The biologist at the center of the controversy over a jaguar's capture and subsequent death last year admitted Friday in federal court that he tried to snare the animal, known as Macho B.
Emil McCain pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime: illegal take of an endangered species. To "take" means to knowingly harass, harm, pursue, trap or kill, in violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act, court records show.
McCain, 31, of Patagonia, was immediately sentenced to five years' probation and fined $1,000.
In the plea agreement, McCain admitted an allegation that he had previously denied - that on Feb. 4, 2009, he told a female co-worker to place jaguar scat at snare sites in an effort to lure and capture the rare jaguar.
Previously, McCain had denied directing the woman, Janay Brun, with whom he worked on the nonprofit Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, to place scat at the snare sites and said that if she did it, it was at her own initiative.
But Friday, he admitted to placing the scat or directing a woman to place the scat at three snare trap sites in an attempt to capture Macho B, the last known wild jaguar in the United States. He also admitted that he lacked permission to intentionally capture a jaguar.
The jaguar was found in the trap two weeks later by Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists working on what was supposed to have been a study of black bears and mountain lions.
"There was no authorization to intentionally capture a jaguar," McCain wrote in his signed plea agreement.
The aging jaguar was radio-collared by Game and Fish and released, but after it slowed down in the wild, it was recaptured 12 days later and euthanized due to kidney problems.
Under McCain's probation, he cannot be employed by or involved in any large-cat or large-carnivore project or study in the Unites States during that time.
When he leaves the country, he is allowed to be on unsupervised probation. McCain has worked as a biologist in Mexico, Spain and Costa Rica.
"He is done with the federal investigation and he has taken responsibility for whatever part he has in it," said his Tucson attorney, Alfred Donau III.
Encountered Friday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Tucson, McCain declined to talk about the case and walked away from a reporter. He had made his plea to Federal Magistrate Bernardo Velasco.
Until Friday, it was unclear if McCain would face charges. But in a procedure sometimes used by prosecutors, McCain was charged, pleaded guilty and was sentenced all in one day.
The federal government has had a criminal investigation since April 2009 into questions such as whether the Endangered Species Act was violated in the capture of Macho B. The criminal investigation is continuing, said Winn Hornbuckle, a U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman in Phoenix.
In late March 2009, Brun, a research technician with the Jaguar Detection project, alleged in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star that McCain had ordered her to put female scat at the trap site. McCain denied the charge at the time.
But Thornton "Thorry" Smith, then a biologist for Arizona Game and Fish, later told state investigators that McCain said scat had been placed at the sites of remote cameras near the eventual trap site. Originally, Game and Fish said the capture was accidental, occurring as part of its bear-lion study.
In his plea agreement Friday, McCain said he knew there had been recent evidence that a jaguar had appeared in the area of the snares. Photographs had been taken near the capture site in January 2009.
In his testimony to Game and Fish investigators, Smith admitted to lying to federal investigators about his role in the case - for which he was later fired - and concocting with McCain a coverup of the scat placement. But under the terms in which he testified, Smith can't be prosecuted for what he told the state.
Brun may now face prosecution. On Friday, she said she had been told by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigator that she would receive a summons today to appear in federal court next Thursday in connection with the jaguar case.
Nicholas Chavez, the Wildlife Service's Southwest law enforcement chief, said Brun is probably being summoned to face whatever charges the U.S. Attorney's Office plans to bring against her. U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Hornbuckle declined to comment.
Brun said she was frustrated that McCain's sentence wasn't stiffer.
Because of Smith's statement about the coverup and because of McCain's involvement in other incidents in which jaguars died, "I don't think he should be allowed to be near any big cat or any animal in any country," said Brun.
In 2003, McCain worked on a jaguar capture in Sonora in which the animal died within a day after his release. McCain and another biologist acknowledged that they lacked proper training or equipment.
Last year, McCain worked in a project in the Mexican state of Yucatan in which two jaguars died shortly after their release from captivity. One died of causes never determined. The other was killed by people in the area, according to an account published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
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