Beautiful, elusive and secretive, the sleek jaguar has been a ghostlike presence in Arizona, captured only on environmentalists' tracking cameras over the past dozen years.
On Feb. 18, a jaguar nicknamed Macho B that has been documented by tracking cameras since 1996 was inadvertently snared by an Arizona Game and Fish Department trap. The trap was being used to track bear and mountain lion movements in oak woodland about 4,000 feet high southwest of Tucson.
Arizona and New Mexico are on the far northern edge of the animals' range. Their primary home is Central and South America, especially the Amazon. Federal and state experts contend that the jaguars that come into Southern Arizona originate from a colony of perhaps 70 to 100 cats about 130 miles south of the border in the Mexican state of Sonora.
After the capture, state biologists placed a collar with GPS satellite-tracking capabilities on the sedated animal and then released him.
Because the collar signals location information every three hours and also is programmed to signal when the border is crossed, government scientists and environmentalists agree that it's likely to provide a wealth of data.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, on opposite sides of a lawsuit scheduled for federal trial later this month over the jaguar, disagree over what good the new information will do.
The environmentalists want the government to take further steps to protect the animal and assure its survival.
"Clearly, we're going to get new and valuable information" from the collar, said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The sad thing is that under current policy, there are no plans to use any information for the purposes of recovery or conservation."
"We're very supportive of the capture and think it's going to provide great information," said Erin Fernandez of Fish and Wildlife's ecological services office in Tucson.
Fish and Wildlife, which did not originally list the magnificent cat as endangered when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 1973, has never designated critical habitat or produced a recovery plan for the jaguar.
That prompted the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the agency in the case that is to start March 23.
"The opportunity to put a satellite collar on it will give us a tremendous amount of additional data that can strengthen our consultation for jaguars (with other federal agencies, such as on proposed Border Patrol or Forest Service projects). But it doesn't change our stand on critical habitat or a recovery plan," added Jeff Humphrey, Phoenix spokesman for Fish and Wildlife.
That decision was based on the belief that the area where jaguars occurred in the United States was but a very small part of its range. "The conservation of the species is going to depend entirely on Mexico, Central America and South America," Humphrey said.
In 1979, Fish and Wildlife listed the animal as endangered only in foreign countries. It took another 18 years to extend that protection within the United States.
Robinson said there was no domestic listing initially because all jaguars in the country were thought to have been exterminated, with strong federal support, because of their historic livestock predation.
Humphrey said the GPS collar will help answer whether the jaguar goes back and forth to Mexico. "It's going to fill in those information gaps," he said.
Macho B, thought to be 15 or 16 years old, is one of four jaguars caught on cameras over several years. But other than the photos, the cats had essentially been apparitions in Arizona and New Mexico.
But Robinson said that historically, jaguars extended from the East to the West coasts, as far north as the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Appalachian Mountains and possibly into Colorado. Their progenitor evolved in North America and migrated south, he said.
Jaguars are the biggest cat found in North or South America. "They're very cryptic animals, they're secretive," Robinson said. "There are a handful of them that are in our mountains."
Because they are so elusive, hard estimates of total numbers of jaguars are difficult to come by.
"I have heard anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000," said Bill Van Pelt, non-game bird and mammal program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Of all the large cats, jaguars are the least studied. So it's hard to estimate population sizes."
"Macho B for the past 13 years has spent a considerable amount of time in the United States," Van Pelt said.
The jaguar's spotting patterns are as unique as a person's fingerprints, Van Pelt said, and Macho B watchers have identified two spots, or rosettes, by which they say they're able to identify that particular animal: "The Betty Boop and the Pinocchio spots."
Van Pelt said the tracking collar's GPS positions will show how the animal traverses mountains and roads and what time of day it travels. The information also will lead scientists to look for its prey by reviewing predation that has occurred in an area the animal just frequented. They believe it also may lead to another jaguar.
"By getting a collar on this animal, this is going to unlock some of the mysteries that we've had about this animal for the last 13 years," Van Pelt said.