The Tenuous Fate of the Southwest’s Last Jaguars

May 30, 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.”