A few jaguars now roam the Arizona borderlands—why that's a big deal


Category:  Fields and Streams

Via:  gregtx  •  2 years ago  •  22 comments

By:   NatGeo (Animals)

A few jaguars now roam the Arizona borderlands—why that's a big deal
These endangered big cats are expanding north from Mexico, but remain constrained by the border wall and other barriers.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

When biologist Ganesh Marin first observed a jaguar on a preserve in northern Sonora, Mexico, in 2020, he was elated. The feline continued showing up on Marin's grid of camera traps along the Arizona border, which indicated he was making the region his home. Marin nicknamed the jaguar El Bonito, Spanish for "the beautiful."

But in 2021, Marin, a National Geographic Explorer, noticed something odd about the photos. The spot patterns appeared to vary ever so slightly from one picture to the next. Further examination confirmed that he was indeed seeing not one, but two young male jaguars.

It had been thrilling enough to watch Bonito develop on camera, "growing up, getting bigger, growing a thicker neck and bigger head," Marin says. But realizing it was more than one: "That was pretty exciting."

The presence of a second jaguar a couple miles south of the Arizona border provides yet more evidence that the big cats are moving north to reclaim old territory, says John Koprowski, a biologist and dean at the University of Wyoming and Marin's Ph.D. advisor. (Related: Why a new jaguar sighting near the Arizona-Mexico border gives experts hope.)

As recently as the early 1900s, jaguars were found as far north as the Grand Canyon and south all the way to Argentina. But hunting, often government-sponsored, wiped them out of Arizona and New Mexico, the northern expanse of the jaguar's range, by the mid-20th century.

Marin named the second jaguar Valerio, after Valer Clark, a conservationist who founded the organization Cuenca Los Ojos. This bi-national environmental organization now manages a 121,000 acre wildlife preserve along the border in Sonora, where Marin does his research as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

The cats could expand their territory to the north if humans let them, but they face obstacles such as roads and the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 450 miles of 30-foot-tall wall were built during the Trump administration, most of it in Arizona and New Mexico, blocking off vital wildlife corridors. (Learn more: Arizona's border wall will include openings too small for many animals.)

"There are animals right there within just a few kilometers of the border that could easily be impeded from moving further north if the border becomes impermeable," Koprowski says, due to extension of the border wall and expansion of highways.

"But more than anything, the [finding] provides great hope that this connectivity can be maintained," he says—and even, possibly, improved.

Ancient homeland

The borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico, and its series of mountain ranges, known as Sky Islands, represent one of the most biodiverse areas of North America. Interspersed with mountains are the dry plains of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and assorted grasslands and riparian areas, collectively home to tens of thousands of species of plants and animals. For eons, jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, bears, and many other wide-ranging species have freely roamed across this contiguous biome. But barriers such as roads and fences now hamper this movement.

Nevertheless, in the last 25 years, at least seven jaguars have been seen in Arizona—including one still thought to live in a mountain range in the southeastern part of the state—and about the same number have been observed across the border in Mexico.

Moreover, a March 2021 study estimates that a huge swath of the region is prime jaguar habitat, and could likely support a population of a few hundred animals. Jaguars are classified as an endangered species in the United States.

Somewhere around 200 jaguars live in the Mexican state of Sonora, and both cats Marin observed were likely born somewhat close to Arizona, perhaps within 60 miles, says Gerardo Ceballos, a researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Female jaguars generally do not venture very far from where they were born, and their mobility is the limiting factor to the species' expansion. Males, however, can roam far and wide in search of territory and mates. The big cats face a variety of threats in Mexico, including poaching and retaliatory killings for their perceived role in livestock predation.

"If we continue trying to protect the jaguars, maybe within about five years we could see pregnant females in the United States," Ceballos says.

But to move north, the cats need protected wildlife corridors. Any expansion of the border wall will further harm animals' ability to move freely—and parts of the wall will need to be opened up to reduce the harm it has already caused, experts say. The Biden administration has pledged not to significantly expand the border wall, and some discussions are underway to lessen harm to wildlife, though no major changes have yet been made.

