Jaguars are returning to America, but Fish and Wildlife Service don't think they need protections

Experts say an iconic wild cat's return is an indicator of climate change and the need for greater conservation

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 31, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

El Jefe the Jaguar caught on remote-sensor camera in 2015. (Courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity)
El Jefe the Jaguar caught on remote-sensor camera in 2015. (Courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity)

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a new regulation, effective immediately, that significantly reduces the designated territory for jaguars in the American southwest. The new and final rule removes 64,797 acres of the jaguar's critical habitat designation, in compliance with an earlier court ruling. That leaves approximately 640,000 acres for the jaguars across Cochise, Pima and Santa Cruz counties.

While this may seem harsh, the sad reality is that jaguars (Panthera onca) have been increasingly sparse in the United States. Indeed, many people may not even realize they are native here. But in an encouraging sign for wildlife, their scarcity is slowly reversing.

This year, there have been multiple witness reports of jaguars at the U.S.-Mexico border, indicating the majestic spotted wild cat is making a steady comeback in the southwestern United States. It all comes down to conservationist groups who capture images of the animals using photographic and video recording equipment.

"We are watching jaguars reestablish themselves in the United States at a steady drum beat, in real time," said Russ McSpadden, the Southwest Conservation Advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, recalling that the spotted cats have been trickling across the border since 2015. "It’s a beautiful thing."

Jaguar footage captured on field camera 2023Federal remote field camera footage taken on April 3, 2023. (Courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity)

To name the jaguars that keep crossing America's southwest border, McSpadden turned to local high schools, recalling how the students at Valencia Middle School chose the name El Jefe ("the chief") for a jaguar in 2015; how in 2017 students at Hiaki Highschool at the Pascua Yaqui Pueblo gave a second ca the moniker Yo'oko Nahsuareo (Jaguar Warrior in the Yaqui language); how in the same year students at the Paolo Freire Freedom School and chose the name Sombra; and how several schools on the Tohono O’odham Nation named a newly-discovered jaguar O: had Ñu:kudam, which translates as “jaguar protector” in the O’odham language.

McSpadden said that "it was inspiring to hear the kids describe a sense of cultural power to express that word in their own native language and to have their language expressed through the living presence of a jaguar in the United States. One student told me 'this is proof that jaguars belong here and proof that our language belongs here.'"

Some experts believe that the few jaguars we have seen so far in Arizona do not represent the full population, such as Megan “Turtle” Southern, a jaguar recovery coordinator at The Rewilding Institute, who said that eight jaguars have been documented in the United States since 1996. "But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been others who have gone unseen. Jaguars belong in the borderlands, historically and still today. This is their home," Southern explained.

"They’ve always been here. They belong here."

Some of these jaguars have even become local celebrities, such as a cat known as Macho B that sadly died amidst allegations that the Arizona Game and Fish Department had unintentionally caused the animal's death. Macho B lived to be 15 years old — a fairly long lifespan for a jaguar.

"It has been eight years since the equal-in-stardom jaguar El Jefe was last seen in Arizona, having since moved south into Mexico," Southern recalled. "This new jaguar follows in their footsteps, a trail that leads through Arizona and New Mexico to vast areas of wild, rugged habitat and abundant prey."

While jaguars seem exotic to Arizonans today, McSpadden pointed out that the American southwest has historically been part of the jaguars' northern range, stretching across the Sky Island Mountains and the Mogollon Rim. While the number of cats in that region "would never have been, in the best of times, as large of a population as many would associate with more tropical stretches of the species range," McSpadden said, they still existed there until government predator control programs determined to drive them out.

"Jaguars were nearly, but never fully, extirpated from this region," McSpadden explained, adding that they are "tenacious" animals, and populations from northern Mexico have always strayed across the U.S.-Mexico border from time to time. "The recent detections of a new jaguar in at least two of southern Arizona’s Sky Island mountain ranges is another beautiful example of these majestic felines reestablishing their millennia-old territory in what is now the United States. They’ve always been here. They belong here. They are an important part of the ecology of mountains and rugged canyons of the Southwest."

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"Conservation efforts should be focused on Sonora and elsewhere in Mexico, where females are present and breeding occurs."

