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Updated Mar 2, 2017, 1:14 pm Originally posted Mar 2, 2017, 11:08 am
A previously unknown jaguar is prowling the mountains of Southern Arizona, officials have confirmed — the second documented within months and the third photographed here since 2012.
The big cat was photographed by an automatic trail camera in November in the Dos Cabezas Mountains, about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said.
The camera data was only retrieved last week, and Arizona Game and Fish Department scientists analyzed the spot patterns on the photographed jaguar, concluding that the animal had not been previously spotted. They were unable to determine the animal's sex.
Government officials and environmental experts disagree on whether jaguars are establishing a permanent breeding population in the United States, or if the wide-ranging cats are just passing through.
This is the only jaguar photographed by this Bureau of Land Management camera since it was installed in August 2016. The camera remains deployed on a trail in Cochise County.
The jaguar has been protected in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act since 1997.
A male jaguar was repeatedly documented in the Whetstone and Santa Rita Mountains in 2011-2015. Another male was photographed twice in the Huachuca Mountains in December 2016 and January 2017.
That second cat, a male, was confirmed to be a previously unobserved animal in December, after experts examined spot patterns in photos. Another wild jaguar photographed in Southern Arizona, "El Jefe," has not been seen in more than a year.
Government wildlife officials said that the third jaguar spotting does not necessarily mean that the big cats are establishing a permanent population in Arizona.
"Since 2012, an increase in trail camera monitoring of mountainous habitat in southern Arizona has provided increased documentation and a better understanding of jaguar presence and habitat preferences," said Steve Spangle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Arizona field supervisor. "This supports the phenomenon that jaguars seeking territories outside of competitive breeding areas in Mexico continue to occasion Arizona."
"This is a unique development. Jaguars are a historical component of Arizona's wildlife diversity," said Jim deVos, assistant director for Wildlife Management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "However, given the irregularity with which jaguar presence in Arizona is documented, even with the expanded use of trail cameras, this sighting is not an indication that jaguars are establishing a population in Arizona."
In December, deVos cited the lack of known female jaguars as evidence that a breeding population of the animals does not exist in Arizona.
Conservation advocates disagree.
"Jaguars are clearly trying hard to re-establish a population in the United States," said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group.
They've now traveled here through every large mountain range connecting Arizona and Sonora," he said.
"We can expect more jaguars to show up and establish territories here in the U.S., unless they're cut off from Mexico by the border wall," said Serraglio. "As long as we protect the places they live and the corridors they need to move across the landscape, they'll keep coming, and they'll thrive here."
Before December's announcement that a second big cat had been photographed, "El Jefe" — so named by Tucson schoolchildren in a publicity-raising vote sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity — has been the only wild jaguar known to live in the United States.
Remote survey cameras, among them a network funded by the Department of Homeland Security, have captured more than 100 images of the endangered northern jaguar moving through Southern Arizona. But El Jefe "has not been documented in the state since September 2015," deVos said late last year.
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The first photo of El Jefe was taken through direct observation in the field, which prompted a University of Arizona-led trail camera project.
The joint FWS/DHS project, conducted by UA researchers, placed the cameras placed in pairs across 120 sites from the Baboquivari Mountains in Southern Arizona and east to the Animas Mountains in southwest New Mexico. The Santa Ritas include the area that would be covered by the proposed Rosemont Mine.
Other agencies and private groups have also placed trail cameras that have captured images of jaguars.
The jaguar, which is listed as an endangered species, once ranged from California into Louisiana. However, habitat destruction and hunting decimated the population.
Jaguars have been spotted occasionally in southern Arizona in recent years, including reports of one in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. In 2009, state Game and Fish Department employees snared an aged jaguar, dubbed Macho B, which died shortly after in captivity. The last known female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter on the Mogollon Rim in 1963.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued Fish and Wildlife three times seeking critical habitat protection for jaguars. In 2009, a federal judge in Arizona rejected the agency’s arguments against the designation, including the fact that few jaguars were believed to be in the United States.
In March 2014, FWS labeled more than 764,000 acres in Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico as habitat critical to the survival of the endangered animals in the United States.