Group Enlists OV in Fight to Save Endangered Jaguars

December 31, 2007

By Ty Bowers, Northwest Explorer

He called it an “eerie” sight.

Motion-triggered cameras along the Arizona-Sonora border during the day capture images of illegal immigrants and hikers, according to Bill Van Pelt, a state game biologist.

At night, on those same trails, the cameras snap stills of jaguars.

Long thought to have been extirpated in Arizona, jaguars – the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and a relative of the lion, tiger and leopard – in recent years have been documented slinking through the mountains and canyonlands of rugged southeast Arizona.

Perhaps the mighty cats never left the state, despite a century of predator-control efforts and rampant development in Tucson and points south.

The jaguars found in southeast Arizona, an hour’s drive or two from Tucson, likely come from Sonora, Mexico, according to scientists.

There, a Tucson group, the Northern Jaguar Project, maintains an extensive preserve in the cat’s breeding grounds. And here, conservationists worry that the ill effects of illegal immigration and rapid suburban growth threaten to fracture the jaguars’ Arizona range, historically an important area for the cats.

“It’s death by thousands of cuts,” said Lisa Haynes, a cat biologist and board member of the Northern Jaguar Project.

On Dec. 19, Haynes and Diana Hadley, the group’s executive director, spoke to a packed audience at the Western National Parks Association Store in Rancho Vistoso about the plight of borderland jaguars.

Their group wants to add another 35,000 acres to its 10,000-acre preserve in northeastern Sonora, at the confluence of the Aros and Yaqui rivers.

Doing so would cost $49 per acre, or about $1.7 million.

Haynes and Hadley hope interested Oro Valley residents might open their pocketbooks and wallets to help their cause.

A chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” reverberated through the room as Haynes, herself a former state game biologist and current researcher at the University of Arizona, projected an image of a male jaguar onto a large screen.

The cats are what scientists term “apex carnivores,” Haynes told the audience.

When such top predators become extinct, she explained, entire ecosystems devolve into “dysfunction.”

Few studies have been conducted on jaguars living in Mexico and ranging into the Southwest U.S., according to Van Pelt. Primarily a tropical resident, the breeding population in Sonora marks the species’ northernmost outpost.

A large animal – about 5 to 8 feet from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail – the jaguar bears distinct markings, usually dark spots surrounded by rosettes. It often is referred to as a “roaring cat,” emitting the guttural sounds most commonly associated with lions or tigers.

It is a creature with mythic status in many Native American and Mesoamerican Indian cultures. In fact, that’s how the animal derived its name, according to scientists David E. Brown and Carlos A. López González, who wrote the 2001 book Borderland Jaguars: Tigres de la Frontera.

“It’s English name, jaguar, is said to come from the word yaguara in the Tupi-Guarani language of Amazonia, which has been variously reported to mean ‘eater of us,’ ‘body of a dog,’ and most recently, ‘the wild beast that overcomes its prey at a bound’,” the scientist wrote.

Even in regions where mountain lions are present, the jaguar rules, Haynes told the Vistoso crowd.

The cat preys upon most everything, including cattle. That fact led to the animals near-extirpation from Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas during the 20th century.

“Direct predator control is the reason we have no jaguars living in Arizona,” said Van Pelt, who, for the last 10 years, has studied the animal’s habits in Arizona.

In 1996, a rancher named Warner Glenn photographed a jaguar he treed in the rugged Peloncillo Mountains in eastern Arizona. It was the first time anyone had reported seeing the animal here since 1971, according to biological records. That same year, mountain lion hunter Jack Childs photographed and videotaped a jaguar in the Baboquivari Mountains, about 1-1/2-hours drive southwest of Tucson.

The pair’s sightings sparked immediate interest among environmental groups, scientists and state and federal wildlife officials.

In 1997, the federal government formed a multi-state jaguar conservation team to determine exactly how Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico might work together to conserve the endangered jaguar’s habitat.

“We took this very seriously,” said Van Pelt, a member of the conservation team. “Before we even got started, there wasn’t any evidence of a breeding population in Mexico.”

But real action, aside from numerous studies and discussions, remains slow. In August, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to get regulators to develop a recovery plan and designate habitat for the endangered cat in the U.S.

That lawsuit still is wending its way through federal courts.

In the meantime, scientists must answer two key questions about borderland jaguars: 1) How exactly does the cat use the Arizona/New Mexico portion of its range? and 2) What exactly can the U.S. do to ensure its long-term existence in the Southwest?

“Just as we’re adapting to (the jaguar’s presence), to some extent the cat is adapting as well,” Van Pelt said.

Little historical evidence exists that shows whether the jaguar indeed ever bred in the Southwest. Most records of kills throughout the 20th century involved male jaguars.

The last female jaguar found in Arizona was shot and killed in 1963 south of Big Lake in the White Mountains, according to the book by Brown and López González. Before that, deer hunter Walter Noon shot and killed a female at Cerro Colorado, south of Tucson, in 1949.

Most recent photographs show only males roaming in Arizona, according to an Arizona Game and Fish Department report issued in February 2007.

Conservation groups, like the Northern Jaguar Project, which is headquarted on Grant Road, aim to preserve key wildlife corridors that scientists believe the cats use to get into Arizona from Mexico.

The Northern Jaguar Project’s Mexico preserve stands in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Haynes believes that jaguars, trying to stake out new territory, traverse the smaller ranges north into southeast Arizona’s Sky Islands, a network of ranges that includes the Tumacacori Highlands and the Santa Rita and Chiracahua mountains.

The proposed and partially built portions of the border fence and the continuing effect of human sprawl threaten “connectivity” of wildlife corridors throughout the region, from northern Mexico to points south and southeast of Tucson, Haynes warned.

But the large cats persist and even have grown in numbers in Mexico through various conservation efforts. And the animals continue venturing into the Arizona wilds, rarely seen and leaving little trace of their movements.

Their secretive habits seem only to enhance the mystique surrounding America’s only “roaring cat.”