AZ wanted a jaguar collared despite 2 deaths in Sonora

2009-06-14T00:00:00Z AZ wanted a jaguar collared despite 2 deaths in SonoraBy Tony Davis and Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The two young biologists tried to sedate the snared jaguar with a blow gun. They thrust at it with an improvised jab stick.

The big cat kept charging at them.

Finally, they were able to sedate the jaguar, but it was too late. The old, spotted male, his teeth broken and worn down, died within a day, apparently killed by the stress of the capture and the 100-degree heat.

It was April 2003, deep in the nearly impenetrable thornscrub of the Sierra Madre Mountains in eastern Sonora, 135 miles south of the Arizona border. In the coming years, that ill-fated attempt to capture and put a radio-collar on a jaguar in Mexico helped polarize the debate over whether to capture and collar a jaguar in Arizona.

Macho B, the last known wild jaguar in the United States, was captured on Feb.18 this year; 12 days later he was euthanized.

Arizona Game and Fish officials have said the Mexican jaguar death stemmed from a lack of experience, equipment and training and is no reason not to capture a jaguar here. Still, the similarities between the incidents raise questions about what went wrong in the Mexican capture — and what officials here should have learned about snaring big cats.

The biologists involved in the Mexican capture blamed their supervisor — a prominent researcher and published authority on jaguars — for failing to adequately prepare them for the capture. They also said that supervisor, Carlos Lopez Gonzalez, told them to cover up the death, according to e-mails the Star obtained through public records requests to Arizona Game and Fish.

Biologists disagree

In an interview with the Star last week, Lopez Gonzalez acknowledged that preparations could have been better but denied any kind of cover-up.

The death later divided the young biologists who carried out the capture, American Emil McCain and Mexican Sergio Avila, who both now live in Southern Arizona.

From then until this year's death of Macho B, Arizona wildlife officials and allies argued for capturing a jaguar in order to track its movements and try to protect its habitat.

McCain, now a biologist for the Amado-based Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, said at a 2006 public meeting, "Radio telemetry has been the best tool in the wildlife research community for the past 35 years."

Many Southern Arizona environmentalists, including Avila, opposed another capture, arguing that the risks were too high for a population so small, and that possible benefits were too uncertain. They cited the 2003 death and another capture-related death in 2002, involving a New Mexico State University student also working in eastern Sonora, as evidence that jaguars in the northern end of their range seem more susceptible to capture-related health problems.

Avila, who now studies jaguars in northern Sonora for the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, recalled that he was so horrified by the 2003 event that he blocked out some of the details: "The next day when I saw that animal lying there, lifeless — a muscular 110 lbs. body, a beautiful coat, a jaguar that had roamed for over 10 years, and a collar around his neck — I questioned my own career and the goals of such a study," he said in an e-mail to the Star.

But McCain, who was working on a bear-mountain lion trapping project in which Macho B was captured, and Game and Fish officials have said Arizona can prepare more thoroughly for a capture than researchers did in Mexico. Even after Macho B's death in what Game and Fish said was an accidental capture, authorities were not ready to abandon the quest for a jaguar capture in the name of science and conservation.

Conservationists' support

The research that led to the Sonoran jaguar's 2003 capture and death had its roots in the late 1990s.

That's when Lopez Gonzalez started researching jaguars in Sonora while working on a book — published in 2001 — with David Brown, an Arizona State University adjunct professor and a wildlife biologist for 40 years.

Lopez Gonzalez targeted the rough, steep, canyon-filled eastern Sonora terrain centering on Los Pavos, a 10,000-acre ranch in the thornscrub, 65 miles from the nearest town. His work drew support from 20 conservation groups and environmentalists, including Tucsonan Craig Miller of Defenders of Wildlife. Miller recently said he had long felt that if any hope existed for jaguars to recover north of the border, it had to start with protecting and recovering the far larger population in Sonora.

"We were trying to learn what kind of area in terms of size and what kinds of habitats they were using and how much predation actually does occur," recalled Lopez Gonzalez, a research professor in biology at the Universidad de Queretaro, about 125 miles northwest of Mexico City. "We were also trying to learn how many cattle do they really kill. We felt that only way to learn that was by following the animal around."

When Avila and McCain went to work for Lopez Gonzalez in late 2002, they captured four mountain lions, then captured and collared a female jaguar two days before they caught the male. The female was caught in a deep, shaded canyon, Miller said. The male who died was snaredin an exposed area more vulnerable to the heat.

