On rare occasion something special happens that rekindles our sense of natural wonder and the wild spirit upon which Americans thrive. I think we are on the cusp of that now with the real possibility of restoring the jaguar as a native species of the U.S.
Jaguars once roamed parts of California, lived in much of Arizona, and were reported north to Colorado, and east to the Ohio Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. Thomas Jefferson included the species among the fauna of western Virginia. Well into the last century, jaguars persisted in the Southwest, including Texas. But they were fiercely hunted, trapped and poisoned, and their natural prey harshly reduced in number.
Sadly, in my lifetime a dozen wild jaguars have been killed in Arizona. These vanguards, part of a small remnant population mostly in nearby Mexico, regained a tiny fraction of the species' former range in the U.S. One beautiful female in Arizona's White Mountains was shot while feeding on elk. The latest was the old-timer named Macho B who roamed south of Tucson for many years. He died after his controversial capture by Arizona Game and Fish researchers.
Year after year, urban sprawl engulfs more of Arizona's open country, our highways see more and more traffic, more land clearing for energy and surface mining is proposed, and growing numbers of people seek recreational access to remote public lands.
So why do I think that there is still hope for the jaguar?
First, the Southwest still has great habitat for jaguars. Consider the large blocks of wild country in Arizona's Sky Island region and its Mogollon Rim country, and in the neighboring mountains of New Mexico. These areas offer abundant natural prey for jaguars, including white-tailed deer, mule deer, peccary, elk and smaller mammals.
Second, Mexico's Naturalia and the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project have established a 70-square mile reserve of prime jaguar habitat just 125 miles south of the Arizona border, and progress is being made to control widespread poaching. The time is ripe for a binational program between the U.S. and Mexico that can protect trans-border wildlife while improving cooperative efforts at border security.
Finally, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it will prepare a recovery plan for the jaguar and move to protect its habitat. At least the agency is now engaged, and could be convinced to restore the species to its broader historical range in the Southwest.
To support the cause, a group of conservationists will embark April 15 on an eight-day, 325-mile bike ride starting on the Coronado Forest near Nogales. Riders will chat with people about jaguars, give presentations at campgrounds, gain endorsements for jaguar recovery, participate in Tucson's annual All Species Parade, and end with a jaguar rally at the State Capitol in Phoenix on Earth Day, April 22.
Tony Povilitis is a wildlife biologist based in Willcox. He directs Life Net Nature, a nonprofit wildlife research and advocacy group. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org