Jaguar, © Barry Draper

The Long-awaited Return

With one solitary jaguar back in the U.S., and plans in the works to move its conservation forward, could we soon see a real return of this long-absent native species?

Imagine a little known region of Arizona hugging the Mexican border. This rugged, beautiful landscape of mountain peaks and forests covers 1.6 million acres south of Tucson. This is Mountain Empire, an area that holds a richness of wildlife not found in the rest of the country, and home of the last known free-ranging jaguar in the United States.

The lone U.S. jaguar, a 200-pound male nicknamed El Jefe, wanders from mountain to mountain near the City of Tucson, occasionally crossing the settled lowlands in between. Recent footage of him walking down a stream bed was captured by a trail camera and went viral. This big cat captured the attention and imagination of millions who wonder: After decades, could jaguars finally be returning to the southwest?

A Dangerous Journey North

Jaguar, © Northern Jaguar Project

Our male almost certainly made his way to the U.S. from a holdout population in Sonora, Mexico. The region is 120 miles south of the border, in country so rugged that it can take 18 hours to reach by car from the U.S. In this area, we work closely with the Northern Jaguar Project and Naturalia, nonprofits that together manage a 50,000 acre reserve in the core of the jaguar’s Sonoran habitat. Our goal is to help make sure that the 70 to 100 jaguars in and around Mexico’s Northern Jaguar Reserve thrive and reproduce, hopefully sending colonists north to resettle their ancestral lands in Arizona and New Mexico. The task for the Northern Jaguar Project is challenging – but through outreach and education, and by paying for each cat photographed live on a rancher’s land, they are slowly changing antagonism toward jaguars into support. It’s work like this that can pave the way for jaguars to spread out on their way to other habitats.

Adventurous jaguars face many obstacles if they travel north. They may be shot or poisoned by poachers or ranchers who believe they are protecting their livestock. They face the challenge of finding food in unfamiliar territory, and the danger of crossing roads, such as Mexican Highway 2, already packed with high-speed traffic and now being expanded to four lanes. Then there is the border wall, standing at 18 to 21 feet tall in some places. With so many challenges to overcome, jaguars can have a tough time finding the path of least resistance in getting to the huge swaths of suitable habitat that the southwestern U.S. has to offer.

Keeping the Path Protected

Two of the last, best corridors where jaguars can still cross into the U.S. are located here in the Mountain Empire, where the Patagonia and Huachuca mountain ranges cross the border. We’re working with several local groups, including Patagonia Resource Area Alliance (PARA), to keep these corridors open and to protect suitable habitat north of the border from the largest environmental threat in the Mountain Empire: Mining.

Santa Rita Mts, © Larry Jones/USFS

Three major open-pit mines are currently being planned in the region. Defenders and PARA successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2015 to prevent improperly permitted exploratory drilling for one of these mines, a project with the ill-fitting name Sunnyside. This project would put a mine right in critical jaguar habitat, and create yet another obstacle for jaguars trying to come north. Thankfully, a judge put the brakes on the project last year in response to a lawsuit from Defenders and our partners. The project could still return in a different form, but we’re keeping a close eye on things. Development of the Rosemont mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, home to El Jefe, has also been put on hold for the moment, thanks to the combined pressure of low global copper prices and resistance from Defenders, Saving the Scenic Santa Ritas, and other partners. Work like this will never end, as corporations continue to look for new opportunities to exploit the natural resources in this region, regardless of the cost to wildlife. But with so many great organizations collaborating to protect this region for jaguars, we’re working to meet every challenge.

Helping Jaguars Once They’re Here

Once jaguars reach the U.S., they need two things to survive: suitable habitat and safety from persecution. It was people who wiped out jaguars from the U.S. to begin with, and it’s up to us to protect them as they return. Listed under the Endangered Species Act, jaguars thankfully already have some level of protection here, but the agency in charge of enforcing the ESA hasn’t always been the best advocate for jaguars.

