Without the participating ranches, these carnivores wouldn’t have enough protected habitat beyond the reserve to maintain viable populations, nor any hope for a safe corridor to the U.S. border.

Ezrré’s two-month take, the peso equivalent of $1,440, was not the only benefit he’s reaped. “Since hunting stopped, there are deer and javelina everywhere,” he said. “Felinos like eating natural food more than cows.”

Decreased livestock depredation is especially helpful, because in these hotter, drier times, he has to run fewer cattle. Along with the cash prizes, fewer losses, he said, meant that he wouldn’t have go indocumentado this year to work on the Dakota pipeline.

In NJP’s rattling 1982 four-wheel-drive Chevy pick-up, Gómez and I bounced on to the next ranch. Everyone else had left except for Mikal Jakubal, who’d stayed to take more drone photos for the project. Our river trip had ended prematurely when summer storms unexpectedly pushed the Aros past flood stage. Within our first half-hour, we’d flipped an oar-boat and two kayaks. By the third afternoon, after dodging various boat-sucking whirlpools and rising rapids, our boatmen safely beached us near an old road, where, via satellite phone, Gómez texted NJP’s vaquero drivers back in Sahuaripa to collect us.

Which took a day, followed by another seven-hour, bone-bending drive. But no one complained, because we got to camp at Babisal, an oasis in the heart of the reserve. There we bouldered up a waterfall staircase of 12 crystalline pools as green kingfishers, vermilion flycatchers, black and gray hawks, streak-backed orioles, and lemon-yellow clouds of sulfur butterflies swirled round us. A jaguar, tracks revealed, had just been here.

“Probably still around,” Gómez said. Of course, I thought: Who’d want to leave?

For the next few days I trailed Gómez as he bushwhacked his way through ravines choked with thorn-scrub, too steep for mules. Once a month, he checks facing pairs of battery-powered, motion-triggered cameras he had strapped to fig and willow trees above trickles where cats ambush prey as they drink. Removing them from their camouflaged-patterned watertight cases, we found recorded on their memory chips photos of fox, coati, deer, puma, and a four-foot indigo snake. About every 10th camera, Gómez got an ocelot, but no jaguars this time. That was normal during the monsoon rains of late summer, he said, when water was readily available outside these gorges.

“We think the jaguar population is at least holding steady,” he said. “Ojalá”—God willing.


A week later I was back in Arizona with Chris Bugbee, checking cameras north of the border. For two-and-a-half hours we scrambled over river rocks and pools down a Santa Rita canyon, dropping two thousand feet to a broad wash where he had captured some of the El Jefe video. High up an alligator juniper trunk, he retrieved a camera and clicked through 238 new images recorded since he last checked it. There were dozens of bears and cubs, lions, white-tailed deer, bobcats, turkeys, coyotes, occasional indocumentados skirting the Border Patrol checkpoint on the scenic highway, and—judging by their oversized burlap backpacks—drug runners. But again, no jaguar: It had been nearly a year since El Jefe was last seen.

Bugbee was now living on a small stipend, plus gas money, from the Center for Biological Diversity to continue monitoring here. No government wildlife agency, he’d heard, would hire him after he preempted them by releasing his video at a CBD fundraiser.

“Except for a report sitting on a shelf, nothing’s been published yet. No peer-reviewed papers—what good does that do?” Bugbee said as we emerged from the canyon at dusk. “The Santa Ritas have more species than any place we surveyed. We can’t keep that secret. If we want to conserve this animal, the first step is raising awareness.” I asked if he thought it was worth losing his job over. “Our video put jaguars back on the nation’s map. It was the right thing to do.”

The wrath he’d incurred, he believed, emanated from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where there’s scant love for CBD, which sues them so often over failing to list imperiled species that there is a three-year case backlog. Recently, CBD had filed notice of intent to sue them again, over the agency’s April of 2016 final ruling on the proposed Rosemont copper mine.

In a 434-page biological opinion, the FWS concluded that the mine “would not destroy or adversely modify” enough critical habitat of jaguars or 11 other resident endangered or threatened species to jeopardize their existence. However, via the Freedom of Information Act, CBD and the Arizona Daily Star discovered that this finding contradicted earlier drafts of the opinion. A leaked copy of a memorandum by FWS field supervisor Steve Spangle, left overnight in a prominent environmental advocate’s pick-up, confirmed that Spangle had overruled his own biologists.

Since all of Rosemont’s endangered plants and animals exist elsewhere, Spangle wrote in that memorandum, the fate of their respective species didn’t hang on this mine. “The U.S. portion of the jaguar’s range, including all of proposed critical habitat, is a miniscule fraction of its global range,” he argued.

Detractors howled, protesting that nowhere does the Endangered Species Act say if a species exists in Mexico it needn’t be protected here. “A bureaucrat with a bachelor’s degree is reversing Ph.D. biologists,” a staff scientist seethed to me. But few were surprised by this outcome. A Defenders of Wildlife study found that, of 6,829 endangered-species reviews by Fish and Wildlife from 2008 to 2015, none was stopped or extensively altered due to finding adverse habitat modification. In the case of Rosemont, the original drafts, Freedom of Information Act documents indicated, had been sent to the mining company, Hudbay, for comments. They had plenty.

“Because that’s where the copper is,” a mine representative told me when I asked how Hudbay could conceive of digging a vast pit in such an exquisite place as Rosemont. “I don’t hear people complaining about the copper in their cell phones or computers,” she added, before making it clear that our conversation was over.

The company’s publicity materials state that the pit and tailings would be visible from only a small stretch of the scenic highway, that the site accounts for a tiny fraction of potential jaguar habitat, and that the mine would not have any discernible effect on bird life. Hudbay claims that it has already spent millions on environmental research and remediation plans—and expects to spend millions more—for the mine, which, it says, would account for roughly 10 percent of U.S. copper production.

Hudbay has been subject to criticism from environmental and human rights activists before Rosemont. According to data published by Canada’s Environment and Climate Change agency, Hudbay’s copper smelter in Manitoba was one of the country’s biggest emitters of lead and mercury until it closed in 2010. The company is also contesting a lawsuit over alleged human rights violations at a nickel mine run by a Hudbay subsidiary in Guatemala.

The fate of its Rosemont mine may now rest with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last December, other government documents obtained through FOIA by the Arizona Daily Star revealed a preliminary finding by the corps that Hudbay’s plan to mitigate the damage to the area’s water courses and aquatic habitats fails to meet the guidelines of the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists rejoiced that Rosemont’s jaguar habitat could be saved after all.

However, following Donald Trump’s unexpected election, the corps postponed its final decision. Ominously, a week after inauguration, the new commander-in-chief overruled another corps decision, to halt work on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Next, he ordered the Clean Water Rule to be reconsidered. When he then reversed his predecessor’s denial of a permit to complete TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline, fears heightened that he might similarly bless a Canadian open pit mine in Arizona’s scenic Santa Rita Mountains—especially since he nominated a former Rosemont mine lobbyist, David Bernhardt, to serve as deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior.

The threats don’t stop there: The most direct corridor to the Santa Ritas from Mexico comes through the Patagonias, where I saw 10 exploratory drills last March, belonging to other Canadian companies searching for ore and relishing the access bestowed by the U.S.’s 1872 Mining Act. Rumors whispered in local barrooms suggest that bounties have been promised for any jaguar bagged before an environmentalist finds it.

But nature may prove too much for them. Last December, a trail camera captured a 200-pound male jaguar in the heavily forested security buffer around the Fort Huachuca army base, east of the Patagonias. Its photograph mysteriously appeared on the Facebook page of a local Boy Scout troop, which wouldn’t reveal how they got it. That fed suspicions among conservationists that government agencies, politically pressured to be hostile to jaguar recovery, might be sitting on other unreported sightings.

Then, this past February, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found a jaguar photo in one of its own cameras—a new individual, its spots revealed. This animal was 60 miles above the border, near Willcox, Arizona—twice as far north as any jaguar had been seen for half a century. Moreover, the image that was released didn’t show the animal’s hindquarters, fueling speculation that it could be female—the one thing needed to establish a permanent breeding population in the United States.

“If it were male, they’d so say immediately,” Randy Serraglio told me, “because they keep claiming there are no females here. Was this photo cropped so you can’t tell its sex? I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but these agencies have a vested interest in saying that jaguars don’t live in the U.S.”

If the president’s border wall ever gets built, they likely won’t. In addition to 300 miles of Normandy fencing, more than one-sixth of the 2,000-mile U.S.–Mexico border is already lined with 16-foot steel columns placed a few inches apart, or with steel landing mats set on edge like armored plates—or, along the Rio Grande, with 18-foot levee walls, all impenetrable to any creature bigger than a lizard that lacks wings. Some 600 contractors are now bidding on Trump’s immense proposed wall, which could block the movement of wildlife, including dozens of endangered or threatened species, across nearly the entire remainder. Though the dimensions and construction of the wall are still unspecified, Trump makes no secret of his admiration for Israel’s 26-foot-high concrete security barriers.

Once, an Israeli zoologist showed me some sad gazelles and ibex just east of Jerusalem. Their dwindling, divided populations had been effectively severed by Israel’s 400-mile-long separation wall, along with their chances of survival. In April, CBD and Congressman Raúl Grijalva, whose Arizona district borders Mexico for 300 miles, sued the Trump administration, alleging it would violate federal law if it failed to file environmental impact statements before erecting a massive, multibillion-dollar wall along a geopolitical line that is meaningless to every species but our own.


A principal reason for having an Endangered Species Act, also currently in the president’s crosshairs, is that humans didn’t evolve on this planet in a vacuum, but with companions whose fate is bound with ours. One morning before dawn in Babisal, with the Milky Way still bright over the Northern Jaguar Reserve, I’d crawled from my tent, awakened by … low growling. Like a muted roar.

Only one animal in the Americas makes such a sound. Although the waning quarter-moon was high enough to cast shadows, I could see nothing. But it was coming from across the arroyo, right where jaguar tracks had appeared two days earlier.

Humans evolved to fear carnivores—that’s one reason, I’d been told, why efforts to reintroduce them meet resistance, and why some people still want to kill them. In Sonora, ranchers had learned that it was in their interest to welcome them—and, apparently, so had I. I wanted to hear this one again. In my own land.

