Four dogs treed an endangered ocelot this week in the mountains near Sierra Vista, allowing the rare cat to be photographed.
It was the second, and possibly the third, confirmed sighting of an ocelot in the past 15 months in Southern Arizona - the first confirmed sightings in this state since 1964.
A biologist for a conservation group and an Arizona Game and Fish Department spokesman say that it's quite possible ocelots never left this region, even though there hadn't been confirmed sightings for decades. More public interest, better technology and other factors could be making sightings more common, they said. Or, warmer weather due to climate change could have pushed ocelots north from Mexico, said those experts and a Northern Arizona University wild-cat expert.
This ocelot was photographed in a dead pine-tree limb in the Huachuca Mountains at midday Tuesday, Game and Fish reported. The animal had been chased for a half-hour by dogs belonging to a resident living at high elevations near Sierra Vista, said Brad Fulk, a Game and Fish wildlife manager.
The resident, whose name was withheld by Game and Fish, called the department. It sent four people to the site to confirm the ocelot sighting and get the pictures, Fulk said.
When he got there at 12:15 on Tuesday, Fulk knew it was potentially an ocelot from its striped and barred tail and dark spots known as rosettes on its upper torso, he said. He and his colleagues used previous ocelot photos to confirm the sighting.
The cat sat about 20 to 30 feet high, Fulk said. With no foliage in the tree, it was easy to see the animal's striping and spotting to identify it. It moved up and down the branch a bit to avoid the wind but never left that limb, appearing extremely comfortable and in good shape, Fulk said.
While they couldn't tell the animal's age, Fulk said he's fairly confident it was a mature male. They took fecal samples and collected hairs later, and will submit them to a lab for testing, he said.
Authorities had hiked off-trail a mile and a half through steep, thick rocky underbrush to reach the cat, Fulk said.
The dogs led their owner to the ocelot after they spotted it close to their master's house, he said. Fulk termed the homeowner a conservationist and a credible source.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience" to see the ocelot, Fulk said. "I can't tell you how fortunate I feel."
The earlier confirmed ocelot sighting came April 2010 when a car killed one on U.S. 60 near Globe. At the time, Game and Fish said it wasn't sure if it was a wild or domesticated ocelot. But Jim Paxon, a Game and Fish spokesman, said Wednesday that he just read a federal government report saying that while there isn't conclusive evidence it's wild, there's no reason to think it isn't.
Sergio Avila, a biologist for the conservation group Sky Island Alliance, called this week's ocelot discovery "really good news." Back in November 2009, his group's remote cameras captured images of an ocelot, he said, in a Cochise County location that the group hasn't revealed.
The group has photographed four ocelots in northern Sonora, most recently last month.
"It's really good that somebody else is proving there are ocelots in the region," said Avila. "This proves there is connectivity in the region" - that there's habitat allowing the cats to move around. "This is something to celebrate."
Game and Fish said this week it hasn't been able to verify that the cat photographed back in 2009 in Cochise County was an ocelot, based on the photo. But Avila said the group is sticking to its conclusion it was an ocelot, adding that Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew about the photo a year ago and never questioned it then.
In 1964, the last confirmed Arizona ocelot sighting occurred when a picture was taken of one shot and killed in the Huachucas. Since then, more than a half-dozen other reliable reported but unconfirmed ocelot sightings occurred.
More confirmed sightings could be occurring now partly because of better technology - remote cameras - and partly because people are more aware of the cat and its endangered status, Avila said. He also cited the use of dogs in finding this ocelot and in locating two Southern Arizona jaguars during the 1990s.
But he and Northern Arizona University biologist Paul Beier said that warmer weather also could have drawn these cats from Mexico. Beier said it's possible thicker vegetation in recent years also attracted them. "Clearly these are animals that weren't here a few years ago. When you haven't seen a confirmed sighting for 55 years, you think it's probably not there," Beier said.
These theories are all plausible but there's no information pointing to any as most likely, said Game and Fish's Paxon, adding, "Those are the same things we're thinking."
Capturing and putting a radio collar on an ocelot would help figure out why they're present, he said. But Game and Fish officials "are not prepared to even think about collaring and tracking them right now," said Paxon, whose department is still investigating the capture and radio-collaring nearly two years ago of Macho B, the country's last known wild jaguar that was euthanized after being captured in Southern Arizona.
For now, citizen sightings such as the latest one are very important, Paxon said.
"We have 6.5 million people in Arizona today and we had 3 million in the 1980s. That alone means more incidental sightings," said Paxon - adding that more people increases the animal's odds of being hit by cars.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.