A "tail" of two kitties: jaguars and ocelots on the comeback trail


By Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife

Many people are surprised to learn that both jaguars and elusive wild cats known as ocelots are native Arizonans, and still roam the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to this day.  They are even more intrigued to learn there is a breeding population of jaguars only 125 miles south of the border in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, and that ocelots have been recently documented in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista. The American Southwest is the original home of these two cats and protecting local habitat is vital to assuring they continue to be a part of our natural heritage.

Sadly, jaguars were largely wiped out by hunters during the westward expansion and settlement.  Only 50 years ago in 1963, the last documented female jaguar in the U.S. was shot by a hunter in Arizona’s White Mountains.  In 1971, two young hunters killed a male jaguar near the Santa Cruz River.  Another male jaguar was killed by a hunter in 1986 in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of Arizona.

In 1996, rancher Warner Glenn was led to a jaguar by his hounds while hunting mountain lions in the Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border -- and instead of picking up his rifle, he chose to pick up his camera to shoot photos of this magnificent cat. Since that time, several more male jaguars have been documented in southern Arizona.

More recently, the Arizona Daily Star reported this past October on a photo of a spotted cat’s tail taken by a hunter’s remote camera in the wilds southeast of Tucson.   It was unclear at first if the photo was one of a jaguar, or an ocelot -- as the ultra-elusive ocelot continues to crop up well north of the border too -- but the photo was eventually confirmed as the most recent jaguar sighting in Arizona.

All this serves to remind us that jaguars are truly at home in the American Southwest. But clearly the cats we’re seeing represent the northern edge of these species’ ranges.

Evolutionary and conservation biologists agree that populations on the edge of a species’ range are important for conservation due to the crucial role they play in enabling these species to adapt and shift their ranges in response to changing environments. Wildlife like jaguar and ocelot are predicted to move northward as our climate continues to warm, so ensuring they have space to make this shift is vital to the future of the species.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently developing recovery plans for both of these imperiled felines. With increasing pressures in their southern range from poaching, habitat destruction and rapid climate change, these plans should ensure they will thrive in their northernmost range into the future.  Having played a role in their extirpation and decline, the United States has an obligation to do its part to recover these endangered cats.  We have both ample quality habitat and the conservation tools that can contribute significantly to their comeback.  It’s time to welcome the jaguar and ocelot back home to the American Southwest.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jan 16, 2013 06:20 AM
I feel like we are getting a very contrived view of jaguar conservation.

In an op ed to the NYT Alan Rabinowitz the founder of Panthera and the worlds most famous large cat advocate and scientist called the efforts on behalf of the jaguar in southern Arizona, “nothing less than a slap in the face to good science. What’s more, by changing the rules for animal preservation, it stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act.”


Why would someone so famous who has dedicated his entire life to large cat conservation feel this policy of designating habitat to be wrong? Because the Arizona desert and the south western US as it exists now in modern times is just sucky habitat. There’s a reason jaguars don’t like it here. Of the estimated 30,000 jaguars in the world around 0.003 to 0.001 percent of them live here, why not go to where 99.999% of the jaguars live and try to preserve them there?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service despite ruling many times that the US is poor habitat for these great cats finally gave up in the face of continued lawsuits by these radical so called environmental groups and agreed to designating a huge swath of Arizona as habitat. Now we are faced with the constant drain of critical resources that could be saving endangered species for this cat that doesn’t like living in the modern US. Why?

When will lobbying organisations who live in NW Washington DC stop telling people in the Western US what to do?
Mary Ellen Hannibal
Mary Ellen Hannibal
Jan 16, 2013 03:39 PM
Alan Rabinowitz is currently a strong proponent of creating and sustaining habitat connectivity for jaguar right up through the animal's historic range. As described by Matt Clark, this range indeed extends into the U.S. southwest. In fact, the jaguar's historic range extends all the way to Monterey, California. You can see for yourself on Rabinowitz's Panthera website: http://www.panthera.org/landscape-analysis-lab/maps/Jaguar

In researching my book, The Spine of the Continent, I interviewed many a scientist who believe that jaguar are coming back North partly driven by climate change. As their habitat shifts, indeed more and more of the U.S. may become suitable for them -- if jaguar are to survive, we have to figure out how to welcome them here.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jan 17, 2013 06:46 AM
Mary Ellen I’ve no doubt that what you say is true. But then when I go to the Panthera website I read, over, and over, and over, again about their Panther Corridor which stretches from Northern Argentina to Mexico. No mention of the US anywhere that I could see. I’m aware that jaguars historically used to live further into the US, so did dinosaurs. There is even a group of nutters called “rewilders” that dream of introducing lions and elephants here. They make climate deniers seem tame by comparison. I live in 2013.

Great web site. I’ve heard of Rabinowitz for a long time especially in relation to Northern Burma. Rabinowitz is a doer he actually works to save species and spends vast amounts of time outdoors in the forest.