Alan Weisman’s books include The World Without Us, Gaviotas, and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? His work has appeared in Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among others.


The Return of the Great American Jaguar

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

The story of tracking a legendary feline named El Jefe through the Arizona mountains

By Richard Grant

The jaguar known as El Jefe—The Boss—was almost certainly born in the Sierra Madre of northwest Mexico. Chris Bugbee, a wildlife biologist who knows El Jefe better than anyone, guesses that his birthplace was in the 70-square-mile Northern Jaguar Reserve in the state of Sonora. A team of American and Mexican conservationists do their best to protect the dwindling jaguar population there, and it’s within range of the Arizona border, where El Jefe made his fateful crossing into U.S. territory.

The gorgeous leopard-like rosettes were there in his fur at birth. Each jaguar has its own arrangement of these patterns, making individuals easy to identify. El Jefe has a heart-shaped rosette on his right hip and a question mark over the left side of his rib cage. Like all newborn jaguar cubs, he came into the world blind, deaf and helpless, and gradually acquired his sight and hearing over the first few weeks. By three months, the cubs have been weaned from milk to meat, but for the most part stay in the den. “It’s a lot of waiting around for mom to get back from a hunting trip,” says Bugbee.

By six months, the cubs are emerging under maternal supervision. Aletris Neils, a fellow biologist and Bugbee’s wife, studied a jaguar mother at the reserve in Sonora. “She would always stash her cubs on a high ridge while she hunted down in the canyons,” says Neils. “When she made a kill, she would carry the meat uphill to her cubs, rather than invite them down into possible danger.” Neils thinks El Jefe’s mother may have done the same thing, and that might partially explain his liking for high slopes and ridges as an adult, although all cats seem to enjoy a vantage point with a view.

At a year and a half, the young jaguars start making walkabouts by themselves. They leave and come back again, making trial runs. Neils compares them to human teenagers who come home with dirty laundry expecting a meal. For young male jaguars, it soon becomes impossible to return home. Bigger, stronger, older males will challenge them if they try. The young males have to disperse into new territory, and every few years, one of them will walk north from Mexico into Arizona.

We associate these sleek, swaggering, immensely powerful cats with Latin American jungles, where their populations are highest, but jaguars used to live all across the American Southwest, with reports of sightings from Southern California to the Texas-Louisiana border. They were hunted out for sport and their beautiful pelts and because they posed a threat to cattle. They were trapped and poisoned by semi-professional hunters who were paid a bounty by the federal government. The last recorded female jaguar in the United States was shot dead in Arizona in 1963.

El Jefe is the fourth documented male jaguar to make the border crossing in the last 20 years. Scenting the air for prey and threats and water, prowling through the night with the rocky ground under his cushioned footpads, conscious of the need for stealth and a safe place to sleep in the daytime, hyper­aware of sounds and movement, this young cat could never have known, or cared, that he was walking into a political firestorm.

El Jefe, as he was named by excited local schoolchildren, found his way to good jaguar habitat in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, and there he took up residence. In theory, jaguars and jaguar habitat enjoy legal protection in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. That theory is now being put to the test, because a Canadian mining company, Hudbay Minerals Inc., intends to build a gigantic open-pit copper mine in El Jefe’s home territory. If the project goes ahead, the Rosemont Mine will be the third-largest copper mine in the U.S., with a dollar value estimated in the tens of billions.

For the environmentalists battling the mine, El Jefe has become a vital tool in the courts, and a rallying symbol in the battle to sway public opinion. In Tucson, a craft beer has been named after him, and a mural attests to his popularity. On the other side of the political spectrum, El Jefe has been demonized as a Mexican intruder and a menace to rural families, even though jaguar attacks on humans are incredibly rare.

Supporters of the mine are outraged that one lone Mexican jaguar could hold up such a beneficial project, promising at least 400 jobs and a $701 million annual boost to the local economy over 20 years. Those figures are considered outrageously inflated by opponents of the mine. They predict that most mining jobs would go to existing Hudbay employees, with the bulk of the copper being sold to China, and the profits banked in Canada.

Meanwhile, El Jefe sleeps away the days under shade trees, rock outcroppings and in caves. He comes out to hunt in the star-studded Arizona nights, stalking his prey with precise micromovements, and then charging with overwhelming force and crushing their skulls in his jaws. White-tailed deer are abundant, and smaller, slower animals make easy meals. Following discreetly in the jaguar’s footsteps, Chris Bugbee often comes across the remains of luckless skunks. El Jefe eats everything except the rear end, which contains the noisome scent glands, and the fluffy tail.


The dog known as Mayke is a 65-pound Belgian Malinois with long pointed ears and an affectionate disposition. She was born in Germany, where the breed is often used in aggressive police work, and shipped off to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Her new handlers trained her to detect drugs and explosives. She flunked out. Mayke is a highly intelligent dog with an excellent nose, but she scares easily and hates loud noises. Faced with a big, rumbling 18-wheel truck with hissing air brakes at a highway checkpoint, her tail would tuck and she would tremble. The Border Patrol gave up on her in early 2012.

At that time, Bugbee had settled in Tucson, after completing his master’s degree on alligators at the University of Florida. Neils, who had studied black bears in Florida, was doing her PhD at the University of Arizona, hence the move to Tucson. While Neils was at school, Bugbee was training dogs not to attack rattlesnakes. He heard about Mayke from a Border Patrol dog trainer, and dreamed up an entirely new profession for her. He would turn her into the world’s first jaguar scent detection dog, and use her to track the movements of a young male jaguar who had shown up in Arizona.

A Border Patrol helicopter pilot had reported seeing a jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains in June 2011, but the first documented sighting of El Jefe was in the nearby Whetstone Mountains in November 2011. A mountain lion hunter named Donnie Fenn and his 10-year-old daughter were riding with their hounds, 25 miles north of the Mexican border. The hounds treed a big cat, and when Fenn arrived on the scene, he was thrilled to see that it was a jaguar.

El Jefe was 2 years old and weighed about 120 pounds, but he looked so menacing and powerful that Fenn guessed his weight at 200 pounds. He stood there taking photographs, awestruck by the jaguar’s “sheer aggressiveness” and “unreal” roaring. He was used to mountain lions (also known as pumas or cougars), which vocalize aggression by snarling, but jaguars roar and growl like African lions. After the jaguar descended from the tree, the hounds gave chase, sustaining minor injuries as El Jefe swatted at them before Fenn called his dogs off. When the hounds backed away, the cat was able to make his retreat.

To train Mayke for her new profession, Bugbee procured some jaguar scat from a zoo, and put it inside a short length of PVC pipe drilled with holes. He added a smear of scat from an ocelot, another rare and endangered spotted cat that turns up in southern Arizona. “That pipe was Mayke’s toy, and for two weeks we played fetch with it, so she’d learn the smells,” says Bugbee, a tall, strong, dark-haired man in his mid-30s, with striking green eyes.

Then he started hiding the toy, so Mayke would use her nose to find it. He trained her to bark when she found it. The next stage was to remove the jaguar scat, and hide it in the desert scrub behind the Bugbee-Neils house on the edge of Tucson. When Mayke found the scat and barked, Chris gave her the toy as a reward. “Mayke won’t bark for anything but jaguar or ocelot scat,” he says. “We do drills twice a week to keep it fresh in her mind.”


While Bugbee was training Mayke, he started working as a field technician for the University of Arizona’s Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project. It was overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and funded with $771,000 of “mitigation money” from the Department of Homeland Security. The idea was to do something for wildlife, and wildlife advocates, after a new security wall was built along sections of the Mexican border. The wall has shut down many wildlife migration routes, but jaguars, ocelots and other species are still able to cross the border through rugged areas where no wall has been built.

Bugbee began by placing and monitoring motion-activated trail cameras in the backcountry of the Santa Rita Mountains. Then he got clearance to use Mayke, though the chances of finding jaguar scat in the mountain range seemed incredibly remote, even to Bugbee himself. “In arid country like this, scat only holds its scent for three days,” he says. It took several months and many hard steep miles, but finally, Mayke found some fresh scat under a manzanita bush and barked.

Bugbee didn’t praise her, or reward her with the toy, in case she was mistaken. He collected the scat and took it to the lab for genetic testing. Sure enough, it was jaguar. From its discreet placement under a bush far from any game trails, he learned that El Jefe was still cautious and unsure of himself in this new territory—“he definitely wasn’t advertising his presence.”


In a four-wheel-drive truck borrowed from his father-in-law, with camping supplies in the bed and Mayke curled up on the back seat, Bugbee turns south from Interstate 10 toward the small town of Sonoita, Arizona. For the first time, he’s agreed to take a journalist into some of El Jefe’s favorite haunts.

The landscape is reminiscent of Kenya. Mountain ranges climb up into the sky from lion-colored plains and rolling grasslands. Thorny trees line the dry watercourses. The biggest mountains in sight are the Santa Ritas, rising to 9,400 feet and mantled with pine forest at higher elevations. Outside southern Arizona, says Bugbee, these unique “Sky Island” mountain ranges are relatively little known. Ranges like the Santa Ritas, marooned from each other in a sea of desert and grasslands, used to be the main strongholds of the Chiricahua Apaches, under legendary chiefs like Cochise and Geronimo.

“When the Apaches were here, there were grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, jaguars and ocelots in the Sky Islands,” says Bugbee. “The grizzlies and wolves are gone. The mountain lions are still here, and the jaguars and ocelots keep showing up. I think Arizona should prepare to receive these animals, because the species are migrating north, but that’s not congruent with open-pit mining and a border wall.”

He turns into the Santa Rita foothills on a rough, rocky dirt road, passing cactuses and mesquite trees, and ocotillo plants with long thorny wands tipped with scarlet flowers. Cattle huddle in patches of shade, having grazed the land around them into dust. Despite the overgrazing by privately owned cattle in this national forest, Bugbee says, the native wildlife is doing remarkably well.

“El Jefe found plenty to eat here,” he says. “He was 120 pounds when he arrived. Now he’s a big adult male in his prime. He’s grown into his name.”

