Starting next year, jaguars will be the target of an extensive network of remote cameras placed across Southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico.
In a three-year, $771,000 project that has been greeted warmly by environmentalists but warily by cattle growers, University of Arizona researchers will try to learn more about the status and presence of the endangered animal.
Fifteen years after the jaguar was listed as endangered in the U.S., this project will try to determine how often it roams from Mexico to the United States and back, said Melanie Culver, the project's principal investigator and a geneticist for the U.S. Geological Survey and the UA's School of Natural Resources.
Referring to the adult male jaguar photographed in Cochise County Saturday, Culver added that the project will try to learn, "Is this the only one?"
The research project has brought on a UA professor with a history of mediation work, Kirk Emerson, to reach out to environmental groups, ranchers, private landowners and others in an effort to minimize potential conflicts over the research.
There has long been tension among ranchers, environmentalists and government officials over how to conserve and study jaguars.
The cameras will be placed at 120 locations on public and possibly private lands in mountainous terrain - two cameras per site - and checked regularly, said Lisa Haynes, the research project manager and coordinator of the UA's Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center. They'll be located from the Baboquivari Mountains in south-central Arizona on the west to the Animas Mountains in the "boot heel" of New Mexico on the east.
Funding is from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Up to five jaguars have been photographed in the region in the past 15 years. Researchers say the new camera work could help determine if this area actually has a resident jaguar population or if the jaguars that roam here are transient migrants into their range's northern fringe from a larger population in Mexico.
Other possible results of the research include:
• Pinpointing movement corridors for jaguars across the mountainous borderlands region.
• Understanding more about how other wildlife relates to jaguars, and about the region's general biodiversity.
• Helping the federal government determine prime jaguar habitat, and prepare a federal recovery plan for the species.
• Learning how much impact the U.S.-Mexican border fence, illegal immigrants, and vehicles and equipment used to pursue immigrants has on the animal.
With last week's sighting being the first confirmed jaguar presence in this country since the March 2009 death of the animal dubbed Macho B, UA researchers say they have no idea what their chances are of detecting more jaguars or again seeing the one just photographed.
The researchers will be picking up on a larger scale where the nonprofit Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project left off in 2009 after the controversy over the capture and death of Macho B abruptly ended the remote camera work the group had been doing in Southern Arizona since the early 2000s.
The group's biologist, Emil McCain, pleaded guilty to trying to capture the jaguar without a permit. His five-year probation forbids him from conducting jaguar research in this country.
The federally financed project will use techniques similar to the detection project as far as cameras go, Haynes said. But this project will not follow McCain's practice of putting jaguar scat at camera sites to lure jaguars, the UA researchers said.
"We want to emphasize that this is a noninvasive technique that we'll use -no capture, no touch, no handling," Haynes said.
But the researchers will employ dogs to look for jaguar scat if cameras capture any of the rare cats, Haynes said. It will be analyzed for DNA to identify the species and possibly the individual jaguar the scat came from, said Culver, the geneticist.
Activists for two environmental groups that have pushed hard for jaguar protection were delighted that this study will be done.
"This type of science is long overdue," said Melanie Emerson, executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson conservation group.
"This is clearly nonintrusive, which means that the risks that manifested themselves tragically in Macho B's death will not be there," said Michael Robinson, an activist for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, whose lawsuit forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to agree to designate critical habitat and prepare a recovery plan for the jaguar.
The Arizona Cattle Growers Association is not opposed to the research that UA will be doing, said Patrick Bray, the group's executive vice president. But it is concerned about how federal officials and others might use the research, particularly if it leads to controversial measures such as reintroduction of jaguars or restrictions on grazing, since jaguars - like wolves - eat cattle.
"Sometimes there is a tendency by agencies to do an overkill of management, especially when you're working on species in a very northerly range of the animal," Bray said. "The money would be better spent in more densely populated ranges."
Bray also said he has a huge concern about the use of Homeland Security money for this project, since his group believes the federal agency isn't doing an adequate job of securing the border. If mitigation of environmental impacts is important to the public, the land-management and species-protection agencies should finance the research themselves, he said.
The public interest in this research is likely to be high, said Jeff Humphrey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, given the buzz that has occurred just since Monday when the Arizona Game and Fish Department announced the most recent confirmed jaguar sighting in Cochise County.
"It's the subject of dinner conversation - hey, a jaguar is back in the United States," Humphrey said. "People love having a connection to the remote, wild land that we are in here."
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Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.