Jaguar seen in area of Cochise

Images appear to back sighting, the 1st since big male died in 2009
2011-11-22T00:00:00Z 2011-11-22T08:19:19Z Jaguar seen in area of CochiseTony Davis and Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A hunter photographed an adult male jaguar in Southeast Arizona after his dogs treed it, Arizona Game and Fish Department officials said Monday.

The sighting Saturday in Cochise County was the first confirmed report of a wild jaguar in the United States since the death of Macho B in Arizona in March 2009. It may have been the fifth wild jaguar - all males - seen in Arizona since 1996. The jaguar is listed as an endangered species in the United States and Mexico.

An experienced mountain lion hunter spotted the jaguar Saturday morning about 15 feet up a mesquite tree and reported it to Game and Fish. The hunter was led to the large cat by his dogs, who were baying and starting to pursue the animal as if on the trail of a lion, said Mark Hart, a Game and Fish spokesman.

Officials said the hunter had not given permission to release his name, and the department declined to specify the location.

The hunter photographed and shot video of the jaguar, then left with his dogs and watched the animal from a distance. The jaguar stayed in the tree for 15 minutes before jumping down and heading south.

Based on the photos and video, Game and Fish officials described the jaguar as an adult male that appeared healthy and weighed about 200 pounds. Game and Fish biologists went to the sighting location to verify that the photos and videos were taken there, Hart said.

"It all checked out," Hart said. "We started at the exact same point where they (the photos and video) were shot. We saw tree branches where they were supposed to be, and they absolutely looked the same as in the photos. We counted about 10 marks of claws where a large animal had climbed the tree."

The biologists also collected hair samples from the area for possible DNA testing.

Game and Fish officials said they saw the photos and video in the hunter's possession, but don't have their own copies yet to release publicly.

The department hopes to compare the photos with those of other jaguars sighted in Arizona and of two jaguars photographed this year by remote cameras at a ranch in Sonora about 30 miles south of the border, Hart said.

"I think it will be critical for them to compare the rosettes" - a jaguar's unique spots - "with photos of the two cats from Sonora, and not just Arizona records," said Melanie Emerson, director of the Sky Island Alliance, the Tucson conservation group whose cameras photographed the Sonoran jaguars.

The last known jaguar in the United States, 15-year-old Macho B, was euthanized in March 2009 at the Phoenix Zoo after he was captured just north of Mexico, radio-collared and recaptured 12 days later after he slowed dramatically. Authorities determined he had unrecoverable kidney failure, but the death led to one state and two federal investigations, including a federal criminal investigation that ended last May. The state investigation is continuing.

Otherwise, none of the four male wild jaguars previously seen in Arizona in the last 15 years have been reported since 2006. Because none were female, some scientists have said Arizona no longer has a resident jaguar population.

Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity have said they believe Arizona jaguars could breed again with stronger recovery efforts, and their litigation forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start to prepare a jaguar recovery plan last year.

"It is good news, but it's not a surprise," Sky Island wildlife biologist Sergio Avila said of the latest sighting. "Jaguars don't think in terms of countries - they think in terms of the land. This is just proof that the land can sustain jaguars."

But since this is another male, "I would guess" that Arizona jaguars will be limited to surplus males that have reason to migrate from Mexico, said Larry Audsley, the Arizona Wildlife Federation's Southern Arizona regional director.

"Whenever that happens, some people will get excited, and there will be applications for funding to go study it, but the presence of one male jaguar has no ecological significance," Audsley said. "What would make a difference is discovering a female jaguar because that opens the possibility of a breeding population."

Regardless of the ecological significance, the public should be thrilled by this sighting, Game and Fish's Hart said.

"This is another example of biodiversity in the region … whether the scientific community deems it significant or not, that's not as important to us as letting the public know there is a male jaguar in Southeast Arizona," Hart said.

Audsley said that assuming this jaguar is healthy enough, authorities should try to capture and radio-collar him, to learn where he actually goes.

"Just because you know where it was when it was photographed, that can be a place where it doesn't go very often. To really know, you need a collar on him, even with the risks."

But the department has no plans to try to capture this animal, or to even discuss that possibility, Hart said. The agency drew widespread criticism over the 2009 Macho B capture, which occurred during a state-run study of black bear and mountain lions. They denied playing any role in engineering the Macho B capture. A private biologist who admitted to trying to capture the animal, Emil McCain, was working as a state subcontractor until a few months before the capture occurred.

Before authorities capture another jaguar, they should at least have a blueprint for recovering the species, and explain what they would do with information they would get from collaring another one, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

On StarNet: Search our database of bears, birds, beasts and bugs at azstarnet.com/critters

To contact reporters: Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746; Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427.

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

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