Bugbee has spent four years trailing, studying and dreaming about El Jefe. Thanks to Mayke, he has come across very fresh scat, but he seldom finds a track, because El Jefe prefers to walk on rocks whenever possible. His skunk-eating is unusual for a jaguar, and he’s highly inquisitive. “When I put up a camera and come back to check it a few days later, he’s often the first photograph on the card,” says Bugbee. “Sometimes he’s there at the camera just a few minutes after we leave.” The jaguar has undoubtedly watched the man and dog in his territory, but in four years of mounting obsession, Bugbee has never set eyes on El Jefe.

“Obviously I would love to see him, but I’ve never pushed hard to get close,” he says. “I don’t want to disturb him, or affect his behavior. And I like my dog. I don’t want to see him grab Mayke in his jaws and end her life right in front of me.” On one occasion, he’s almost certain that Mayke saw El Jefe. “She froze in her tracks, then stood behind me with her tail tucked. She was terrified. It had to be him.”

The road gets steeper and rougher. Crawling and jouncing in four-wheel-drive, we pass through a patchy forest of junipers, oaks and pinyon pines, with slashing canyons falling away on either side, and the pine-clad peaks high above us. Bugbee parks on a small bench of level ground, pulls on a daypack with water and food, and clips a radio collar on the excited Mayke. We’re going to check some cameras in remote canyons, and look for scat and other signs of El Jefe’s presence.

“We’ll go fast and quiet,” says Bugbee. “Mayke will keep the bears away. The mountain lions shouldn’t bother us. The only humans I’ve ever seen out here are Mexican drug-packers. If we run into them, we’ll be calm, confident, not too hostile, not too friendly.”

He sets off boulder-hopping down a canyon. Mayke scrambles and disturbs four deer that bound away with white tails lifted. A troop of coatimundis studies us, then scatters. These bowlegged, long-snouted, raccoon-like animals are yet another species whose northern range extends into southern Arizona.

After an hour of hiking in 100-degree heat, we reach the first motion-activated camera. In the last ten days it has taken 70 photographs. Thumbing through the files, Bugbee notes squirrels, a bobcat, a gray fox and two men with big heavily laden backpacks. Mayke lies down in the shade and pants like a speeding train.

Another half-hour, and a rattlesnake encounter, brings us to the second camera. It has recorded images of a black bear, a bobcat, three different mountain lions and two more drug-packers. But no spotted cats. It’s been more than five months since the last photograph of El Jefe, and although such gaps in the record are not uncommon, Bugbee is starting to get concerned. “There’s no way of knowing where he is, or if he’s alive,” he says. “I’d love to get a radio collar on him, but you can’t even mention that idea in Arizona. It’s radioactive.”


In 2009, an elderly jaguar known as Macho B—estimated to be 16, equivalent roughly in age to a 90-year-old man—was illegally baited, snared, tranquilized and radio-collared by biologist Emil McCain, a contractor working for the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD). Macho B injured himself trying to break out of the snare. The tranquilizer dose was wrong. Twelve days later, the dying, disoriented jaguar was captured and euthanized. He had been the only known jaguar in the U.S.

AZGFD then claimed that Macho B had been snared accidentally in a mountain lion and bear study. When that was exposed as a lie, USFWS investigators went after the whistle-blower, a research assistant named Janay Brun, who, under orders from McCain, had illegally baited the snare. McCain claimed he had been encouraged to catch and radio-collar the jaguar by his superiors—a charge denied by USFWS. Brun and McCain were prosecuted. As a result of this ugly, tragic saga, the idea of radio-collaring another jaguar in Arizona is anathema both to environmentalists and wildlife officials.

That night, with clouds scudding across the moon, Bugbee lights a cigar and tells his own story of intrigue and betrayal. Something about jaguars, he says, seems to bring out the worst in agencies and institutions that should be protecting them.

During his three years with the Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project, Bugbee was able to get dozens of photographs and video clips of El Jefe. Mayke sniffed out 13 verified scat samples. When the project funding ran out in the summer of 2015, Bugbee wanted to continue his research. He approached the U.S. Forest Service, AZGFD and USFWS for funding, but all three agencies turned him down. Next he went to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization based in Tucson.

The Center, as it’s known, is spearheaded by a team of attorneys who file lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act. The organization also has a long adversarial relationship with the regional office of the USF­WS.­ Randy Serraglio, the Center’s jaguar expert, contends that the agency demonstrates “a recurring pattern of caving in to political interests.”

It took several lawsuits filed by the Center, from 1994 to 2010, for the agency to grudgingly list jaguars as an endangered species in the U.S., and designate “critical habitat” for them in the Santa Ritas and other nearby mountain ranges. USFWS argued that the occasional lone wandering male jaguar did not constitute a viable population worth protecting, and that the species was not endangered on the other side of the border.

Kierán Suckling, the founder and executive director of the Center, agreed to fund Bugbee’s continuing research through donor-funded Conservation CATalyst, an organization Bugbee and Neils founded to promote awareness of big cats and advocate for protection. Neils started and Serraglio led a publicity campaign that championed El Jefe as the main reason to stop the mine.

Neils began making presentations in local schools about El Jefe and jaguars in the Southwest, and Bugbee headed back into the Santa Ritas with Mayke and a new set of cameras. Although funded by the Center, he was still operating under the university’s research permit and driving a loaner field vehicle from the university. By now, he knew many of El Jefe’s preferred watering holes, hunting areas and routes of travel, and he was able to record stunning video footage of the big, stocky jaguar crossing a rocky stream and swaggering toward the camera. El Jefe has a big, wide mouth and he keeps his muzzle open, drinking in the scented air and brushing it across his palate and nasal passages.

“I got amazing video on the U of A cameras, too, but it was all locked away in the vaults, none of it made public,” says Bugbee. “Nobody wanted to do any advocacy for jaguars, or say a word against this mine going into the best jaguar habitat we’ve got—not the university, not the wildlife agencies. El Jefe was like a dirty little secret they wanted to keep quiet. It didn’t sit right with me. It kept me up at night.”

For months, Bugbee and Neils kept their own video footage under wraps. They knew it was a powerful publicity weapon against the mine, but they worried that some hunter or mine supporter might see the footage and go into the mountains to kill El Jefe. In February 2016, they decided to risk going public.

In conjunction with the Center, Conservation CATalyst released an edited 41-second video clip of El Jefe, with the information that he was the only jaguar in the United States, and that his life was threatened by a huge open-pit copper mine. “That’s when all hell broke loose,” says Bugbee.

The video went viral; it reached an audience of 23 million people on one science Facebook page alone (“I F—ing Love Science”). It was broadcast in 800 television news stories, with a viewership of 21 million in the U.S. Worldwide, the Center estimates that 100 million people saw the video. There was a massive outpouring of support for El Jefe.

“My phone rang for two days straight,” says Bugbee. “‘Good Morning America’ called, the BBC. I heard from friends in Vietnam, Australia, Sumatra who had seen the video. It was very positive for jaguars, and it produced a very negative reaction from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the University of Arizona.”

A regional supervisor at USFWS called Neils and told her to stop the jaguar outreach program in the schools and return educational materials borrowed from the agency. Bugbee says he was threatened with legal action for harassing an endangered species. The University of Arizona removed his name from the research permit and took away his field vehicle. When the final report for the Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project was made public, after a long delay and a Freedom of Information Act request from a Tucson journalist, Bugbee saw that his name had been removed as one of its authors, even though he had written most of the draft.

Melanie Culver, who led the project at the University of Arizona, had met with Bugbee in September 2015. “We told him he could not release project photos, or videos, through the Center,” she says. “It has to go through U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He went ahead and released the video through the Center.”

The implication of her statement seems clear enough. The university is under contract with USFWS to produce unbiased scientific research on jaguars and ocelots. Bugbee, acting against her specific instructions, tainted the university’s neutrality by linking the research to an advocacy group.

Steve Spangle, USFWS field supervisor for the Southwest Region’s Arizona Ecological Services office, says Bugbee violated the terms of the research permit. “It was a stipulation that any images released must be approved by us, and cropped if necessary so that landmarks can’t be recognized,” he says. “That video is not cropped. That was our biggest concern, that it was endangering the animal.”


The coffee pot is simmering on the campfire as the sun comes up. The air is hot, parched and still. Mayke gets up stiff and hobbling, but soon limbers up when we start hiking. Bugbee wants to visit one of his favorite ridges.

It’s a long, hard scramble up a steep scree slope, followed by a plunging descent into a canyon, and then a longer climb up a steeper scree slope. This is how El Jefe travels through the mountains, as Bugbee learned the hard way. “To get my cameras in the right place, I had to stop thinking like a human, and start thinking like a jaguar,” he says. “Humans travel in the canyons, because it’s easier, but he’ll just blast up the canyon wall and over the ridge, taking the most direct route.”

Scrabbling up the loose scree, bushwhacking through lacerating thickets of oak and manzanita, we disturb two rattlesnakes who coil and buzz. Piles of fresh bear scat are littered around. Overhead, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles soar across a vast blue sky. Finally we reach a high slope under a rock outcropping that looks like a castle. “The first time we came here, Mayke found five of his scats,” says Bugbee. “I backed off and stayed away.”

Mayke leads us to the bleaching bones of a torn-apart bear carcass. Bugbee picks up the skull. The front is crushed, and the back is punctured in four places, perhaps by jaguar teeth. “This is a really interesting find,” he says. “It looks like a jaguar kill, but there are no records of jaguars killing black bears.” Then Bugbee finds some whitish dried-up scat, far too old to hold a scent. “It looks like jaguar scat,” he says, “and those look like bear hairs in the scat.”

He puts the scat and the skull into zip-lock bags and outlines a likely scenario. “A young adult bear is foraging around, El Jefe explodes from ambush, knocks him on his ass, crushes his skull, and then feeds on him. But we need to test the scat. It could be mountain lion. Those hairs might not be bear.”

From this high vantage point, El Jefe could see all the way south into Mexico; the northern ranges of the Sierra Madre cordillera are a blue silhouette on the horizon. Jaguars have a highly developed spatial memory, so El Jefe knows where he came from, and that other jaguars are there, including females.