Jaguars, © Northern Jaguar Project

Some people – including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – have taken the position that jaguars don’t really belong to us. They claim that the U.S. never had more than the occasional lost traveler wandering up from Mexico, and that since no females and their cubs have been seen in the U.S. in decades, we should leave their recovery to Mexico. Not our problem, not our responsibility to restore.

The facts tell a different story. The lack of female jaguars in the U.S. is due to one simple fact – humans killed them all. Males, needing large territories, tend to wander farther – so of course they have been the first to return. Though most U.S. jaguars were killed before there were good records kept, but the records we do have report that female jaguars were living (and sadly, were killed) as far north as the Grand Canyon, and that young jaguars were spotted in Arizona. While jaguars certainly have a home in Mexico, there is no denying it – these are our animals too. They belong to the southwest, and don’t recognize the arbitrary, invisible borders that humans draw. As the people who drove them out, we have more of a responsibility, not less, to help them return.

Fortunately, there is still enough suitable habitat in both the U.S. and northern Mexico to sustain a population of jaguars. The Jaguar Conservation Team, a voluntary partnership of government and non-governmental entities working on jaguar conservation, has estimated that roughly half of Arizona and New Mexico can still support jaguars. These states hold the most suitable habitat for the native species, and there is much more prey for jaguars there now than there has been since the early 20th century, like Coues white-tail deer, mule deer and javelina. If jaguars lived and raised their young here once, when food was relatively scarce, there’s every reason to believe that they’d do even better now.

What’s Next for Jaguars?

In the past couple years, we’ve finally seen some progress for these big cats. Thanks in part to pressure from groups like Defenders and our partners, FWS designated 764,207 acres of critical habitat for jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico. It’s smaller than jaguars will need to gain a real foothold in the U.S., and private landowners are challenging the decision (which we’re helping to defend in court), but it’s a start. And now, FWS is working on a recovery plan for the jaguar – in fact, we hope to see the first draft released soon. We will be taking a close look to see if the plan will truly help bring jaguars back to the southwest – so stay tuned!

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31 Responses to “The Long-awaited Return”

  1. Juan Carlos Bravo

    Great article Rob! And don’t forget the highways throughout northern Sonora that also stand in the way of jaguars that may wish to return to he U.S. especially females, as research in the Yucatan peninsula indicates they are less likely than males to cross paved roads.

    • Kathy & Judy Sutter

      I would be thrilled to have this beautiful animals back in the US; let’s hope it won’t be the constant struggle to keep them alive as is the long fight for wolves who are constantly being killed. I hope that the animal is put before drilling, ranchers, etc.,especially on federal lands which should be for the animals & people who enjoy hiking, fishing, & hunting, not indiscriminate killing

  2. Peggy Brown

    Such a beautiful animal, it needs protection. When I have the money, I will surely adopt one of them.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Brea. There are different adoption prices for jaguars, starting at $20. You can view them here: Thanks for your interest in adopting a jaguar!

  3. Cathy Almeida

    Please save these beautiful animals and allow them to live in peace!!! The deserve to live in peace!!!!
    I hope that they will come and live here and raise their families!!!

  4. Rita Jefferies

    Wonderful! Let,s do everything in our power to ensure the arrival and safety of more of these beautiful felines.

  5. Wind Carrier

    I really like the idea of paying for photos of Jaguars in Arizona. This provides reinforcement for keeping the cat alive rather than whatever reinforcement comes from killing it. Good conservation practice is, in large part, a challenge in managing behavior of humans and this is excellent behavior management.

  6. Kathleen Isaksen Lambert

    It is important that we allow large predictors back to their natural habitat in order to recreate the balance of species that is nature’s way.

  7. jeff barnhart

    This is really great news for the jaguar. There is so much area they could roam in and survive to be left alone by humans to again grow in population. I hope everything works out.

    • Barb

      Really??? Where? I’m guessing the southeast corner of the state.

  8. John Button

    These beautiful creatures deserve all of the protection we can provide. It’s exciting to think they could take up residency again in the U.S. I hope we will get a favorable political environment for the big cats this fall.

  9. Toby Fowler

    Anyone that harms this animal should be shot and killed on site.We all have a duty to prtect these animals and others that are in jeapordy like this.Those of you that don’t are heartless,selfish scumbags.

