The great American cat fight

  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 millenium. 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.”
Sep 04, 2007 01:55 PM

Morgan Helm's article on the northernmost jaguars is surely welcome. It is not inaccurate so much as a surprisngly incomplete overview of the jaguar's protection.

First, in the US, a group of conservation ranchers called the Malpai group has agreed never to shoot a jaguar. These ranchers (with their government allotments) cover over 800,000 acres and run along the US/Mexican border. Two of the photographed jaguars have been seen on the Malpai complex. Just across the border, a non-profit group (Cuenco de los Ojos) helps manage over 200,000 acres of ranchland with an agreement never to shoot jaguars. Over one million acres of cross-border land now protects jaguars (even if the kill cows). The dilemma is their safety within the core area of 80-100 jaguars in the northernmost population (an area of 1,500 square miles) and the safe passage to this comlex of ranches. The passage is about 100 miles. In other words, the private sector has begun to do the job of US Fish and Wildlife Service by creating "critical protected habitat" on its own. And, they are doing a much better job because of bi-national cooperation that does not work through US government agencies. (Killing jaguars anywhere is the US is illegal.)

Second, HCN does not mention that 120 miles south of the border, two groups, the Northern Jaguar Project (  and a well-respected and effective Mexican non-profit, Naturalia, have been working to protect the breeding population of northern jaguars. They have already purchased 10,000 acres and are in the process of purchasing another 35,000 on a ranch where female jaguars are believed to breed.  Poaching has killed over 25 jaguars in northern Mexico in the last few years (including females and kittens), so these two groups also have projects to educate school kids, work with ranchers and the Yaqui Tribe as well as sponsor the camera-trap program which pays ranchers and cowboys for digital "shooting" of any of the five felids (jaguarundi, puma, bobcat, jaguar, ocelot). Defenders of Wildlife has been one generous supporter of the NJP/Naturalia program. Recently, the government of Sonora provided an additional 65 cameras and the Sky Island Alliance has also begun to work with ranchers with camera-traps in Mexico.

Third, there are two corridors that require safe-passage for jaguars to return to their former habitat in the US (mapped by the Wildlands group). The western corridor is poorly known but Cong. Raul Grijalva of Tucson has been promoting federal wilderness status in the Tumacacori Mountains of Arizona as one way to further protect the northern jaguars in the US. Discussions have been on-going with the Tohono O'odham tribe for increased protection of jaguars (jaguars have been seen on the reservation which sits on the border and is the size of Connecticut), and these agreements do not really need the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Big Picture, which was not captured by your article, is: Saving the northern jaguar has made amazing progress because of the effective bi-national collaboration of over a dozen small conservation groups. The charismatic jaguar, mythic power cat since before the Mayan and Aztecs, has nurtured one of the best cross-border cooperative  projects at a time when US/Mexico relations are hitting deep potholes and massive bumps. Yes, the border fence is a barrier (Defenders has led that fight). Yes, enforcement in Mexico needs improvement. Yes, USFWS has floundered under the Bush administration. Yes, the jaguar remains critically endangered and funds to purchase safe havens and safe corridors are scarce. Nevertheless, new reserves and protection strategies flourish on both sides of the border. NJP/Naturalia's new reserve will also protect the southernmost bald eagles, northernmost military macaws, a bird and bat migration corridor, etc. The Big Cat carries an umbrella that shelters many species and habitats. It inspires both Americans and Mexicans. That's the news.

Peter Warshall, PhD

(For transparency. Peter is on the board of directors of both Northern Jaguar Project and the Sky Island Alliance. His step kids (now adults) own and operate one of the ranches in the Malpai group. He is a biologist by training.)