Below us to the northeast is the proposed site of the Rosemont Mine. If its permits are approved, the mile-wide, half-mile-deep pit will be dynamited in the foothills. Trucks generating anywhere from 55 to 88 round-trip shipments a day will haul off the ore. More than a billion tons of toxic mine waste will be dumped against the mountains in piles 600 to 800 feet high, right by the only two places in the nation where jaguar and ocelot have been photographed in the same location.

A USFWS study indicates that 12 endangered and threatened species would be affected by the mine, including the Chiricahua leopard frog, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, three fish species and the northern Mexican garter snake. “The mine will pump out millions of gallons of water, drying up springs and creeks, contaminating groundwater,” says Bugbee. “In arid country like this, that’s the most devastating thing of all.”


In April 2016, the USFWS issued its long-awaited “final biological opinion” on the Rosemont Mine. Overturning its own scientists, who stated that the mine would kill or harm El Jefe and other endangered species, the agency found no reason under the Endangered Species Act to prevent construction.

Steve Spangle, the regional supervisor, says Hudbay has offered “substantial conservation measures” to mitigate the impact of the mine, including the purchase and preservation for wildlife of 4,800 acres near the mine. Hudbay’s director of communications, Scott Brubacher, stresses that mining in the U.S. is tightly regulated to minimize environmental impact. “We present a proposal to the regulatory agencies,” he says. “They’re the ones that decide if the mine is built.”

Patrick Merrin, a Hudbay vice president, points out that copper is an essential component in electronics, electrical transmission and everyday life. “The average American child born today will use 1,700 pounds of copper in a lifetime,” he says. “Where’s it going to come from?”

Jaguars and other endangered animals will be negatively affected by the mine, Steve Spangle acknowledges, but it won’t put the survival of their species in jeopardy. “There are viable populations in other locations,” he says. “If there’s a jaguar in the Santa Ritas and they start building the mine, he’ll probably be displaced and go south.”

Spangle also wants to correct a widespread misapprehension about his agency. “We don’t approve mines. We just review projects for compliance with the Endangered Species Act. We used the best available science and computer models to make this determination on the Rosemont Mine.”

Bugbee is disappointed but not surprised by U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision; in the last seven years, examining more than 6,000 projects across the nation for their impact on wildlife, the agency has not ruled against any of them. Randy Serraglio, from the Center for Biological Diversity, has filed notice to sue, challenging the final biological opinion on the Rosemont Mine. “The land has been designated as critical jaguar habitat, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife has a legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act to protect it,” he says. If USFWS prevails in the courts, the mine will then need a water permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a final permit from the U.S. Forest Service. (As this article went to press, the Los Angeles regional office of the Corps recommended denial of the project; a final decision has not been made.)

If the permits are approved, it seems certain that the mine will be built, but not any time soon. The global copper industry is a boom-and-bust business, and at present it’s going through a bad slump. “Sooner or later, the price of copper will pick up again, and if the permits are there, Hudbay or some other company is going to dig that fortune out of the ground, with a devastating impact on wildlife,” says Serraglio.


The Bugbee-Neils house on the edge of Tucson is home to five dogs, three cats, 40 baby tortoises, various chickens and turkeys, a prairie dog, a cockatoo and a roomful of snakes. Bugbee was a herpetologist until he fell under El Jefe’s spell.

Removing the bear skull from its zip-lock bag, he shows it to Neils, an expert on black bears from her years studying them in Florida. “This was a young adult female about 230 pounds,” she says. Bugbee then removes the suspected jaguar scat, spritzes it with water, and reseals it in the plastic bag. He waits for an hour and then hides the moistened scat among the cactuses in the front yard. Then he fetches Mayke from her kennel and gives her the command, “Find the scat! Find the scat!”

Mayke systematically searches the yard, zigzagging back and forth with her nose to the ground, until a breeze gets up and wafts the scent toward her. She trots directly to the scat, sniffs it, sits down, looks at Bugbee and barks twice.

“It’s jaguar!” exclaims Neils. The hairs in the scat are later confirmed in the lab as black bear. This is the first recorded predation by a jaguar on a black bear, and as Neils points out, it occurred where the northern limit of the jaguar’s range reached the southern limit of the black bear’s range. “It was north against south, and south won.”

Bugbee sits down at his laptop, and finds the last photographs and videos of El Jefe. Where is he now? He could have been shot, or killed by a vehicle. An injury could have lessened his hunting powers, leading to death by starvation. He could be in another Sky Island mountain range. There have been rumors and several unconfirmed sightings of a jaguar in the Patagonia Mountains, not far from the Santa Ritas. It could be El Jefe, or the next young dispersing male from Mexico.

“I think he’s gone back to Mexico,” says Bugbee. “Take a look at this.” He clicks open the last photograph of El Jefe, and zooms in to show his swollen testicles. “They are huge, as big as his paws, and in the last video, he’s acting antsy, like he can’t stand it anymore. He has everything he needs in the Santa Ritas except a female.”

Macho B would disappear into Mexico for long periods of time, presumably to mate. Once he was gone for eight months, and then returned to his old haunts in southern Arizona. El Jefe might be doing the same thing and show up again in the Santa Ritas any day now. “Without a radio collar, we simply don’t know,” says Bugbee. “I hope he comes back, just for personal reasons. It would make me very happy indeed.”

Richard Grant is a British journalist currently based in Mississippi. His most recent book is Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.

Borderlands Cat

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Earth Island Journal

Can Mexico Save the US Jaguar?

By Richard Mahler

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.

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.

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).

The Tenuous Fate of the Southwest’s Last Jaguars

Monday, May 30th, 2016


U.S. conservation of the endangered big cats depends on their populations in Mexico

By Richard Mahler

In February, a black-and-gold jungle cat became an internet sensation overnight. A 41-second video shows the jaguar prowling through a leafy forest and along a burbling stream, swiveling his boxy head in search of prey. Nicknamed El Jefe (The Boss), the charismatic cat was recorded on trail cameras in mountains near Tucson by two Arizona environmental groups. Most of the 22 million viewers were probably surprised to learn that this rainforest icon is actually a bonafide Southwest native.

First videotaped in November 2011, in Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains, El Jefe is among six wild U.S. jaguars documented during the past two decades, all males. If he’s looking for love, in other words, he’ll need to cross the border: There have been no female jaguars recorded in El Norte since a hunter killed the last one in 1963. But finding a Mexican mate is not easy, either.

Panthera onca won U.S. endangered species protection in 1997, but its fate is inextricably tied to Mexico. About 4,000 jaguars are believed to remain in that country, mainly in its southernmost states, where conservation work by Mexican authorities and nonprofit groups is concentrated. The northernmost population has gotten scant official attention, beyond a few incentives for private landowners, so non-governmental organizations are stepping in on both sides of the border. “In some ways,” says Jessica Moreno, a biologist with Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson environmental group, “people working for NGOs have an easier time working on behalf of jaguars because they can … move forward with less politics, red tape and bureaucracy” than government agencies.

Our knowledge of El Jefe and his kin derives mostly from trail cameras, scat collections and fleeting glimpses. The only radio-collaring of a U.S. jaguar was short-lived, ending, controversially, with the cat’s death in 2009. The Arizona Game and Fish Department euthanized “Macho B” after a veterinarian determined he suffered from kidney failure, probably related to his initial capture. The jaguar was detected for almost 13 years within a 500-square-mile portion of Arizona.

Macho B’s demise briefly ramped up government conservation efforts. Beginning in 2011, federal funds supported a four-year University of Arizona trail-cam and scat-dog survey of 16 Arizona and New Mexico mountain ranges. Yet only one jaguar — El Jefe — was detected, along with three ocelots. That helped prompt the Fish and Wildlife Service on May 3 to OK the proposed Rosemont open-pit copper mine in the Santa Ritas, contending that, with mitigation, the operation would not significantly impact jaguars, other imperiled species, or their habitat.

Despite the lack of forensic evidence, Moreno believes it is “very, very likely” that other unseen jaguars roam near both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. “There has been at least one jaguar, sometimes three or four, known to be in the borderlands every year since 1996,” she says.

In Teddy Roosevelt’s day, jaguars prowled as far north as the Grand Canyon and Gila Wilderness. Today, the closest breeding population is about 125 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, in Sonora’s Sierra Madre. Biologists believe all the U.S. jaguars are single males dispersing northward in search of mates and hunting grounds.

For U.S. jaguars to thrive, more cats of both genders must migrate from the outback. But that’s only one variable, say experts, since Sonora’s few breeding females are also threatened. A lack of genetic diversity heightens the risk of inbreeding, and wildfires, drought or disease could decimate jaguar numbers. Others worry that the link with bigger populations farther south is threatened by drug smuggling and habitat destruction. Though jaguars throughout Mexico are legally protected, several are lost each year under a loophole that allows ranchers to kill any preying upon livestock.

To lessen threats in northern Mexico, in 2003, the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project and Naturalia, a nonprofit headquartered in Mexico City, created and began co-managing an 86-square-mile sanctuary in Sonora’s prime habitat. More than 50 individual jaguars have been photographed in the Northern Jaguar Reserve and surrounding ranches since then, including mothers with cubs. It’s believed as many as 120 jaguars roam the greater area.

Heading north, however, is hazardous. Besides a scarcity of food, water and females, jaguars run a gantlet of border barriers, busy roads and well-armed humans. “It’s amazing that they show up here at all,” Sky Island Alliance’s Moreno says. “But they do.”

Prior to Macho B’s initial sighting in 1996, Arizona’s Game and Fish Department regarded the species as “an elusive mystery” for which little oversight was needed. In 2013, opposing federal designation of 765,000 acres as “critical habitat” for jaguars in his state (along with southwestern New Mexico), Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles told Fish and Wildlife that “recovery of the jaguar is completely dependent on conservation within the 99 percent of its range that lie outside of the U.S.” Indeed, most of the estimated 15,000 remaining jaguars live in tropic latitudes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is primarily responsible for U.S. protection of Panthera onca. Dismissing pleas by conservationists — and hoping to dodge the controversy spurred by its reintroduction of Mexican wolves — the agency has no plans to release jaguars in this country. Instead, spokesman Jeff Humphrey says, its jaguar-related funds have supported stateside studies and limited conservation work in Mexico, including Sonora.

