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.

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