"Unfortunately, now the border wall represents a new barrier for jaguars to reach the United States," says Antonio de la Torre, a biologist with the conservation group Jaguares de la Selva Maya, who studies the cats. "It is critical to implement a mitigation measure to solve this issue if we want to ensure the natural expansion of jaguars to the north."

If you protect it, they will come

Until recently, much of what is now northern Sonora and southeastern Arizona had plentiful wetlands, known in Spanish as cienegas. That's why Cuenca Los Ojos is working to bring water back to the landscape, and has so far restored about 75 acres of wetlands and streams, says Jeremiah Leibowitz, the organization's executive director.

Prior to 2019, the 30 miles of Cuenca Los Ojos's northern border, which abuts Arizona, had only short vehicle barriers and barbed wire fencing a few feet in height, which wildlife could easily cross. But now, it's lined with 30-foot steel bollard walls, Leibowitz says. A few corridors remain devoid of such tall barriers, however, such as the southern end of the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle Arizona and New Mexico. (Learn more: An endangered wolf went in search of a mate. The border wall blocked him.)

This area, like much of its surroundings, receives half or more of its rainfall during the monsoon season, from June to September. After European colonization, people modified the landscape to be much less absorbent, replacing prairies with agriculture and building impermeable structures, including asphalt. As a result, this rain can run off the land quickly, causing erosion.

Cuenca reserve managers are working to restore the original permeability of the land, in part by slowing down the water with stone erosion-control structures, Leibowitz says. Beavers, whose dams also control water flow, have also recently recolonized many of the streams on the preserve. Both Sonoran jaguars have been seen near a stream on the reserve that runs year-round.

Establishing a range

Valerio and Bonito sometimes frequented the same area within a few days of each other, according to the camera trap data. As they've gotten bigger, Marin figured one would push out the other—upon reaching reproductive age, male jaguars try to establish their own territory.

Sure enough, Valerio, who is ever so slightly bigger, has stuck around—he was last seen in March—while Bonito has not been observed since October 22, 2021. Marin suspects he is somewhere nearby, but since the animals can range so widely, it's anybody's guess.

Besides looking for wildlife using cameras, Marin worked with biologists Melissa Merrick, Katie Benson, and Matt Valente to sample environmental DNA from some of the streams, which turned up evidence of jaguars, black bears, white-tailed deer, deer mice, and other local wildlife. The team hopes to expand their sampling and study of eDNA to learn more about the presence of terrestrial wildlife, a practice that remains in its infancy, Benson says.

In the meantime, the research shows the area is home to a bevy of important species, and that habitat restoration can increase an area's biodiversity.

"The fact that the animals are using this area over and over again—all of that speaks to the quality of the habitat and the need to increase that connectivity" with surrounding areas of Mexico and the United States, Koprowski says.


jrDiscussion - desc
Professor Guide
1  seeder  GregTx    2 years ago

While I'm sure some out there wouldn't agree, I think this is cool. I'm not sure I would want to come across one while out in the field surveying in the southwest,  however I certainly wouldn't shy away from seeing such a magnificent creature in its natural environment.

Professor Quiet
1.1  Freefaller  replied to  GregTx @1    2 years ago

Very cool, I hope they are successful.

Good article

Drinker of the Wry
Senior Expert
2  Drinker of the Wry    2 years ago

Excellent, El Jefe and Sombra have some handsome panthera onca relatives in the AO.  

Professor Guide
2.1  seeder  GregTx  replied to  Drinker of the Wry @2    2 years ago

El Jefe and Sombra?

Drinker of the Wry
Senior Expert
2.1.1  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  GregTx @2.1    2 years ago
El Jefe and Sombra

Professor Principal
3  Gsquared    2 years ago

That is an amazing development.  I hope they can survive and thrive.

Unfortunately, we just had another mountain lion killed on the freeway only about 4-5 miles from my house.  It is the second mountain lion in our area killed after being struck by a vehicle so far this year, and the fourth in the state, if I have that correct.  There have been several mountain lion sightings in our area recently.

Professor Guide
3.1  seeder  GregTx  replied to  Gsquared @3    2 years ago

That's sad. Mountain lions, cougars, puma, panther whatever you want to call them use to have such a huge range. Now they're pretty much only found out west. 

charger 383
Professor Silent
4  charger 383    2 years ago

A cat I don't mind crossing the border.  