The agency lost three separate lawsuits that forced it to establish a recovery plan and designate critical habitat for jaguars. But before then, it found an unlikely ally in zoologist Alan Rabinowitz. “There is still no area in the U.S. essential to the conservation of the jaguar,” wrote Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a group devoted to saving big cats, in a 2010 New York Times essay. The U.S. population, he reiterated in a recent email, is so marginal — and male — that resources are better spent on jaguars in Latin America.

Some area ranchers echo the sentiment. Last May, several livestock associations filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the existing critical habitat designation as “unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious,” claiming it would place an unnecessary burden on landowners. The Center for Biological Diversity countersued in August, asking the court to uphold the critical habitat designation.

Farther south in Mexico, a strong conservation effort seeks to link increasingly isolated jaguars with bigger populations and better habitat in Central America. Last year, government and nonprofit groups, including Panthera, announced a plan to create migration corridors for jaguars and other wildlife, running from Sonora to Chiapas in the west and Tamaulipas to Yucatán in the east. New policies would help the cats cross private lands safely and educate the public on how to co-exist with them.

Meanwhile, the non-governmental Northern Jaguar Reserve continues to be the largest conservation effort near the border. Much of the landscape is matted with low-lying thickets of thornscrub, but there are also tall palms, oaks and water-loving sycamore trees that shade deep, green canyons — home to favored jaguar prey like deer and javelina. Continuing land purchases by the group and its partners are adding thousands of additional acres to the reserve.

The reserve also seeks to reduce the biggest current threat to jaguars — conflicts with livestock.  “We understand that the local economy is based on cattle,” says Javier Valenzuela Amarillas, a Sonora native employed as a “jaguar guardian” at the reserve. “We respect that, and try to help ranchers and wildlife co-exist.” A nine-year-old alliance called Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Felines), provides cash payments to ranchers who allow researchers to set up camera traps on their lands. The reward is 5,000 pesos, or about $290, for each proof of jaguar presence, and lesser amounts for other felines. Twelve ranches participate, placing a total of about 55,000 acres under Viviendo con Felinos protection.

Sonora’s successes may eventually spread across the border to Arizona and New Mexico. But it will probably take decades or even centuries, according to the Jaguar Reserve’s late science coordinator, Peter Warshall. The ecologist wrote in a 2012 scholarly article that Sonoran females, like others of their species, stay relatively close to their mothers from one generation to the next, resulting in a painfully slow expansion of territory over time. “It may be reasonable to speculate,” Warshall concluded, “that the fastest female intergenerational lineage might return to the U.S. sky islands (such as the Santa Rita Range) in 45 to 70 years, conservatively 60 to 85, and if many of our assumptions are too optimistic, from 100 to 250 years.”

Since Warshall wrote his report, several more ranches between the Northern Jaguar Reserve and the border have volunteered to serve as research sites and protected areas. Working with the U.S.-based Sky Island Alliance and Wildlands Network, along with Sonoran educators and Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturals Protegidas (a federal park service), they may help jaguars of both sexes move into the U.S. more easily.

Some biologists believe that the jaguars migrating north may possess unique adaptive traits that make them especially valuable to the species’ survival. They speculate that the cat is among several species — including ocelots, coati, javelina, Mexican brown-nosed opossum and hog-nosed skunk — that are moving north in response to climate change. As the Southwest gets warmer and its vegetation becomes more like that of northwestern Mexico, these neotropical animals appear to be expanding their range.

“Maybe the genetic composition (of the border-crossing jaguars) is special,” says Chris Bugbee, the biologist who compiled the gone-viral clip of El Jefe for Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity. He monitors four camera traps of his own in hopes of discovering more such animals in the Santa Ritas. “I’m frustrated,” he says, “with those who say U.S. jaguars don’t matter.”

Seeking Justice for Corazón

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


By Jenny Isaacs

Jaguar killings test the conservation movement in Mexico: Female jaguar with radio collar and cub found burned near reserve in Northern Mexico

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2006 02 February 8 - Corazon - Los Pavos.webEight years ago, a female jaguar cub was caught on film by a motion-triggered camera trap set in the foothills of canyons, oak forest, and scrubland that make-up the Northern Jaguar Reserve, just 125 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This first-ever glimpse of a jaguar cub revealed the importance of this area’s protective habitat and would catalyze the Northern Jaguar Reserve’s expansion to the 50,000 acres that are safeguarded today,” noted the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP) in Tucson, Arizona in a press release.

Three years later, in 2009, the jaguar reappeared on film as an adult. They called her “Corazón” for the distinctive heart-shaped spot on her left shoulder. During the next five years, she was photographed 30 times on the reserve and became an icon for those working to expand conservation efforts in the area.

“A matriarch among jaguars in this area, Corazón’s ongoing presence gave us certainty that on the reserve, jaguars were safe,” NJP, working with its Mexican conservation partner Naturalia, wrote in a press release.

In 2012, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín and PhD student Ivonne Cassaigne, researchers with the Instituto de Ecología at UNAM (Mexico’s national university), began working to safeguard and monitor jaguars as they moved across unprotected areas adjacent to the Northern Jaguar Reserve, in partnership with a group called La Asociación para la Conservación del Jaguar en la Sierra Alta de Sonora. They were thrilled when they captured Corazón (or “Jaguar Female 01”) and fitted her with a satellite GPS collar. But on February 25, 2014, the collar transmitted a mortality signal, and an email was sent to the UNAM researchers noting that no movement had been detected for more than five hours. Corazón was lost.

Using Corazón’s last known GPS location, a field technician traced the signal to her collar and found Corazón’s carcass burned to conceal the crime of her illegal killing. Her $4,000 satellite collar—the device responsible for documenting the crime of Corazón’s murder—was also destroyed, according to a UNAM bulletin. When tracking the last movements of Corazón back to her den, the footprints of a cub were found. Sadly, researchers believe this cub would have been unable to survive without its mother.

“We knew Corazón more intimately than any other jaguar who has appeared before our cameras. Corazón grew up on the reserve, and the reserve grew with her. Her death is a tremendous loss for the northern jaguar population,” NJP wrote.

But Corazón’s death may not be in vain.

“There is an opportunity for endangered species protection to become more stringent in Mexico as a result,” the group added.

The Jaguar People

Mexicans have long regarded the jaguar as sacred. Diana Hadley, president of NJP, said that jaguar conservation is important here because the great cat is considered a God in ancestral culture.

“The jaguar is part of Mexican identity,” Medellín reiterated, adding that Mexicans are known as the “jaguar people.”

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Its habitat extends from the southwest corner of the United States to northern Argentina. Scientists have observed that male jaguars can travel 200 miles in one year making protecting them a spatial challenge.

“You can’t tell them where they should travel,” Hadley explained to

UNAM reports that persecution by people is the jaguar’s main threat, though there are many other threats, including habitat loss, hunting, federal anti-predator programs, and conflicts with livestock.

Medellín told that while there is only one jaguar currently known in the U.S. (in Arizona), Mexico’s jaguar population remains viable at around 4,000 individuals, a number his team verified in a 2012 published study.

“We’re still in good shape,” Medellín told “We have the right conditions to secure the future of the jaguar as a species in the country. But unfortunately the wheels are still turning very slowly.”

Seeking Justice

Although it has been several months since Corazón’s killing, no one has been arrested for the crime. In fact, despite the species having full protection under Mexican law, no person in the country has ever been convicted for killing a jaguar, though jaguar killing is common. Medellín, who is also a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, stressed that hunting the species “is illegal and a federal offense that is punishable by imprisonment,” adding “we are not going to permit one more death.”

However, just this month another jaguar was killed in the southern part of the country.

According to several sources, Corazón was killed on a private ranch 12 miles north of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. Journalist Isaac Torres Cruz, in a piece on May 5th for Cronica, reported that evidence suggests Corazón was poisoned and burned on the Cueva Blanca ranch in Granados, Sonora, Mexico. While there are countless similar cases, this particular case could set a historical precedent since, according to Cruz, officials have enough physical and digital evidence of a crime to persecute, but only if authorities do their job.

“What I think is important to highlight is that we have a system that is not working to protect wildlife,” PhD student, Cassaigne, told

Medellín reported to that PROFEPA, the Mexican version of the Environmental Protection Agency, seems unable or unwilling to seek justice. Despite finding Corazón’s bones and destroyed collar at her last recorded location, PROFEPA recently dropped her case.

“[PROFEPA] has no power…that’s the situation at this point in Mexico,” said Medellín.

Instead, the case was turned over to the Federal Special Unit of Environmental Crimes (a special Unit from the “Procuraduria General de la Republica”—PGR). This special unit is supposed to determine if the bones are indeed from a jaguar and then look for suspects.

Not accepting this delay, Medellín and Cassaigne sent samples of the bones to the University of Arizona and are awaiting results from genetic analysis presently underway. If a genetic determination cannot be made through the federal investigation, the University’s determination may help sway the government to prosecute.

“We have the evidence. No case before has had the physical evidence. Now the federal government needs to do its proper work to relate the evidence with the suspects. And for the very first time, we may be able to set an example of the consequences for killing a jaguar in Mexico,” said Cassaigne.

Outrage over the killing has spread with media reports of the incident. A petition demanding justice for Corazón to date has gathered over 2,747 online signatures.

“Unfortunately, the authorities have not yet shown any resolve to apply the law to the fullest extent, and this is why we’re putting the pressure on the media and with whomever we can,” Medellín said.

In late April, conservation and government leaders in the Mexican Senate organized a forum to promote the creation of a stronger government agency to represent wildlife. At the forum, the killing of Corazón and Medellín’s demands for justice were specifically mentioned as catalysts for reform.

According to Medellín, lawmakers are promising to bolster the budget, boost staff qualifications, and improve the enforcement power of Mexico’s wildlife management office. The office was created by Medellin in the 1990s, but has not been as robust as its creator hoped.

The Senate is currently discussing a reform motion to elevate Medellín’s office several notches of power within the Mexican government, increasing its influence by creating a Comisión Nacional de Vida Silvestre (National Commission for Wildlife) to handle all issues related to endangered species.

