Jaguar's capture broke law, feds say

Snaring deliberate, and state lacked permits, US reports
2010-01-22T00:00:00Z Jaguar's capture broke law, feds say Tony Davis and Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Last year's capture of the last known wild jaguar in the United States by state workers was intentional - and the evidence points to criminal wrongdoing, a new federal report says.

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, says the report from the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.

Also, Game and Fish lacked permits needed to trap the jaguar, whether the capture was intentional or not, which violates the Endangered Species Act, the report says. The state agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had argued since the Feb. 18 capture southwest of Tucson that Game and Fish had appropriate permits.

Ten days after the jaguar's initial capture, officials recaptured the jaguar, Macho B, on March 2 because he was showing signs of decline. Government officials and veterinarians at the Phoenix Zoo concluded the jaguar should be euthanized.

State and federal officials initially said Macho B walked into a snare intended for mountain lions or bears. They launched investigations after a wildlife technician told the Arizona Daily Star she had been directed to put female jaguar scat at the site of the trap two weeks before the capture.

The product of a nine-month investigation, the inspector general's report does not name individuals who could be liable. However, the description of the Arizona Game and Fish subcontractor matches in several respects wildlife biologist Emil McCain.

McCain, who was employed by the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, was working as a subcontractor for a Game and Fish contractor, Clark's Guide Service, on a mountain-lion and black-bear study when the jaguar was captured.

McCain was simultaneously working on jaguar research using motion-sensing cameras, as the subcontractor describe in the report was.

And e-mails between McCain and Game and Fish employees show that in the weeks before Macho B's capture, they were making preparations in case Macho B was caught, a detail also repeated in the report.

McCain did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail seeking comment on the report.

It is unclear which of the Arizona Game and Fish employees involved in Macho B's capture was the one cited in the report as possibly involved in criminal wrongdoing.

In a statement issued late Thursday, Game and Fish officials said they stand by their previous position that the department did not direct anyone to capture Macho B initially. Game and Fish "disagrees with any assertion in the report that the department did not have a valid permit," the statement adds.

A U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman didn't return a phone call or an e-mail about the criminal investigation's status.

A supervising biologist working for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Phoenix also incorrectly approved a form of necropsy for the jaguar that left doubts about the cause of the animal's death last March, the report says.

Steve Spangle, a supervisor for all endangered-species activities for the service in Arizona, approved what's called a cosmetic necropsy rather than a full necropsy because he didn't know the difference between the two procedures and, in fact, had never heard the term "necropsy," the report says.

Otherwise, the report exonerates the wildlife service, saying there is no evidence suggesting criminal involvement by any service or Interior Department employee. Service employees were not involved in the mountain-lion/black-bear study that resulted in the jaguar's capture, nor in the capture and recapture of Macho B, the report says.

The report also doesn't criticize the service's decision to euthanize Macho B after authorities determined he had irreversible kidney failure. It says that after a University of Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory issued a report last March finding no kidney failure in the jaguar's tissues, two other outside reviewers concluded that the animal did have kidney failure. They were the U.S. Geological Survey's wildlife lab in Madison, Wis., and Linda Munson, a specialist on large cats and a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

The inspector general's probe was launched shortly after the wildlife service's law enforcement officials began a criminal investigation April 1. The request for both investigations came from U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat.

In a statement, Grijalva said Thursday that the wildlife service should work with the Justice Department to take immediate action against Game and Fish. The service also should suspend the state agency's authority to manage any jaguars that may appear in the United States until the problems unearthed by the report are fixed, he said.

Arizona Game and Fish said in its statement Thursday that it is disappointed it was never contacted during the inspector general's investigation.

"The report contains allegations and opinions apparently untested by the IG," Game and Fish said. "Many of those assertions have been previously addressed by the department and present little or no new information."

Game and Fish also said that because the new report is a public version that excludes some information, "it still represents a redacted and therefore incomplete version." The state agency is conducting an internal investigation of the Macho B capture and death but has refused to discuss or release details because of the criminal investigation.

The wildlife service's Spangle said he can't comment on the report, on orders from his superiors. Tom Buckley, a service spokesman, said the service cannot comment on the continuing criminal investigation, and can't answer any questions right now about whether the state's authority over jaguars should be suspended.

"This is a decision for senior managers to make. Nobody at that level has yet seen this (report)," said Buckley.

The report's conclusion exculpating the service cuts two ways, said Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which has long been involved in litigation over jaguar management. The report shows that Fish and Wildlife deferred completely to Arizona Game and Fish in managing jaguars and other endangered species, Robinson said.

"From the very outset, the treatment of the jaguar has badly needed adult supervision," he said.

Macho B was captured last Feb. 18 when he walked into a trap set as part of a Game and Fish study to capture, radio-collar and study black bears and mountain lions along the Mexican border. Looking "healthy and hearty" at the time of his release six hours later, the jaguar slowed dramatically a week later while roaming in the woods and was recaptured March 2. He was flown to Phoenix, where veterinarians with the Phoenix Zoo gave him blood tests, diagnosed him with kidney failure and euthanized him.

The criminal investigation was sparked by allegations made last March by Janay Brun, a former jaguar detection-project technician, that McCain had told her to put female jaguar scat at the same trap site two weeks before the capture. McCain denied the allegation.

However, the inspector general's investigators concluded the capture was deliberate after reviewing more than 90 documents and notes from 38 interviews conducted by wildlife service agents, its report says.

On Thursday, Brun said she feels vindicated by the inspector general report.

The Inspector General's Office was briefed last May by the criminal investigators and given access to all their documents and interviews, the report says.

Evidence suggests that the unnamed subcontractor and Game and Fish employees knew that Macho B was roaming in that area, the report says.

These conclusions confirm conservationists' long-held suspicions that the capture was intentional, said Craig Miller, of Defenders of Wildlife. It was obvious to environmentalists that the jaguar had been in that area for a long time because it had been photographed there at least a decade before, Miller said.

For years, the issue of risks to Macho B had been hotly debated within a two-state Jaguar Conservation Team, "but our concerns were flat-out ignored," Miller said Thursday.

The report also pointed to three key items leading to conclusions that the state didn't have a valid permit to capture the jaguar and that federal officials weren't involved in decision-making in the capture:

• Investigators interviewed a wildlife service coordinator, Marty Tuegel, who works in the Albuquerque office, who told them that the department lacked a proper permit to capture a jaguar under the Endangered Species Act. Tuegel said the state's broader permit for intentional endangered-species captures didn't list jaguars by name and the department hadn't obtained a federal biological opinion needed to carry out an accidental capture of an endangered species.

• The investigators interviewed a second service biologist in Tucson - whom the report doesn't name - who said he knew the subcontractor had placed "camera traps" in the area to photograph Macho B. But that biologist also said neither he nor anyone else in the service's Tucson office was involved in making decisions for these projects.

• The same official had warned state officials in advance of the possibility that a jaguar could be captured during the study. He sent an e-mail Feb. 26, 2008, to Arizona Game and Fish employees Todd Atwood and Terry Johnson, the report says. But his request for a meeting on the subject was rebuffed.

"The biologist said that he was intimidated by Johnson and his attitude that the AZGFD could do whatever it wanted in Arizona," the report says.

Game and Fish did not reply to that account in its Thursday statement.

Game and Fish said the inspector general misunderstood the state's authority under its general Endangered Species Act permit.

Contact reporters Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com and Tim Steller at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com

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

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