In e-mails written a few months later, Avila and McCain complained of an inadequate blow gun used to dart and anesthetize captured jaguars.

"The cats were continually charging Emil as he was trying to shoot them with that ridiculously inefficient blow gun at very close range," Emil's father Jim McCain wrote, citing videos of the incident, in an e-mail to Lopez Gonzales.

Avila and McCain also wrote in their e-mails that Lopez Gonzales told them to keep the death quiet and to hide the cat's skin and skull at the ranch. Emil McCain skinned the jaguar, cleaned the skull and buried the body close to the ranch, Avila wrote.

Lopez Gonzalez denied telling the biologists to cover up the death but acknowledged that he didn't want them traveling anywhere with the jaguar corpse, saying he "didn't think he would be looked at very good in the towns."

Lopez Gonzalez said he notified Semarnat, the Mexican environmental agency, of the death, but agency representatives told the Star they could find no information about the 2003 jaguar capture. They referred the paper to Profepa, a federal office for prosecution of environmental violations, but officials there have not responded.

Looking back, he said the training and equipment could have been better but that the bigger problem was a lack of communication between him and McCain and Avila, who were working six hours by car from the closest town.

"We didn't plan for the worst scenario. It had never occurred to me that a fatality could occur," said Lopez Gonzalez, who had worked in five jaguar captures with no fatalities in the 1990s in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

The death, he said, devastated him.

"That very first day I decided I wasn't going to (capture) again," he said. "I needed to learn more, to understand what happened."

Earlier incident

The incident was not without precedent. Less than a year earlier, biologist Octavio Rosas attempted to capture and collar a jaguar in the same area, according to a report Rosas drafted on the incident, obtained from New Mexico State University through a public-records request.

About 6:15 a.m. on June 9 2002, Rosas and another biologist approached one of four snares he had put out to capture jaguars and mountain lions. A jaguar was caught in the trap.

"The jaguar was very aggressive, at times attempting to spring toward us and snarling," Rosas wrote.

Although he hit the animal in the hindquarters with a tranquilizer dart, the jaguar was not fully sedated. It took two more doses before the biologists could approach, and 100 minutes before they could place a collar on the animal and begin trying to release it. The temperature was over 90 degrees.

"At 9:05 a.m., jaguar attempted to stand and flee but fell back," Rosas wrote. "At 9:20 a.m. jaguar made repeated attempts to stand."

The biologists attempted to cool the cat by dousing it with water, but to no effect.

"At 10:17 a.m. jaguar stopped breathing," Rosas wrote.

The incident shocked Rosas' supervisor at the time, Raul Valdez, who chairs New Mexico State's department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology. From that point on, Rosas was accompanied by a veterinarian when he did captures, and he only captured mountain lions, Valdez said.

Passionate debates

The deaths in Mexico reverberated in the occasional meetings of the Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team, a group of scientists, officials and interested citizens that oversees jaguar management in the United States, which — like Mexico —lists the jaguar as endangered.

The group had discussed capturing and collaring a jaguar before. The idea was touched on in the group's original, 1997 assessment of jaguar conservation. After the Sonoran deaths, the debates grew passionate.

"Once the discussion started toward collaring, it immediately split into two factions," said Shiloh Walkosak, a Tucsonan who was then a Reid Park Zoo employee and volunteer for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.

At a meeting in Willcox in January 2005, the debate even led to a pushing match when a New Mexico agriculture official grew angry with comments by a Center for Biological Diversity representative.

Those supporting capturing a jaguar in the U.S. argued it is the best way to find out where the animal roams, among other information. Arizona Game and Fish official Bill Van Pelt, a leader of the team from its inception, boiled down the purpose of jaguar capture in a February 2005 e-mail: "identify travel corridors and conserve them."

"We will not know what corridors to protect from Mexico or in the U.S. without following a jaguar," he wrote in the e-mail to his boss, endangered species coordinator Terry Johnson. "We need to have people stop saying two out of three jaguars were killed in Sonora or have them give the full story about having inexperienced handlers trying to capture jaguars."

But many environmentalists thought state officials and other capture enthusiasts were turning a blind eye to the risks of capturing a rare jaguar in this arid environment.

Avila said he recounted his story to the conservation team and shared his conclusion that jaguar captures aren't worth the risk, but felt officials weren't receptive. Miller and Walkosak argued that collaring a jaguar would be pointless because officials were unwilling to use the resulting data to protect key habitat.