“I am hopeful that this is actually going to have an impact,” said Medellín.

He also hopes that Mexico, as well as the U.S. and Canada, might finally become signatories to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which would protect jaguars and other migrants across national borders.

Legacy of Conflict

Corazón’s killing is an example of human-wildlife conflict, a phenomenon seen around the world as wildlife habitat is fragmented and increasingly lost by conversion to agriculture or other human purposes. In Mexico, where jaguar habitat and human settlement overlaps, the competition over space and resources can lead to deadly consequences for both jaguars and livestock.

“Preferring unpopulated pockets of nature and avoiding contact with people, the ever-shy jaguar poses virtually no risk to humans. Yet indiscriminate hunting of carnivores persists,” said the NJP.

The clash often occurs because ranchers view jaguars as deadly pests to their livestock.

“Due to economic losses that livestock predation represents to ranchers, jaguars and pumas are considered threats to the very economic well-being of livestock owners. These apex carnivores are therefore killed illegally in all areas where livestock and large predators coexist,” Cassaigne explained.

Researchers have estimated jaguars could disappear from Mexico in the next 30 years if conditions do not change, as more than 90 percent of land in Mexico remains unprotected.

“To protect jaguars and pumas, we need to create different alternatives that will allow livestock and predators to co-exist,” noted Cassaigne.

Protecting Jaguars Locally

While many who care about wildlife wait for a stronger response from the Mexican government, action is being taken at the local level.

For her PhD project at UNAM, Cassaigne works cooperatively with local ranchers to develop favorable conservation options. She is currently researching the effects of restoring native prey as a way to decrease predation on cattle, testing the hypothesis that if jaguars have other food sources to eat, they will not go after cattle.

“We will first determine predation rates of pumas and jaguars on livestock so as to either dispel or confirm the beliefs of area ranchers that predators are the major cause of their livestock losses,” she explained. “We will test the hypothesis that good densities of prey will reduce livestock predation. Once proven at a local level, we can expand it to an ecosystem level.”

Medellín and Cassaigne hope their project will become a conservation approach that allows cattle and wildlife to co-exist while providing real protection for jaguars and pumas.

“We’re trying to harmonize a coexistence between cattle ranchers—who are the original landowners, we don’t want to kick anybody out—and jaguars,” Medellín said.

The researchers were using Corazón’s data to prove that when jaguars are offered alternative prey, such as deer and javelina, they leave cattle alone. But with Corazón’s death, the study was interrupted.

“We did get some data but it would have been more complete if we had been able to follow her for a longer time,” said Cassaigne. “Then we could show the ranchers how natural prey is important to decrease their livestock depredation. This would have been of great value for all ranchers.”

But in the meantime, stories like Corazón and her orphaned cub go a long way toward fortifying the argument for the creation of additional protected areas such as the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

“[A] small group of conservationists and biologists formed NJP in 2003 because we saw a great opportunity to start a reserve and partner with Naturalia for a relatively small expense, compared to conservation purchases in the U.S.,” Hadley told Moreover the reserve’s “Jaguar Guardians” maintain an extensive network of motion-triggered cameras, inventory the ecological health of the land and water, and work with ranchers to support local wildlife.

NJP and Naturalia instituted a program called Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Cats) to actively create a buffer zone around the reserve. Participating ranchers must first sign a pledge not to harm large carnivore then NJP and Naturalia provide motion-triggered cameras. Ranchers receive payments for photographs of the area’s four large felines—jaguar, mountain lion, bobcat, and ocelot. NJP and Naturalia also assist ranchers in implementing habitat restoration strategies on their properties.

Viviendo con Felinos is the best way we can envision to build local tolerance for jaguars and minimize human-wildlife conflicts,” said NJP.

Cassaigne added that “the future of wild jaguar populations stands at a crossroads. If ranchers’ needs and concerns for losses due to predation are not addressed, illegal killing will continue to be a driving force in the extirpation of jaguars.”

A Future Landscape for Jaguars

Following a rewilding conservation model of “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores,” NJP and its partners in academia, government, and civil society are working to support the jaguar (carnivore) by expanding protected areas, such as the Northern Jaguar Reserve (core), and connecting disparate fragmented areas of its range (corridor). Such a model also benefits the habitat of other less charismatic species within protected jaguar range.

“The reserve acts as the centerpiece of regional conservation efforts and as a jaguar stronghold linking protected areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora,” said NJP.

Cassaigne’s and Medellín’s project, which collared Corazón, is based in such a core study area that has been defined as part of the Terrestrial Priority Regions for Conservation in a nation-wide management plan to conserve jaguars.

While individual jaguars have been documented in the mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico, field investigations have determined that the nearest breeding population of 80 to 120 jaguars exists in Sonora, Mexico, approximately 125 miles south of the border. Medellín told that he hopes to connect these small pockets of northern jaguars with larger populations to the south, across the country, all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula.

But, a major obstacle for jaguars and other terrestrial wildlife moving internationally to the north is the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which prohibits the free movement and genetic mixing of animals across their full range.

“In places where there aren’t any border walls, wildlife are obstructed by excessive border patrolling,” explained Hadley to

“The U.S.-Mexico border wall stops jaguars and other wildlife species dead in their tracks,” added NJP. “It wreaks havoc on animal habitat, disrupts migratory wildlife patterns, and alters fragile ecosystems.”

NJP noted that it is working to protect the source population for jaguars returning to the U.S. so that “when the border wall is no more and the obstacles are removed, the cats will be there.”

With such an ambitious vision of jaguars and people living harmoniously together across a much broader range, these jaguar guardians are looking to the future.

“We hear many stories of wildlife reserves around the globe that have been successfully established but later flounder because the caretakers lack the means to properly maintain them, surveillance is inadequate, there isn’t enough management, and sometimes no restoration,” said the group. “We are committed to making sure the Northern Jaguar Reserve grows into a model sanctuary.” According to Hadley, jaguars need “more funds for reserve expansion in Sonora, reserves in other parts of the country, and better education regarding conservation in Mexico.”

Many hope the gruesome death of Corazón and the anger it has caused worldwide may ironically end up producing these very things. But Medellín sees a long road ahead in the push to create better protections for wildlife.

“I’ve always said that the Mexican public is 20 years behind the United States in terms of environmental conscience. We see that there are more people engaging in the issues and starting to find out about the fate of [the environment], but this is still very incipient in Mexico.”

Though justice for Corazón is far from served, Medellín remains determined to bring about a brighter future for wildlife in Mexico. Instead of submitting to despair, his advice to anyone who is frustrated with the slow process of change is to turn inward and take responsibility.

“Can you do something? Can you manifest your disgust for this? Can you say something to your authorities? To your friends? To whomever you have around about this issue?,” he asks. “As the world advances it is more evident to me that the power of one is the sole thing that can really change the world. If you think that your power as an individual has no bearing, no influence whatsoever on the results of whatever you’re trying to pursue, then the battle is lost. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that power resides in ourselves. And we all have things to do: from talking to our friends and families, to engaging the authorities and demanding that the authorities do the job that we put them there to do.”

Until then, he and others will continue to seek justice for Corazón and for all wildlife in Mexico.

Desde el Rio Sahuaripa

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Started in 2010 by Viviendo con Felinos rancher José de la Cruz Coronado, this monthly newsletter, “Desde el Rio Sahuaripa,” has prominently featured the Northern Jaguar Reserve and the local jaguar population, referring to it as the pride of Sahuaripa.

June 2014 – “Educación Ambiental en Sahuaripa” (pg. 9)

August 2010 – “Ranchos vecinos de la Reserva del Jaguar del Norte” (pg. 2)

May 2010 – “Jaguares en mi rancho” (pg. 3)

April 2010 – “La Reserva del Jaguar del Norte un orgullo más de Sahuaripa” (pg. 2)

Remembering Biogladiator Peter Warshall, 1943-2013

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

conservation biology

By Joel T. Helfrich

Peter conservation biology 2Peter Warshall, a distinguished bioanthropologist, environmentalist, botanist, self-described “infrastructure freak” and “maniacal naturalist,” essayist, community servant, father, and husband died in April 2013. Admirers wrote, “If you crossed a zealous field biologist with a humanist anthropologist and an angel flew through the brew, you might get Peter Warshall” (Ausubel & Harpignies 2004). Warshall was preaching sustainability before the word was defined. He was an expert regarding topics as varied as the ecology of septic systems (he helped install the country’s first recycling sewage system in Bolinas, California), community development, the Mount Graham red squirrel and other endangered species, Sky Island ecosystems, and indigenous and local food systems. Warshall was editor of Whole Earth Catalogue, a teacher at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, and a consultant for USAID, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Ethiopia, and the Tohono O’odham and Apache Tribes. He was a pragmatist who worked for the Global Business Network as an ecosustainability expert to international businesses, including Volvo and Clorox. Warshall was trained and experienced in natural history and resource management (especially wastewater, watersheds, and wildlife), conservation biology, biodiversity assessments, environmental impact analysis, and conflict resolution and consensus building among divergent economic and cultural groups (Hunt 2013; Kress 2013).

Warshall grew up in the Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York. He spoke fondly about working on Saturdays (“my great day”) at his small plot at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Children’s Garden and then collecting popsicle sticks to get tickets to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. He studied at Harvard where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and a PhD in anthropology and biology. The literary and cultural critic, Fredric Jameson, was Warshall’s mentor at Harvard during the early 1960s. Jameson remarked, “Peter was probably the best student I ever had” in more than 50 years of teaching (F. Jameson, personal communication). Jameson helped Warshall secure a Fulbright Fellowship to study cultural anthropology—specifically, American Indian history and mythology—with the preeminent Claude Levi-Strauss (Snider-Bryan 2013). Simultaneously, he worked with fellow polymath Francois Bourlière, an expert in gerontology and mammalogy. Warshall’s PhD dissertation was on kinship and group cohesion among rhesus macaques.