The next logical question is whether jaguar populations can and should be restored to their former levels. McSpadden observed that this can happen in "multiple ways," from reintroducing populations to the "absolutely critical" goal of protecting their potential habitats like the Sky Islands, the Mogollon Rim and Gila National Forest.

"Jaguar habitat is threatened by proposed open-pit mines, transportation infrastructure and other massive developments as well as the growing threat of insurmountable border barriers," McSpadden told Salon. "The jaguars we see in the United States are part of the same population as the jaguars we see in northern Mexico. These jaguars are part of one population that is, unfortunately, threatened by politics, nationalism and fearmongering. Connectivity is critical for wildlife."

According to Ganesh Marin, a PhD candidate in Wildlife Conservation and Management at the University of Arizona, conservationists who want to restore jaguar populations need to remember that they naturally have large territories. In terms of staging an American comeback, this may be the biggest obstacle facing the jaguars.

"The principal challenge in the past was eradication by anti-predator campaigns. Today the main challenge is habitat loss, irruption of natural corridors by roads and barriers, and conflict with humans," Marin told Salon. Yet there are precedents for successfully conserving wild cats in the American southwest; Marin observed that humans are currently coexisting with pumas, "another feline similar in size to a jaguar."

Southern and McSpadden both mentioned the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone as another example of a successful rewinding. In spite of this, some groups are advocating for killing the wolves to protect cattle. McSpadden also cited the ongoing efforts to reintroduce jaguars to the southern extremity of Ibera Argentina. By contrast, public information officer Mark Hart from the Arizona Game and Fish Department threw cold water on the idea of reintroducing jaguars to Arizona.

"We do not think the American southwest is critical to the long-term survival of the species, since no females have been present here since 1963," Hart told Salon. "Conservation efforts should be focused on Sonora and elsewhere in Mexico, where females are present and breeding occurs."

When asked about the conservation challenges that exist for the jaguars that currently lived there, Hart replied that the governments needs to enforce the "protections afforded the jaguar under the federal Endangered Species Act."

Hart does not downplay the fact that jaguars currently are crossing the border. He said that "there is one confirmed new individual in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista," as well as a possible second cat that roamed the Chiricahua Mountains south of Willcox since November 2016 but has not been seen since October 2022. "There have been eight jaguars present in the region since the 1990s, all males presumed to have entered the [United States] in search of new territory after being driven out of Sonora by older, stronger males." 

Marin noted that the last female jaguar in Arizona was killed in 1949, leaving the region as a veritable boys' club ever since.

"All are dispersing and coming from Mexico," Marin wrote to Salon. "These individuals are in search of new territory; however, because there are no females documented, when they become adults, they go back into Sonora looking for a mating partner."

Additionally, the jaguar migration is partially driven by the same factor fueling mass extinctions all over the world — climate change. Even if climate change brings more jaguars into the United States, to the delight of many Americans, it also is a bad omen for Earth's future.

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"Global climate trends, higher temperatures, drier environments, these things are pushing many species further north and these higher elevations in the Sky Island Mountains, the Gila Wilderness, the Colorado Plateau will likely become even more critical to the survival of these big cats," McSpadden said.

Because jaguars are adaptable, they can move to diverse habitats as climate change makes their current regions inhospitable. In that sense, they set an example that our species can follow. McSpadden added that "I personally see their return as a signal of a hopeful future, where the jaguar’s resilience is not just ecologically valuable, but is also a compass for our own human resilience in a dangerously changing climate."

Regardless of whether jaguars can or even should make a comeback in the American southwest, their very presence at the time of this writing is welcomed by many. It is perhaps a relief that, even though humans are making an ugly mess of things along the U.S.-Mexico border with the ongoing immigration crisis, there are always big cats in the same area to set a better example. McSpadden reminds us of the children who helped name the cats.

"These students are examples of how interconnectedness with the natural world is often parallel with interconnectedness with culture. Jaguars and culture were once deeply interwoven in this region and can continue to be so," McSpadden said.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Arizona Climate Change Deep Dive Environment Habitat Destruction Jaguar Reporting U.s.-mexico Border Wild Cats