"There was never a document that expressed what the benefits would be of collaring one jaguar," Avila recalled last week. "Radio collars are useful. But you have to know what you will do with that information."

Team meeting in 2006

Eventually, the issue drove a wedge between Avila and McCain, though both still research jaguars in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

At an April, 2006 meeting of the Jaguar Conservation Team in Lordsburg, N.M., McCain spoke in favor of pursuing a capture while Avila spoke against it.

The conservation team, led by Terry Johnson, Arizona Game and Fish's endangered species coordinator, voted to approve pursuing a jaguar capture, upon approval of higher-ups in the state and federal governments.

In a May, 2006 e-mail, Johnson wrote that the Mexico deaths apparently occurred because of poor preparation and lack of training, expertise and adequate equipment.

"In short, the ill-fated attempts bore little to no resemblance to successful capture and collaring efforts that have been carried out throughout the Western Hemisphere" he said.

By February, 2007, Johnson wrote that his hope was to get a capture approved that year and try to carry it out in the winter of 2007-2008. But officials never gave a briefing package to the director of Game and Fish to consider initiating a jaguar capture.

Obviously, any capture of wildlife holds some risk, Game and Fish said last week in a statement to the Star. The conservation team thoroughly discussed the merits of capturing and collaring a jaguar, consulting national experts, the department said.

Using radio telemetry to monitor wildlife has been tested and used worldwide, the department said. It plays a key role in understanding countless species and how best to manage and protect them, particularly large, wide-ranging and elusive animals, the department said, and can cross borders that other methods often cannot.

"When circumstances are appropriate to use this tool, it would be scientifically foolish, if not irresponsible, not to use it," the department said.

Were lessons learned?

Since Macho B's death, environmentalists have said the department did not learn the lessons of the earlier Sonoran jaguar deaths.

For one, there was no veterinarian or anyone with jaguar-capture experience on the scene at Macho B's capture, although the capture team had consulted with veterinarians on what kind of anesthetic to give a jaguar in the event of a capture. Because the trap that snared Macho B had no electronic signal, biologists didn't learn of the capture until three to 14 hours after it occurred.

The captors also used a snare trap even though a risk assessment done for the Jaguar Conservation Team had warned that was the riskiest of three possible methods of capture, instead advocating the use of hounds.

Game and Fish officials have said they did nottake those steps because that was the protocol for deliberate jaguar capture — not for accidental capture.

The Northern Jaguar Project took a different message from the Sonoran deaths. The project, a non-profit group based in Tucson, was in the process of forming at the time of the capture and Lopez Gonzales is a project board member, but Lopez Gonzales and other project officials said that the project was not directly involved in the capture. It was one of 20 conservation groups supporting the research.

At the project's first board meeting in 2003, it decided to support only "non-invasive" research — using cameras to photograph jaguars or dogs to sniff out scat. One reason is that northern jaguars may be more vulnerable to harm from capture than other jaguars, said Lopez Gonzalez, adding, "I don't have enough information to say this for sure."

Living in a more arid environment than most jaguars thriving in moister, more tropical climates, the northern jaguars "could be close to their tolerance limits," Lopez Gonzalez said.

Not all jaguar experts agree. The New Mexico State University professor who supervised Octavio Rosas' jaguar research, Raul Valdez, said, "There's really no reason to think that southern jaguars are different from northern jaguars."

Since then, the jaguar project has set up a 67-square mile reserve in the Los Pavos area, in cooperation with the Mexican group Naturalia, which bought the land in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. There and on another 64 square miles of private ranchland, the group has put 70 cameras to photograph jaguars.

The jaguar project pays ranchers 5,000 pesos — a little less than $500 — for each jaguar photo taken on their ranch in return for a pledge not to kill jaguars, even if they eat cattle. In two years, ranchers have received $20,000. A rancher there just won an award from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund for his work in what's called the Foto Felinos program.

"What we've learned is that there's gotta be another way to do it, to get information, and have community involvement and to build a grass roots support for nature," said Diana Hadley, the jaguar project's board president.

But in the days following Macho B's death — before a criminal investigation into the incident was launched — officials were determined that capturing a jaguar remained necessary.

Steve Spangle, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Arizona office, said at a March 5 press briefing: "When the right opportunity presents itself, we will again seek to collar and monitor a jaguar."

Contact reporters Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com or Tim Steller at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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