Warshall always wanted to live in the U.S. Southwest, after falling in love with the area while visiting the Chiricahua and Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona when he was in his twenties. After more than a decade living in California, working with nonprofit organizations, writing articles on septic systems, and serving as the mayor of Bolinas, he moved to Tucson, Arizona. There, he made his living designing septic tanks and greywater systems. As a research scientist for Arid Land Studies at the University of Arizona, he traveled to Africa frequently during the 1980s. Warshall published lengthy governmental and NGO reports that focused on water and wildlife and natural resource management. He worked in Kenya, Chad, Niger, Mali, and Senegal, where he was able to use his fluent French. He studied the Niger and Senegal Rivers and Lake Chad. He became an expert on and found a number of uses for water hyacinths. In 1991, Warshall assisted his wife, Diana Hadley, to complete an ethnoecological study of Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona, for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

He was an outstanding teacher and writer, capable of explaining complicated concepts simply and beautifully. His personal essay, “Finding Your Animal Ally: How a Squirrel Led Me to Congress and the Vatican,” is inspiring (Warshall 2001). Warshall was the editor of the celebrated Whole Earth Catalogue from 1996 to 2005, but wrote for the publication for 30 years. He educated readers on topics as varied as environmentally friendly laundry detergents, global water supply and policies, place making and the “placed-based commons,” renewable energy, “bambi repellants,” restorative fire, bees, extinction, the history of soy, Beatrix Potter, Lynn Margulis, and Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote countless reviews of books, composters, and toilets. His essays were some of the best nature writing, indeed, some of the best writing in general. He wrote beautiful essays on whales and dolphins, Edward Abbey, symbiosis, orchids, humans, and sex (Warshall 1974, 2004a, 2004b). Warshall was passionate about Sky Island archipelagos globally, as well as the uniqueness of the Sky Islands of the Southwest (Warshall 1986, 1994a, 1995). Because of his writings and knowledge, he served on boards of organizations such as the Sky Island Alliance.

Warshall was a supreme communicator and story teller, whose life was filled with jaw-dropping experiences. He was in Kenya when actor John Wayne killed an elephant—the opposite of “symbiosis,” Warshall said (Warshall 2004b). His roommate at Harvard was noted Buddhist journalist Rick Fields. He was friends with Beat poets and artists, notably Allen Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, and Gary Snyder; a student and colleague of prominent scholars in literature, anthropology, and biology, including Luna Leopold, Levi-Strauss, Margulis, and Anne Waldman; and he communicated regularly with countless scholars, experts, and activists. After completing his coursework at Harvard, he had a contract job that he loved, sorting feral horses from genuine Nez Perce horses. Warshall helped to initiate bird rescue after the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill, a catalyst for global efforts to rescue birds following disasters. In the late 1980s, he was in a vehicle accident in Botswana that nearly killed him (Warshall 1996a). Warshall designed the savannah and selected animals for Biosphere II. He confronted then Republican Congressmen Rick Renzi of Arizona during a 2004 community hearing aimed at garnering support for gutting the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Renzi thought he had gained the upper hand by announcing the hearing, but by the end of the night the community was on Warshall’s side.

Warshall appeared in films such as Blue Gold: World Water Wars and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour. He encouraged viewers to become active: “To learn nature now is not to be weak at heart. You have to . . . become a biogladiator. And as a biogladiator, be able to go through successes and failures and absorb the pain of the earth without letting the pain of the earth kill you.” He remarked that any conservation biologist should be “part lawyer, part teacher, part biogladiator.” Warshall took scientists to task: “I really feel the academics need to be tweaked a little bit. Fear of job loss or stagnation is what keeps the majority of biologists from becoming biogladiators.” As he put it, “Taking an active role in the politics of biology is not part of a lot of scientists’ personalities. But biologists who don’t speak out on biological issues become the passive accepters of the loss of biodiversity . . . . Even if you have an Endangered Species Act, it doesn’t help if you have [agency biologists] unwilling to implement it” (Jones 1995; Davis 2013).

He practiced what he preached. According to Warshall, “the Office of Arid Land Studies simply stopped funding me” after he joined the opposition to University of Arizona astrophysical development on Mount Graham, a sacred and ecologically unique Sky Island ecosystem that is home to 18 endemic species of plants and animals (P. Warshall, personal communication). Warshall located a number of species on the mountain and wrote ecological impact statements in the 1980s. He formed Scientists for the Preservation of Mount Graham to protect the imperiled biodiversity. Organization members included influential conservation scholars such as Michael Soule, Paul Ehlich, and Stephen Jay Gould. Warshall’s organization obtained an opposition resolution in 1991 from the Society for Conservation Biology, which represented nearly 4000 members worldwide. European astrophysicists passed resolutions and signed letters against the telescopes. Warshall’s group was instrumental in encouraging Gould to write one of his well-cited essays: “The Golden Rule: a Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis,” which appeared in Natural History. The Harvard–Smithsonian astrophysical program dropped the project and took its research dollars elsewhere. Warshall was at the forefront of biocultural initiatives to protect Mount Graham. His still appreciated essay, “The Biopolitics of the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel,” appeared in this publication (Warshall 1994b, 1996b).

While he battled cancer, he managed to establish the nonprofit Dreaming New Mexico to assess and change the state’s food, agricultural, and energy polices. Through his involvement with the Northern Jaguar Project, he fought tirelessly for the northernmost population of jaguars and their habitat, despite undergoing 30 months of chemotherapies. Just 2 weeks prior to his death, he was honored as a “Local Genius” by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Tucson. According to MOCA, “the awards are inspired by the ancient Roman concept of genius loci, or ‘spirit of place,’ honoring visionary and innovative Tucsonans whose activities have a global impact, and whose talents have been internationally recognized” (Stratford 2013). His wife wrote that before he died “he was working on a book on the evolution of color on the planet” and another regarding global environmental history (Hadley 2013). One of Warshall’s most fascinating lectures is titled “Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth.” He was always concerned with big ideas.

Warshall felt strongly about sense of place and individual spirit: “[T]wo things . . . can perhaps save the world. One would be the mastery of one’s kindness to oneself . . . And the other would be understanding your passion for place—for where you live—and really loving the place that you live in.” He advised individuals to find an animal totem. Warshall’s allies were the turtle and the Mount Graham red squirrel.


Literature Cited

Ausubel, K., and J. P. Harpignies, editors. 2004. Nature’s operating instructions. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

Davis, T. 2013. Remembering the late Peter Warshall. Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Arizona. Available from–994a-0019bb2963f4.html (accessed January 2014).

Hadley, D. 2013. In memoriam: Peter Warshall. Northern Jaguar Project, Tucson, Arizona. Available from http://www. (accessed August 2013).

Hunt, S. 2013. In memoriam—Peter Warshall. Central Coast Bioneers, San Luis Obispo, California. Available from (accessed December 2013).

Jones, L. 1995. The biogladiator. High Country News, Paonia, Colorado. Available from (accessed January 2014).

Kress, R. 2013. Peter Warshall—tribute. YoginiRose Therapeutics, Tucson, Arizona. Available from (accessed January 2014).

Snider-Bryan, C. 2013. Peter Warshall. Color of Sand, Sandoval County, New Mexico. Available from (accessed December 2013).

Stratford, H. 2013. Desert Museum inaugural concert features John Jorgenson Quartet. Inside Tucson Business, Tucson, Arizona. Available from–001a4bcf887a.html (accessed April 2013).

Warshall, P. 1974. The way of the whales. Pages 110–131 in J. McIntyre, editor. Mind in the waters. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Warshall, P. 1986. Biogeography of the high peaks of the Pinaleños. Reprint. Maricopa Audubon Society, Phoenix, Arizona.

Warshall, P. 1994a. The Madrean sky island archipelago. Pages 6–18 in L. F. DeBano et al., editors. Biodiversity and management of the Madrean archipelago. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Warshall, P. 1994b. The biopolitics of the Mt. Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciuris hudsonicus grahamensis). Conservation Biology 8:977–988.

Warshall, P. 1995. Southwestern sky island ecosystems. Pages 318–322 in E. T. LaRoe, G. S. Farris, C. E. Puckett, P. D. Doran, and M. J. Mac, editors. Our living resources. U.S. Biological Service, Washington, D.C.

Warshall, P. 1996a. Saying adios. Pages 227–231 in J. R. Hepworth and G. McNamee, editors. Resist much, obey little. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

Warshall, P. 1996b. Astronomy and animals on Mt. Graham. Conservation Biology 10:1479–1480.

Warshall, P. 2001. Finding your animal ally. Bioneers, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Available from (accessed Summer 2002).

Warshall, P. 2004a. The eye of the world. Pages 208–210 in K. Ausubel and J. P. Harpignies, editors. Nature’s operating instructions. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

Warshall, P. 2004b. Symbiosis. Pages 137–159 in A. Waldman and L. Briman, editors. Civil disobediences. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Big Picture, In Stunning Detail

Thursday, January 9th, 2014


How new imaging technology aids wildlife conservation

From the Defenders of Wildlife Blog

There’s a brave new world of image-capturing technologies out there, and conservationists like Defenders’ Senior Southwest Representative Craig Miller are using them to enhance the efficacy of field work, and to share it with the world.

Originally used on the Mars exploration, GigaPan is a new camera-based technology that employs a robot mounted on a tripod. The robot precisely moves a camera vertically and horizontally to take sequential photos, and then stitches them together to produce billion-pixel resolution images. These images can then be “explored” remotely from any computer.

GigaPan, the brainchild of a partnership between Carnegie-Mellon University Robotics Lab, Google Earth, NASA and the FINE Foundation, has produced what science writer Karen A. Frenkel calls “an immersive, interactive experience that can reveal surprising details – an ant on a leaf in a forest, or a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower in a backyard.”

Armed with the new ability to, as Frenkel says, “[view] nature through a huge magnifying glass,” the organizations next gathered scientists from around the world to test GigaPan’s true colors by exploring field applications of the technology. Miller, one of the FINE fellows, has set up experimental photo-monitoring sites associated with Defenders’ jaguar, wolf and border conservation programs. At the sites, he uses GigaPan to document impediments to wildlife movement and measure ecological changes in response to various landscape treatments, such as livestock removal, erosion control and the eradication of invasive plants.

