Researcher's status questioned in jaguar case

Testimony indicates he was working for state; game officials deny it
2011-01-30T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:56:36Z Researcher's status questioned in jaguar caseTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 30, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A researcher who later pleaded guilty to a federal crime in the trapping of jaguar Macho B was working for Arizona Game and Fish at the time of the capture, a state biologist has testified.

Transcripts show that Game and Fish Department biologist Kirby Bristow's 2009 testimony differs markedly from statements made last year by department officials that researcher Emil McCain wasn't working for their agency at the time of the Feb. 18, 2009 capture.

McCain, now 32, of Patagonia, pleaded guilty last May to capturing the jaguar in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. He admitted ordering another researcher to put jaguar scat at the snare site where Macho B was ultimately captured. Jaguars use scents to communicate, and female jaguar feces may attract male jaguars.

McCain was fined $1,000 and put on five years' probation, during which he is forbidden from working on large cat research in the United States.

Bristow ran the research project during which the jaguar was captured, studying black bears and mountain lions near the Mexican border. McCain had worked for that project as a subcontractor in fall 2008; In February 2009 he was back at the scene of the study, opening snares hoping to catch more lions.

The question is: for whom?

Bristow testified twice during an internal Game and Fish investigation of Macho B's capture that in February 2009, McCain was working for the bear-lion project and would have received money from the department under certain conditions. A Game and Fish spokesman, however, said recently that despite Bristow's testimony, there was no contract or agreement between McCain and the department during February 2009.

"We maintain steadfastly that Emil wasn't an agent or working for Game and Fish. That's a statement we would raise our right hand and go before a judge with," Game and Fish spokesman Jim Paxon said.

Paxon said McCain - who has not talked to the press about the jaguar capture since March 31, 2009 - was working for a nonprofit research team, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, at the time of the capture.

McCain's relationship with Game and Fish during the capture has been an issue twice. Last year, the U.S. Interior Department Inspector General's Office wrote a report saying that a "Game and Fish subcontractor" - who wasn't named but matched McCain's description - was under criminal investigation for his role in the capture. In April, Janay Brun, a research technician who at McCain's direction put jaguar scat at the site where Macho B was later captured, will defend herself against criminal charges in part by arguing that she was acting under orders from an agent of the state - again, McCain.

Bristow was one of 16 Game and Fish officials to testify in 2009 and early 2010 in the department's Macho B investigation.

In his testimony, another Game and Fish official, large cat biologist Ron Thompson, who helped McCain get his original subcontract with the state on the bear-lion study, echoed Game and Fish administrators' account that no new contract was signed for McCain.

But Thompson made two other statements in his interviews that suggested McCain was tied to Game and Fish at the time of capture. On July 14, 2009, Thompson testified he told McCain he had an obligation to testify in the state investigation because "as a contractor, he took our money, okay and . . . there are unanswered questions and that kind of thing that he needed ... to be available for." McCain did not testify.

Thompson also recalled that he made inquiries to other Game and Fish officials, at McCain's request, to see if McCain, as a state subcontractor, would be covered under some kind of liability clause with the state for his actions in connection with the jaguar capture.

Thompson said he could never get an answer. He said he warned McCain, "Don't ever think that the state can provide you a lawyer if this thing came down. You need to go get the best person you can get."

Thompson retired in November. "It is not appropriate for us at this time to publicly attempt to interpret or speculate about statements in the transcripts, given that the Janay Brun case is in litigation," department spokesman Tom Cadden, said.

The state probe started after a federal criminal investigation of the capture had begun. Neither investigation is finished.

Game and Fish released the transcripts with some redactions after the Arizona Daily Star requested them under the state Public Records Act.

Macho B - the last jaguar known to live in the wild in the United States - was captured in a Game and Fish snare trap north of the Mexican border and west of Nogales. The capture occurred close to an area where the jaguar had previously been photographed by the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, the group McCain helped lead.

The jaguar was collared and released back to the wild.

Game and Fish officials denied the department had any intent to capture the jaguar, although they later fired a department biologist, Thorry Smith, for what they said was lying to federal officials about Smith's role in the capture.

Smith, McCain and Brun, an employee of the nonprofit group, were all at the scene Feb. 4, 2009, when the snare where Macho B was ultimately captured was opened and jaguar scat was placed there.

The state recaptured Macho B soon after he was released, when the radio collar showed his movements slowing dramatically in the wild. The jaguar was then euthanized March 2, 2009, at the Phoenix Zoo.

An attorney representing Brun, Michael Piccarreta, said he will present evidence at trial showing that it was at the Game and Fish Department's request that McCain was opening snares in February 2009 in the area where Macho B was later captured.

"The state has ultimate accountability" for the capture, said Piccarreta.

Brun will go on trial in April in U.S. District Court here on charges of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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

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