The Great American Cat Fight

August 20, 2007

By Morgan Heim, High Country News
August 20, 2007

Phantom cat of forest and desert, the jaguar slinks through its surroundings, an optical illusion of tawny, sun-dappled fur. It manifests and evaporates with hardly a trace amid the darkness of South American rainforests and the shattered canyons of the arid Southwest.

By the 1980s, however, a century of predator control, hunting and habitat loss had virtually wiped out the cat in the United States. The Southwestern jaguar became just a legend until 1996, when Warren Glenn spotted one while hunting in the Arizona backcountry. Six months later, Jack Childs and his hounds chased another up a tree. Those discoveries earned the cat endangered species status a year later, but with that listing came little real protection.

Then this June, nearly 600 biologists, members of the American Society of Mammalogists, signed a resolution calling for the designation of critical jaguar habitat and a plan for the cat’s recovery. And earlier this month, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demanding the agency designate habitat and develop a recovery plan.

Historically, jaguars ranged from South America to the Grand Canyon and from California to the Carolinas. They roam broad territories, with a single male patrolling an area of up to 50 square miles. Sometimes females and their kittens will share a male’s habitat, but other trespassing cats tend to face fierce punishment. This sizeable cat, the world’s third largest after the lion and tiger, remains largely a mystery, but one thing is certain: It has a bite to die for. The jaguar’s jaws are so strong that it can crush an animal’s skull with a single well-placed chomp, and it’s a virtual “omni-cat,” hunting anything from fish to deer and even the occasional crocodile. Unfortunately, however, its menu also sometimes includes livestock.

As cattle ranching spread West, the federal government ramped up predator control, shooting, trapping and poisoning jaguars and other carnivores. Between 1885 and 1959, records for the Southern United States show 45 jaguars killed, with at least 13 more by the turn of the millennium. The fur trade also contributed to the wild cat’s decline, and more recently, spreading development has fractured its habitat.

The jaguar’s small numbers and solitary life make studying the animal difficult. Since its rediscovery, only five individuals, all male, have been spotted in New Mexico and Arizona. However, every year, as survey methods improve, researchers report more sightings. Those five known jaguars have so far been recorded on more than 60 different occasions, either through remote photography, scat or paw-print identification.

But the jaguar’s numbers are too low to warrant recovery, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency after officials determined that conservation of the animal’s habitat was “not prudent.” The courts ordered Fish and Wildlife to review the issue. The agency did so, returning with the “too few to conserve” reasoning. “A lot of people cloud the issue,” says Bill Van Pelt, non-game bird and mammal program manager for Arizona Game and Fish, “because they start looking at individuals versus the population of the species.”

Establishing habitat in the United States will not ensure the cat’s survival, says Van Pelt, because no viable breeding population exists here. The five U.S. jaguars are part of the Northern population, which occurs mostly in Mexico. About 100 more live in the central Sonoran Desert, some 130 miles south of the border. “The evidence that we ever had (a breeding population in the U.S.) is anecdotal at best,” he says. “Conservation efforts need to be focused in Mexico.”

That kind of thinking is “deliberate amnesia,” says Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government spent untold amounts of money trapping and killing jaguars in the U.S., and now can’t remember they were native.”

Other endangered species such as the Canada lynx and the aplomado falcon once shared the American jaguar’s dilemma, but both have received greater protection under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to reintroduction programs, lynx in Colorado now number about 200, and two self-sustaining populations of aplomado falcon live in Texas, with another population on its way to independence in New Mexico. But wildlife officials say they have no plans to reintroduce jaguars.

When the jaguar was rediscovered in the United States, Arizona and New Mexico appointed a volunteer-based Jaguar Conservation Team to assess the cat’s status and oversee conservation. Critics say the team has squabbled with private organizations over how best to manage jaguars and has done little to save the cats from threats like an impassable border fence. In response, several independent organizations have begun their own recovery efforts. The Defenders of Wildlife helped set up the international Jaguar Guardian Program to monitor jaguar populations, conserve habitat, and educate ranchers. The program’s wildcat photo contest, in Sonora, Mexico, pays ranchers for shooting jaguars with a camera rather than a gun. According to Defenders representative Craig Miller, the contest has ranchers joking that the cats are more valuable than their livestock.

Last summer, the Jaguar Conservation Team presented an outline for saving the jaguar that supports the work of other groups and focuses on habitat conservation in Mexico. But concentrating only on Mexico would be a mistake, warns Robinson: “By doing this, we’re writing off our own ecosystems.”