G&F woes preceded jaguar capture

Personality clashes, communication, policy lapses plagued agency
2011-02-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:56:37Z G&F woes preceded jaguar captureTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In page after page of testimony, Arizona Game and Fish Department officials portrayed jaguar researcher Emil McCain as a man who manipulated, "played" and led them down a primrose path toward the capture of jaguar Macho B that ended in tragedy.

But in the same testimony, the officials portrayed their department as one that was able to be played because it was plagued by internal problems, personality conflicts and poor communication.

The transcripts show the department failed to deal with the possibility that placing traps in an area frequented by a rare jaguar might result in the cat's capture - a capture that would be risky to the animal's health and possibly illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

These portraits emerge from more than 1,900 pages of transcripts from Game and Fish's internal investigation of the 2009 capture of the last wild jaguar known to live in the United States. The jaguar was euthanized 12 days later.

The investigation won't end until the federal government finishes its criminal investigation of the incident. The Game and Fish Department has put on its website edited versions of the transcripts in response to a public-records request from the Arizona Daily Star.

McCain is described in the transcripts as a personable and knowledgeable naturalist and an effective lion trapper. But he is also described as an egotistical and secretive person who used his knowledge to advance his long-held agenda of getting Macho B collared. McCain has refused all interview requests since March 2009.

McCain was working as a subcontractor to Game and Fish in late 2008, placing snares to catch mountain lions and bears for a state study of those animals' movements near the border.

He knew, as a researcher with the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, that Macho B had been photographed in that area. But he selectively gave different officials incomplete pieces of information about where the snares were placed compared to where the jaguar had been photographed, transcripts show.

Game and Fish officials testified McCain didn't tell them that photos had been taken of the jaguar near some of the bear-lion snares five weeks before the Feb. 18 capture, leaving them unaware of the big picture.

Had she known the whole story, she would have ordered the snares removed, testified Chantal "Chasa" O'Brien, the department's research chief. "I think Terry Johnson (the department's endangered species chief) would have written back with why the hell are you trapping (there) for bears and lions?" added Bill Van Pelt, its nongame birds and mammals program manager.

Originally, officials called the Macho B capture accidental. But Van Pelt and Johnson testified that summer that they believed the capture was intentional and suspected McCain as a ringleader - nearly a year before McCain pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act for his role in the capture. "Emil has been tracking that animal for years now," Van Pelt testified. "And if anyone knew that animal's movement patterns, location of the animal, Emil McCain knew that."

The department itself has maintained from the start that it didn't direct anyone to capture the jaguar and that it had a valid permit for either an accidental or a deliberate capture. But McCain's guilty plea said there was "no authorization to intentionally capture a jaguar," and courts will probably have to settle the question of the capture's legality.

While the collared jaguar was in the wild, Game and Fish officials Van Pelt and Johnson testified, McCain had as much or more control over managing Macho B as they did. For instance, McCain delayed for several days plans to go back into the wild to check out the jaguar after Game and Fish officials first suspected Macho B was ailing.

Game officials also gave McCain and a colleague control over radio data indicating Macho B's movements, so the state agency wouldn't have to release it to the public under the State Public Records Act, officials testified. That left agency officials in the dark about Macho B's whereabouts if they couldn't reach McCain or his colleague Jack Childs, both of the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.

But while denying illegality or other wrongdoing, many department officials also found fault in their actions leading up to Macho B's capture. Some examples:

Personality conflicts

At the center of this problem was Terry Johnson, head of its endangered species program. Large cat biologist Ron Thompson testified on Jan. 6, 2010 that he never considered trying to talk with Johnson about the bear-lion study because, "I've taken a tongue lashing from him more than once. So you know, I've kind of just decided not to walk into his office anymore. . .

"I respect Terry for his knowledge. He's forgotten more than I know, but his . . . he's never viewed my comments as you know, an effort to help any situation," said Thompson, who retired in November 2010.

Johnson acknowledged in his July 9, 2009, testimony that "a rotten relationship between me and Bruce Taubert," another Game and Fish official, led to a halt in meetings in which people from various programs in the department would discuss issues in common. Such meetings could have alerted officials about the jaguar's presence in the area of the lion-bear study. Taubert was assistant director of the department's wildlife management division. He retired in 2006.

Johnson said he didn't even learn about the jaguar capture until the day after it happened, and didn't learn about it from his own staff.

In another example of poor communication, research branch chief O'Brien testified that the biologist in charge of the bear-lion study, Kirby Bristow, didn't talk to her much about it, although O'Brien was his supervisor.

no focus on jaguars

Some staffers weren't interested in even talking about jaguars before the capture.

Turf was one reason. The study's organizers had originally planned to research mountain lions as surrogates for how jaguars behave. They dropped that idea after Johnson objected that spending funds on such a study would divert money from programs directly aimed at jaguars.

"It seemed odd that we hadn't been discussing . . . any more of the jaguar stuff," testified biologist Michelle Crabb, who was at the scene when the snared jaguar was spotted. "I think it was just kind of an air that is just not something you talk about . . . it just wasn't something you wanted to acknowledge."

Lack of training

O'Brien testified she had no formal training on the Endangered Species Act and no understanding of its permitting requirements.

No environmental analysis

Officials failed to conduct what should have been a routine environmental analysis of the bear-lion study, which could have altered the project's research methods, Bristow said.

Insufficient protocols

Protocols outlining procedures department biologists would use to handle a captured jaguar were "crappy," said endangered species chief Johnson.

The transcripts also showed remorse among some officials about how the capture turned out or could have been prevented.

Biologist Thompson testified on Aug. 14, 2009, "I mean at some point in time, someone should have acted and we didn't. And I just don't know what part my role was or was not in that. It still bothers me."

On Jan. 6, 2010, he added, "Everybody is remorseful about this thing."

Biologist Bristow testified on Aug. 10, 2009, that he felt a jaguar capture's probability was so low, "it wasn't worth worrying about. It turns out it wasn't as low as we thought."

The story so far

The jaguar known by researchers as Macho B - this country's last known wild jaguar - was captured Feb. 18, 2009, in Santa Cruz County, three miles north of the Mexican border. There were signs - including deep grooves he cut with his paws - that the aged cat struggled in the snare trap before game officials found him.

Macho B was radio-collared and released back into the wild. He roamed before slowing down enough that the Arizona Game and Fish Department recaptured him and had him euthanized March 2 due to what it said was kidney failure.

At first, authorities called the initial capture accidental, occurring during a study of black bear and mountain lion movements. But a few weeks later, research technician Janay Brun told the Arizona Daily Star that she had placed jaguar scat at the trap site two weeks before the capture on orders from Emil McCain, a longtime jaguar researcher. That sparked federal and state investigations.

Investigators have still not said how much, if at all, the initial capture led to Macho B's decline, and courts have not decided if the capture was legal. But McCain pleaded guilty last May to violating the Endangered Species Act for telling Brun to lay down the scat - which could lure a jaguar.

Brun faces an April 12 federal court trial on charges of Endangered Species Act violations.

Arizona Game and Fish biologist Thorry Smith, who was at the scene when the scat was placed and when Macho B was first captured, was fired in 2010 for lying to federal investigators about the capture.

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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