  10. Linda

    As much as I would love to see these gorgeous animals live and thrive in the US, do we really think they have a chance to make it here rather than being in a remote wilderness where man can’t hurt them? Traffic, POS trophy hunters, building homes in wilderness areas etc. Wish there was a permanent sacred place for animals to live. A place where humans were not allowed at all. Very sad.

  11. Mary Lucas

    It should be a serious crime to harm a wild creature. I guess the death penalty would not be on the table . Pity.

  12. Marcia Geiger

    I agree with everyone. They need protection by the US and Mexico. Land bridges could be built to keep them from being hit by cars.
    Any hunters….prison with hard labor,

  13. Katie Sabry

    A truly fabulous and iconic animal , may they be able to return to where once they roamed , breed and live safely .
    I live on the other side of the planet in cyprus , and have long admired Jaguars , keep up the good work defenders of wildlife !

  14. Lydia

    This is good news but still lots of work to do to protect these precious animals. If only humans just leave them alone & respect wildlife coz they’re part of ecosystem . I’m glad there are organizations that protect & defend wildlife . Thank you all ❤️😊

  15. Lesley Lillywhite

    The stupid Border Fence / Wall so many idiots clamor for, hastens the demise of jaguars, ocelots, & migratory animals. There are even some birds which in their nature, do not fly a certain height, which that Border Wall would hinder. There are other ecological problems the wall creates. There are people on the border who are addressing the water situation (see Cuenca las Ojas ) using ancient native methods. I grew up 14 blocks away from the Mexican Border, & we don’t want that damn fence which harms migratory animals etc.

  16. Geri

    Oh, I’m so happy to hear these precious animals are traveling across the border. We need to do everything to protect and save these wonderful animals.

  17. Mary G

    Isn’t life grand? I LOVE that jaguars are coming back to the U.S.! And after decades of being gone, too! I hope that they can make it here in the U.S. without anyone shooting them.

  18. Joanne Glass

    The lone male is definitely NOT in the USA so it’s time to drop this false reason to protect this type of cat. The proposed interstate 11 plus Mex 2 expansion illustrates the greed of the Cartel & corrupt Mex President.
    We strongly support a strong President Trump and his plan to protect our USA border, which if our wall is not built ASAP, the future of our children and Seniors will be devastated by the corruption and immoral Catholic Church trying to retake the USA.
    We will rebuild our interstate highways and bridges and will recycle the concrete into OUR protective wall. We will exchange Presidential pardons for US born non-violent felons (white collar convicts) work on quickly building the protective wall.
    Those prisoners not wanting to get this TRUMP pardon will be reassigned to the general prison population when the white collar prisons are closed forever!

    Go Donald
    Joanne Glass
    Tucson Az

    Those Mex cats can be relocated by vets much easier if you wish. President Trump will assign his old plane once he gets Air Force One to fly them over our protective wall.

    If you don’t like these progressive ideas ideas then Presidemt Trump will STOP all
    Non legal residents Remittances from the USA to all foreign countries and will equally enforce all Mexican immigration style laws for both countries.

    Once AFRICAN AMERICAN youth and adult unemployment rate equal the lowest rates of White Americans will these banking regulations be revisited. Starve the drug lords of the USA market and the gangs will need to find honest work and likely will prosper. Return all illegals to the border in the unnecessary school buses since the illegals will not be educated by the USA. The extra prison guards know how to drive prison buses already. The building material will be transported in trailer behind the buses. The 14th amendment will be abolished just like prohibition as a out of date amendment. Likely to get similar voter approval.

    Get out to vote for Trump and enjoy a Rebuilt America that has borders that provide safety and happiness. If someone want to enter they will abide by the same laws Mexico imposes on legal USA citizens.



  20. Pat Howell

    Wouldn’t it be good idea to build a small tunnel UNDER the highway (with the
    high-speed traffic on it) so the jaguars can ‘cross the high way”? It could be
    built of a tin or other metal.

    This would help the jaguars on their journey north.

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