TUCSON, Ariz. — The sightings of two jaguars in southern Arizona mark the first time the elusive and rare animals have been seen in the southwest U.S. since one was illegally trapped and then died in 2009 — signs that the animals are occasionally moving into their historic range from northern Mexico and may actually live here full-time.
A sighting on Nov. 19 was confirmed through photographs, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. A federal helicopter pilot also spotted a big cat loping down a forested hillside in June in a sighting that has been deemed credible but unconfirmed.
The male cat was treed by a hunter’s dogs on Nov. 19 in Cochise County, well north of the U.S.-Mexico border, said Game and Fish spokesman Mark Hart. Mountain lion hunter Donnie Fenn called game officials, then took photographs of the 200-pound cat in a mesquite tree.
During a Nov. 23 press conference in Tucson, he described how the roaring and snarling animal fought off his hunting dogs.
The sightings are exciting for biologists because they show that the animals are using habitat north of the U.S.-Mexico border. A male jaguar dubbed Macho B was the last known jaguar in the U.S. when it died after being trapped by a conservationist in 2009. It had been documented in Arizona for at least a decade.
A former Game and Fish subcontractor pleaded guilty to violating the endangered species act for trapping the cat in 2009, another conservationist was given diversion and a Game and Fish employee was fired for lying to federal investigators.
“The existence of any jaguars in Arizona was unknown for the past two years,” Hart said. “Now we know there is at least one, although he is on the move and we can’t say where he is today.”
The jaguar is the largest cat native to the Western hemisphere and lives primarily in Mexico, Central and South America, but they’re known to roam in southern Arizona and New Mexico. The only cat native to North America that roars, they were thought to have been eliminated in the U.S. by 1990 until two were spotted in 1996 in southern Arizona.
The newly spotted cats — there may be two or just one — are likely moving north from more established populations in the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, said Sergio Avila, a conservationist with the Sky Island Alliance in Tucson. Several hundred of the animals are believed to live there, and they don’t stop roaming because of an artificial border.
“Jaguars don’t care if they are in the United States or in Mexico,” Avila said. “Our organization documented two jaguars late last year only 30 miles south of the border. So for the jaguar, that is the same region.
“So Macho B was the last in Arizona that we knew, but we’re not surprised that other jaguars are showing up, because we know that this is good habitat and we know that it is connected to their source populations, so I think we need to see it in a broader perspective, a regional perspective.”
There is no documented breeding population in their traditional ranges in Arizona and New Mexico, but Avila said that doesn’t matter to the male jaguars here, because they’re known to travel hundreds of miles and can find mates in Mexico. And females are more elusive, so they could be here.
“I wouldn’t discount that there’s not a breeding population either very close to the border north or south, because there’s a lot of habitat, there’s a lot of connections, there’s a lot of food.” Avila said. “So what [these sightings] prove is that jaguars are able to survive in this place, and yes, we would like to have females, but that doesn’t make the males less important.”
Avila’s group photographed two jaguars late last year just 30 miles south of the Arizona border, and one of them may be the same animal recently spotted in Arizona.
“The Arizona Game and Fish Department thinks this is thrilling, extraordinary and significant, but there are scientists who would contend, and we have to respect their opinion, that what’s really needed is to see a female or cubs or something that suggests there’s a breeding population,” Hart said.