The GigaPan images are proving very useful for such conservation work because they are so detailed that land managers stationed miles away can identify individual plant and animal species, showing which species are using the area and how ecosystems are changing over time. For example, Defenders is working in partnership with Northern Jaguar Project to use GigaPan at the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Northeastern Sonora to help monitor the effectiveness of management actions aimed at improving habitat conditions for the jaguar’s native prey. Here, the extremely detailed panoramic images allow us to study “before and after” changes in vegetation and erosion patterns in an area where livestock were removed five years ago. The images tell researchers how much forage is available for the species that jaguars prey on, and what other kinds of animals are sharing the landscape.

“We’re using GigaPan to measure vegetative groundcover, terracing and erosion associated with hundreds of years of unmanaged livestock grazing, and the impacts of removing livestock,” said Miller.  “We’re seeing tremendous rebound in ground cover, grasses and native shrubs.”

Defenders trained staff and volunteers of Northern Jaguar Project how to use the GigaPan equipment and obtained an additional GigaPan unit to support ongoing monitoring at the Northern Jaguar Reserve, which means the technology can now be used more frequently to help inform management of the reserve. GigaPan images help document the presence and distribution of invasive species such as buffelgrass, as well as the effectiveness of treatments to remove invasive species and of gabions, or “mini-dams,” placed in creek beds to reduce erosion and runoff.

GigaPan is also being used to monitor wildlife corridors between the United States and Mexico, and to monitor border infrastructure that may impede wildlife movement between the two countries.

“One thing that makes GigaPan different from any other photo monitoring is that it allows you to provide large landscape images, as well as small close up plots in the same image,” Miller says. “You can put these small plots into the context of a much larger area, and have a large macro view and several micro views at the same time.”

GigaPan can help convey the importance of changes in the landscape to a wide audience, an audience that doesn’t have to be made up of trained scientists.

“You can see, very clearly, the changes occurring on the landscape over multiple years. GigaPan helps us detect, monitor and report changes, which helps guide our conservation activities,” Miller says.

There are close to 160 remote-triggered still and video cameras on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, which are capturing dozens of images of the wildlife that uses the reserve, such as jaguars, military macaws and neotropical river otters. By integrating these images with landscape-level GigaPan imagery of the same areas, Miller hopes to create images that tell a story that captures the imagination of wildlife lovers.

“A picture is worth a thousands words, and in this case, there can be a thousand pictures in one GigaPan, which can tell even more of a story,” Miller says. “It’s like an adventure; it allows you to really explore the landscape up close.”

But, it’s not all just about getting that close-up. GigaPan images will hopefully be used to build more support for habitat conservation where it is needed most – for example, the images show that contrary to popular belief, species like jaguars thrive in the northernmost portion of their range.

“Seeing real pictures of a jaguar in this northern thorn scrub habitat will help dispel the myth that jaguars are just a tropical species,” Miller says. “Within 120 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, we have nesting military macaws, breeding jaguars and ocelots, even neotropical river otters. GigaPan can potentially help educate a broader audience about the uniqueness and importance of this habitat, and hopefully motivate them to help conserve these biologically unique areas.”

Tortuga de la Sierra Madre

Sunday, December 1st, 2013


By Robert A. Villa

My Encounter with a Cryptic and Elusive Turtle: Near the end of a weeklong biological reconnaissance in 2012, I encountered one of North America’s least known chelonians on the eastern bank of the Río Yaqui in northern Sonora.

Spotted box turtle2After graduating from high school, I made my first journey beyond the border town of Nogales. As we drove south into the state of Sonora, I first encountered the Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai), now recently described as a distinct species, inhabiting tropical deciduous forest rather than its typical desert home. Stopping at the Río Yaqui bridge, I imagined all the mysterious verdant canyons descending from the wild Sierra Madre. As we approached the magical land surrounding the small town of Alamos – in all of her tropical splendor – I was awestruck at finally arriving at this epicenter of reptile diversity.

Around 23 million years ago the Sierra Madre Occidental cordillera was lifted by tectonic and volcanic force from tropical lowlands, creating the physio-climatic setting for Sonoran biodiversity. Over the past million years, recurrent ice ages and interglacials expanded and contracted the various desert, temperate and tropical biomes.

The modern Sonoran ecosystem has predominantly tropical affinities, but desert and temperate mountain biomes intermix, all within a few hours’ drive of the U.S. border. Most notable are the temperate and tropical species reaching their extreme geographical limits via biotic corridors on and along the Sierra Madre Occidental and the adjacent lowlands. These corridors are deep, north-south canyons, or barrancos, that act as tropical shelters from seasonally cold winter storms from the north.

Alamos is a charming colonial town but also a “hot spot” destination for turtle lovers where a variety of species may be encountered in a small geographic area. In addition to the forest dwelling Desert Tortoise, Mexican Wood Turtles (Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima), Sonoran Sliders (Trachemys nebulosa hiltoni) and three Mud Turtle species (Kinosternon alamosae, K. hirtipes, K. integrum) can be found. Here too, resides one of the most elusive North American species: the Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni).

Probably the first specimen of the Spotted Box Turtle collected for science was by the Nelson-Goldman expedition of the Smithsonian Institution in 1897. The Spotted Box Turtle was named after Dr. E.W. Nelson in honor of his epic biological expeditions across Mexico when Norwegian-born zoologist Leonhard Stejneger described the species in 1925.

In July of 2012 I had the pleasure of assisting with a biological rafting expedition of the Río Aros and surrounding wilderness. The purpose was to help monitor the spectacular Los Pavos/Northern Jaguar Project Reserve and surrounding properties for possible acquisition by the reserve, which are flanked by the Aros. Rafting is the only practical route of entry to the interior of these large remote properties, and travel by river is not easy as there are difficult rapids in places. The particularly lush foothill thornscrub we were entering led me to entertain the hope of establishing new locality records of the known range of Beaded Lizards and other tropical herps. On the forefront of my mind was the chance I might find what has been described as the holy grail of North American turtles, the Northern Spotted Box Turtle, that had been reported on previous rafting trips to this region. Since learning of this secretive creature, I knew I had to find this precious gem of North American chelonians in the Mexican back of beyond.

The launch site was at Natora – a two-day drive from Tucson, with the second day taken up by driving over mountainous dirt roads 62 miles from the nearest town. This little village is the last outpost before entering some of the most wild and inaccessible terrain in the Sonoran region. In the chaotic assembly of the rafts, gear and supplies, we were drenched by a chubasco (monsoonal downpour), which left us shivering in the middle of July. The locals had more ammunition for the theory that gringos are crazy, and as the river rose I began to agree. Among the gathering crowd, I managed to buy a liter of home-distilled bacanora from a local drunk. This regional mezcal (agave liquor) made from the Narrow-leaved Agave (Agave angustifolia) would be a most appreciated purchase later on. It was getting late and the spectators now included young men hoping we could get them and/or their clandestine goods to el otro lado (the other side [of the border]) if we hired them as helpers. They offered us anything we wanted within their recreational pharmacopeia. We launched without them and landed just a couple miles downstream before dark.

We had reached the point of the trip where the Aros meets the Bavispe to form the Yaqui. It was all smooth sailing from here, and I was relieved, since I’d had enough whitewater by this point! But I was admittedly dismayed not to have seen the more impressive reptiles known from this river, including Indigo Snakes and Spotted Box Turtles. Every day we’d wake early to explore canyons in search of biota before breaking camp. I should have seen something new by now…

Toward the end of the trip we were in a lovely canyon with seeps from which we filtered drinking water. Going to the raft for a tool, I noticed a log worth inspecting for reptiles. Hot and somewhat depressed, I lifted it, and realizing it was heavier than I thought, dropped it on my foot, scraping off a gnarly bit of skin.

PUTA MADRE! Cursing my rookie move, I looked up and became instantly joyous. There in her quizzical silence a Spotted Box Turtle beheld a most peculiar ape. The ape was bleeding, in pain and dancing. I had found one of North America’s most secretive and little known chelonians. Photos were taken, gratuitous and documentary, and all was good.

In the thrill of the moment I neglected my duty as a naturalist to observe anything of importance relating to the animal in its natural setting.

Like other box turtles, the Spotted Box Turtle is active during the summer rainy season (July to September). The apparent difficulty in finding this turtle may be due to a combination of its remote, densely vegetated habitat and effective camouflage. The few specimens reported have been found in a variety of habitats and corresponding elevational gradients including foothills thornscrub, tropical deciduous forest, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland and mixed conifer forest.

This turtle has been documented to eat beetles and cactus fruit, as evidenced by crimson, juice-stained beaks. One can surmise that they will likely be as opportunistic as other box turtles and eat carrion, bird eggs and nestlings, other fruits, and scavenge through scat.

Much of the range of this turtle lies within mountainous regions where socially volatile and clandestine activities occur. The heart of its range is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, and being mixed up with narcotraficantes could, in part, explain the paucity of specimens and locality records. However, within the last few years, new records of the Spotted Box Turtle have augmented its poorly known distribution. The discovery of populations by American and Mexican biologists near Nácori Chico, Sonora, and Quila, Jalisco, significantly extended the range limits of the Spotted Box Turtle.

Today a variety of threats face the Spotted Box Turtle in Sonora. Most directly is the practice of slashing and burning of habitat to plant Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) for cattle. Northern Mexico shares the deep-rooted romanticism for cattle ranching and the cowboy with the U.S., so it’s not surprising that in 2003 government figures showed cattle (largely subsidized by the government) occupied 83 percent of the state of Sonora. There are few formal protected areas in the state, and these cover less than six percent of the land area. Over its entire range, the Spotted Box Turtle only occurs in four wilderness preserves. There are continuing threats to the species’ survival from logging, agricultural, urban and highway expansion, and climate change.

Among a few local names given to the Spotted Box Turtle, one that stands out is from Alamos where some elders refer to it as tortuga de chispitas (turtle of little sparks) in reference to the many yellow spots on the shell and skin. Indeed, sparks will fly whenever I lay my eyes on this chelonian.

Robert Villa is a field biologist and musician from Tucson, Arizona with a love of chelonians. He is keenly interested in the cultural and natural histories of the Sonoran region and Mesoamerica. He is currently president of the Tucson Herpetological Society, which is dedicated to conservation, education, and research of amphibians and reptiles of Arizona and Mexico.