By Eric W. Sanderson, 16th March 2021
Jaguars are renowned as top predators that roam tropical habitats such as the rainforests of the Amazon and Central America, but jaguars are quite catholic in their habitat requirements. These large cats also live in mountains, flooded grasslands, dry scrub, and pine forests, and deserts. What jaguars need is: prey, of which they are not picky, eating over 80 different species; cover in which to hunt and hide their cubs; water to drink; and freedom from persecution by people.
Few people may be aware that during the last century jaguars ranged as far north as the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the northern Rio Grande in New Mexico. In the 19th century jaguars were shot by Texas rangers north of San Antonio. Harder to believe but nonetheless intriguing observations come from California, Colorado, northern Texas/Oklahoma and Louisiana.
The historical evidence for jaguars in the United States is strongest in Arizona and New Mexico. Multiple photographs, skins, skulls and first-hand accounts attest to jaguars living there during the first half of the 20th century, as collected in Dave Brown and Carlos Lopez-Gonzalez’s 2001 book, Borderland Jaguars/Tigres de lal Frontera. As the Arizona Territory was settled, jaguars were hunted in the mountains north of Tucson and in the Sky Island ranges to the south and east. Cattlemen, shepherds, and government agents shot, trapped, and poisoned jaguars as well as other predators, such as Mexican wolves. The last jaguar killed in central Arizona was killed in 1964 by a US government hunter north of the Interstate-10 highway—a major thoroughfare traversing the southern part of the country. For a time, it seemed that jaguars had been lost from the USA for good.
As a result, when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service first listed jaguars on the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1972, jaguars were only protected south of the border, in Central and South America. Discussions, court cases, and scientific articles encouraged a more expansive view. Policy about jaguars swayed back and forth between dismissive and supportive regarding the possibilities for jaguar conservation in the USA, but the arguments were mostly theoretical: jaguars, always elusive and magnificently camouflaged, were practically non-existent north of the border.
That changed in 1996, when a rancher hunting for cougars in the Peloncillo Mountains found himself face to face with a jaguar in Arizona. Warner Glenn’s and subsequent photographs, unmistakably of a jaguar in arid terrain, intensified interest in the species. They were the first photographs of a live jaguar ever taken in the USA. Scientific studies followed. Over the last 3 decades, camera traps have photographed a handful of male jaguars in the mountains south of Interstate-10, including pictures as recent as January 2021.
The detection of jaguars in the USA also led to a flurry of scientific activity to predict their potential distribution. Over the last 25 years, researchers created nine models using a variety of different inputs, techniques and starting presumptions, which we discovered after a carefully-constructed, systematic review. Our team, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, created three additional models. Despite differences in approach, variable selection and method, all 12 models pointed to a similar conclusion: an 82,442 km2 contiguous area of potential jaguar habitat, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau known as the Central Arizona/New Mexico Recovery Area.
We found that there is a lot more potential habitat for the jaguar in the USA than was previously recognized: a habitat block equivalent to the size of South Carolina awaits the jaguar’s return.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considered Interstate-10 to be the de facto northernmost extent of jaguar range in the Americas in their 2018 recovery plan (released in 2019) for the species. South of Interstate-10, they estimated that are there is only enough habitat for six jaguars. North of Interstate-10, using their same model, we estimate there may be room for an eventual population of 90–150 individuals.
The Central Arizona/New Mexico Recovery Area covers more territory than other important jaguar conservation units in Central America and South America, such as the Selva Maya of Guatemala and the forests around Iguaçu Falls in Brazil, both of which have viable, self-sustaining populations. Potential habitat is not the same as occupied habitat, however. How or when jaguars could ever return to this habitat block remains an open question.
The population of jaguars closest to the USA that includes both males and females currently inhabits the thornscrub of Sonora, Mexico, 80–100 km south of the international boundary. Ongoing conservation and recovery of this population is critical to jaguar conservation and depends on collaboration and knowledge-sharing between the USA, Mexico and other countries.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Recovery Plan specifically called for conservation work in Sonora and other parts of the Northwestern Jaguar Recovery Unit, as presumably the animals found in the USA today are dispersing males from this area. This recommendation was an important conclusion of the recovery plan, which is both appropriate and necessary.
Yet the focus on the Sonoran population and other populations south of the border should not preclude acknowledging that the Central Arizona/New Mexico Recovery Area offers new opportunities for recovery of the species in the USA in the long-term.
Conservation requires patience and steadfastness. But if conservationists forget that jaguars once lived in central Arizona and New Mexico, then who will remember? That is why we wrote this article.
Historical jaguar observations in the US and northern Mexico can be queried online at https://jaguardata.info
The open access article A systematic review of potential habitat suitability for the jaguar Panthera onca in central Arizona and New Mexico, USA is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.