The state fired a worker Friday for lying to federal investigators about the fact that the U.S.'s last known wild jaguar was lured to his capture and for concocting a cover-up story, officials said.
The employee, Thornton W. Smith, 40, said biologist Emil McCain told him he had put jaguar scat at two sites near the area where Macho B was captured a year ago southwest of Tucson, the Arizona Game and Fish Department revealed late Friday.
Smith, a Game and Fish wildlife technician, also said McCain later went to the area where Macho B was captured, removed all traces of jaguar scat and "made it look like our story," the department said.
"Yah. Yah. We (he and McCain) came up with a story, and I just, it's been eating on me, and I just couldn't live with it," the department quoted Smith as telling its internal investigators.
Game and Fish initially said the capture, which was followed days later by the jaguar's death, was accidental.
McCain, reached by the Arizona Daily Star by telephone late Friday afternoon, said "no comment" and hung up. At the time of the jaguar's capture, he was working for a nonprofit group that had a contract with Game and Fish.
Smith couldn't be reached for comment after the department released the information late Friday. Smith's former home phone number is disconnected.
Federal authorities are investigating Macho B's capture and whether it violated the Endangered Species Act.
One federal agency, the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, concluded earlier this year that the capture by state workers was intentional and that the evidence points to criminal wrongdoing.
That agency said in January that the evidence against an Arizona Game and Fish Department subcontractor - and possibly a Game and Fish employee - is in the hands of federal prosecutors in Tucson. The inspector general's report does not name individuals who could be liable. However, the description of the Arizona Game and Fish subcontractor matches McCain in several respects.
Smith may be safe from federal criminal prosecution because he talked to the state, Game and Fish said Friday. The department said it never told federal investigators about Smith's statements. It also said it believes that because the state required its employee to "provide complete and factual information," his statements can't be used against him in a criminal prosecution.
Smith was fired partly because he violated written and verbal orders by talking to McCain about the capture despite the U.S. investigation, Game and Fish said.
The firing and revelation of Smith's statements comes almost a year after the U.S. launched its criminal probe into Macho B's Feb. 18, 2009, capture and subsequent release, which was followed by the jaguar's recapture due to health problems and euthanization 12 days later. The captures occurred near the Arizona-Sonora border in a remote canyon south of Arivaca.
Smith and another Game and Fish wildlife technician came upon the snared jaguar in the morning of Feb. 18 as they checked a series of snares that were part of a Game and Fish study. After Smith fired a sedative into the jaguar, the pair went to work freeing his leg from the snare and attaching a collar.
E-mails written in the weeks before the capture showed that McCain, Smith and others were soliciting instructions on how to sedate and otherwise handle a captured jaguar. They also received instructions on how to use the collar in case a jaguar was caught.
Because of the incident, Smith, a 12-year department employee, had been on administrative leave since March 8, 2010. He had been restricted from working on field activities since July 16, 2009. He is the only Game and Fish employee to be disciplined in the case "at this point in the ongoing investigation," the agency said Friday.
Smith's reported statements, as relayed by Game and Fish, amount to confirmation of many of the details that a research technician associated with McCain's group, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, told the Arizona Daily Star nearly a year ago. Janay Brun's statements led directly to the federal criminal investigation.
Brun told the Star McCain had ordered her to place female jaguar scat at the eventual Macho B capture site two weeks before the first capture, to try to lure the male jaguar to that site. She said at the time that Smith was present when this conversation occurred.
Smith's reported statements made no mention of this specific incident. But they did offer additional information that the capture was deliberate.
Smith also said to state investigators that, "We made a different story to protect the department, protect Emil, to protect my association with Emil, about, you know, not leaving jaguar scat, but (tape recording inaudible)," Game and Fish's news release said. "But you know, I can't live with that. You know I did it."
Game and Fish repeated Friday its earlier statements that no agency officials directed anyone to capture a jaguar, "and that the department's actions related to the capture were lawful."
After Macho B's capture, he roamed in the wild for a few days, but had slowed down dramatically a week later for reasons that have never been fully and publicly determined. He was recaptured and euthanized on March 2, after Phoenix Zoo veterinarians concluded he had unrecoverable kidney failure.
A University of Arizona veterinary diagnostic lab later issued a report challenging that conclusion. But the Inspector General's Office reported this year that two other vet labs, at the University of California-Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey, confirmed there was kidney failure. Those reports haven't been publicly released.
Game and Fish said it did not allow Smith to resign Friday rather than be fired. The department said it held off taking action against him until now because it didn't want to hurt the federal probe.
"We made a different story to protect the department, protect Emil, to protect my association with Emil, about, you know, not leaving jaguar scat, but (tape recording inaudible) ... But you know, I can't live with that. You know I did it."
Thornton W. Smith, in a statement to internal investigators
Arizona Daily Star reporter Tim Steller contributed to this report. Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or firstname.lastname@example.org