Nature lovers have one more reason to love southeast Arizona: the return of the jaguar. Remote night-vision cameras have detected the presence of a jaguar roaming the Santa Rita Mountains, southeast of Tucson, for the last nine months (as originally reported by the Arizona Daily Star).
Southeast Arizona has long been favorited by birdwatchers because its home to many subtropical bird species living at the northern end of their range. Plus you never know when a Mexican specialty will fly across the border, giving rare looks at an out-of-range bird.
But an endangered jungle cat trekking on foot and into the U.S.? This is a rare jewel, and capturing it on camera is rarer still. Researchers at the University of Arizona captured several photos of the jaguar for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is scheduled to make an August decision about whether or not to designate this region as “critical jaguar habitat,” amid state-level public and private controversy.
At least seven nighttime photos show the jaguar running, walking or standing in rocky, grassy terrain in the Santa Ritas within the area that the feds propose as critical habitat. This is the only known jaguar to live in the United States since Macho B, who met his demise in 2009.
The jaguar’s current range extends from much of South America into Central America and northern Mexico (see range map here). The cat was historically more prevalent all along the southern U.S. border but there has not been evidence of a breeding jaguar population in the US in the last 50 years (panthera.org). Finding the largest cat in the Americas roaming the very northern part of its range is a hopeful sign that it could once again breed here.
Large cats are threatened all over the world; most have the double whammy of being illegally hunted in addition to the usual threats of habitat loss and declining prey. As recently as the 1960’s and 1970’s, jaguars were heavily hunted for their soft, beautiful coats; as many as 18,000 wild jaguars were killed each year. Jaguars have been eradicated from 40 percent of their historic range, but still hang on in 18 different countries (Brazil’s Pantanal is thought to have the highest concentration). Organizations such as Panthera are working to establish panther corridors throughout its range to help sustain the species, whose survival depends on its ability to roam far and wide, in safety, in search of prey.
The situation in Arizona is complex, as two very different human values – one that recognizes and supports the sanctity of our country’s natural heritage, one that finds it expendable when business calls for it – are pitted against each other. And should the USFW ruling succeed, the ever expanding border fence between the U.S. and Mexico may destroy the jaguars chance at establishing a viable population in the United States.
The Feds will have their day, and dissenters will have their say.
For now, those who roam the dry, rugged mountains of southern Arizona have one more reason to stay alert, look deep into the brush, and to dream of a chance encounter with a magnificent and wild beast.
The chances are minute, but ya’ll can dream, can’t you?