Northern Jaguar Migration May Require Binational Cooperation

July 8, 2006

By Talli Nauman, El Universal

The jaguar is a symbol of Mexican identity, venerated widely from the Maya civilization of the southeastern seaboard to the Huichol culture of the west central mountains. Now, in the past several years, northward migration of the endangered species into the United States has made it a potential emblem of binational conservation.

Spottings of the big spotted cat in the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora and in their contiguous U.S. states of New Mexico and Arizona have focused attention on the scarcely two-year-old Northern Jaguar Project, its partner Naturalia, and their Los Pavos Jaguar Reserve, the first private conservation preserve in Sonora.

This spring, New Mexico Game and Fish authorities announced a report of a jaguar sighted in the state’s southwestern county of Hidalgo. It was only the second time in this century that such an event has been noted, so scientists are seeing if it has anything to do with protection being provided at the refuge located across the international border. They fear recently stepped-up U.S. Border Patrol activities are disturbing the migration.

About a month ago, government scientists proposed putting a tracking collar on at least one of the jaguars that appeared in the United States. But environmental groups argue the stress of capture would put the feline’s life at risk. Two out of three captures of jaguars for radio collar study in Sonora resulted in death, in 2002 and 2003.

The previous sighting in the southwestern United States was documented in Arizona in 2004, when two male cats tripped the trigger of an automatic candid camera. Since then the number of cameras set to capture jaguar movements has mounted to 30.

About two-thirds of the territory that jaguars once used in North and South America is now devoid of the splendid beasts. Like significant shares of many other species, jaguars (Panthera onca) were exterminated by the end of the 20th Century in the United States due to consumer demand, federal policy, hunters, and ranchers guarding livestock. The last-known female jaguar in the United States was killed in 1963 in southeastern Arizona.

In 1997 after a lawsuit from the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as endangered. The same non-profit organizations obtained a court order forcing the agency to update critical jaguar habitat recovery policy, with a deadline for release of the decision this July.

I find the prospect of the hemisphere’s largest cats on the prowl around here more than just a little bit interesting. Predators at the top of the food chain, known as keystone species, have a role in maintaining the balance of nature.

In true cross-border cooperation, naturalists from private conservation ranches in Mexico have helped black bears return to the southwestern United States, and New Mexican ranchers have made it possible to someday repopulate the Mexican gray wolf south of the border. Even the American bison has been making some headway with cross boundary protection these days.

The jaguars are solitary predators, roaming hundreds of kilometers of hunting grounds. Their most common place in North America is in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Coast. The fact that they are being seen in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States gives cause to believe that the Northern Jaguar Project and many related efforts are having success.

The project’s intriguing mission involves the purchase of a 10,000-acre Sonora ranch, and negotiations for the acquisition of an adjacent 33,000-acre tract. On this land, mapping, volunteer range patrols, biological research and community outreach are defending not only jaguars but other endangered and ecologically important species.

Located about 135 miles south of the border twin cities of Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Sonora, in the Sierra Madre foothills, the jaguar reserve spans a mountainous corridor with no development other than stock grazing. Here, in a 3,000-square-mile area, perhaps 70 to 100 jaguars persist in the face of encroachment.

Beside being the northernmost viable breeding grounds of the jaguar, Los Pavos reserve is also the northernmost nesting area for military macaws, the home of the northernmost breeding population of neotropical river otters, and the southernmost nesting site for bald eagles, as well as the territory of ocelots, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, lilac-crowned parrots, eared trogons, and other rare and important species.

With such impressive prospective for wildlife management, public and private cross-border cooperation on jaguar habitat conservation deserves as much support as it can get.

Talli Nauman is a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, a project initiated with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.