Professor Principal
4.1  Texan1211  replied to  charger 383 @4    2 years ago
A cat I don't mind crossing the border.  

Yeah, we don't have to house, feed, clothe, educate, and heal a cat!

Professor Principal
5  Kavika     2 years ago

Great article and I hope that they are successful in this. 

The Mountain lion has extended its range as far east as the Mississippi River and beyond. 

There is the Florida panther which has gone from only 30 known to 300 and is provided protection by both the state and the feds.

The Mountain Lion is the only big cat that doesn't roar, they hiss.

Professor Guide
5.1  seeder  GregTx  replied to  Kavika @5    2 years ago
I hope that they are successful in this.

Me too, I don't think there have been jaguars in Texas since my parents were children. 

The cougar has and had the largest range of any big cat in North or South America.  384

Professor Principal
5.1.1  Kavika   replied to  GregTx @5.1    2 years ago

They have moved as far east as both North and South Dakota and have been spotted in Minnesota believe it or not Arkansas has a small breeding population that is growing.

It would be great to see the program be successful and the Jaguar having a permanent breeding population in the SW

Professor Guide
5.2  seeder  GregTx  replied to  Kavika @5    2 years ago

Interesting fact, cougars are bigger generally the farther north of the equator you go and jaguars are bigger generally the farther south of the equator you go. 

Professor Principal
5.2.1  Kavika   replied to  GregTx @5.2    2 years ago

Ha, that is an interesting fact. I lived in the west for decades and have seen a fair number of Mountain Lions, such a beautiful creature.

Professor Guide
5.2.2  seeder  GregTx  replied to  Kavika @5.2.1    2 years ago

No doubt, 


Professor Principal
5.2.3  Gsquared  replied to  Kavika @5.2.1    2 years ago

I have never encountered a mountain lion, and I really hope I don't.  I have seen several recent shared videos of mountain lions around where I live.  A couple of years ago neighbors, whose property is only 300-400 feet from ours, installed a video camera and that night got a video of a very large mountain lion in their yard.  I live in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains only about a mile from the wilderness area.  We have coyotes all the time, and I have seen a few bobcats, although the last time was many years ago.

Professor Principal
5.2.4  Kavika   replied to  Gsquared @5.2.3    2 years ago

I've seen most from a distance. The foothills around La Canada, Flintridge etc there are quite a few of them in that area. 

The one that I saw up close was at Copco Lake in Siskiyou county. I was walking down an old snake trail and I looked up in a tree about 20 yards or so in front of me and there was one laying on a branch. I started backing up slowly and it turned its head to watch me and that was it, it never moved from the tree.

Professor Principal
5.2.5  Gsquared  replied to  Kavika @5.2.4    2 years ago

You had a very close encounter.  That's pretty scary.

The neighbors who live across the street from me were hiking in our local wilderness area not too long ago, and saw a mountain lion sitting in the brush watching them.  They just kept on walking, slowly moving away.  They don't go hiking up there anymore.

La Canada Flintridge is close to the Angeles National Forest.  They have lots of wildlife there.  Bears even show up in the hills on the north end of L.A. fairly often.  They live in the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains.  We have not had a resident bear population in the Santa Monica Mountains since the 1880s, but a black bear was spotted in Malibu Creek State Park about 6 years ago, which was a very rare occurrence.

Professor Principal
5.2.6  Kavika   replied to  Gsquared @5.2.5    2 years ago

That area is loaded with wildlife. I had a much closer encounter with a black bear on the Upper Klamath River, that one rattled me a bit.

Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
6  Buzz of the Orient    2 years ago

Arizona can have those jaguars.  I've wanted this one since 1959.


Professor Principal
7  CB    2 years ago

No ma'am and no sir! I will have none of this wild life in my surroundings, thank you very much. But, I think it will help me understand why the chronic homeless are hanging around in cities for years on end. There are sounds in those hills around me at night I'd bet!

Professor Principal
8  Kavika     2 years ago

Great article, Gregg. Thanks for posting it.


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