It's been known for a well over a year now that a jaguar has been photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains, near the proposed Rosemont Mine site. But only a little more than a week ago, volunteers for the Tucson conservation group Sky Island Alliance found and photographed the first jaguar tracks to have been spotted in that mountain range in recent times. The tracks were seen on Jan. 4, by two volunteers.
The volunteers found these tracks along a trail where there were also mountain lion tracks, which allowed for a better comparison and more accurate identification, the alliance said. However, the alliance doesn't know if these tracks belong to the same jaguar that has been repeatedly photographed in the Santa Ritas.
Last week, the alliance showed photos of the tracks to Melanie Culver, a University of Arizona geneticist. Culver, who is part of the team of UA researchers working on a federally financed, remote camera study of jaguars, confirmed to the Star that these were jaguar tracks. Culver is the jaguar camera project's principal investigator and a geneticist for the U.S. Geological Survey and the UA's School of Natural Resources.
"Nobody on my team who looked at the tracks believed they are not of a jaguar," Culver said.
The tracks were found in a steep, rugged area, about three to four miles south of the proposed Rosemont Mine site -- "a day hike for a jaguar, or a person," said Sergio Avila, a biologist who is the alliance's Northern Mexico conservation manager.
The track was found along a well traveled hiking trail that is part of the Arizona Trail. The area is steep with thick vegetation and with water and wildlife literally everywhere that day, the alliance said. The trail was muddy after the last rains and the tracks were naturally outlined and casted in the soil, the alliance said.
The tracks provide continued evidence that this area is still jaguar habitat, and that non-invasive methods such as this to track jaguars are useful tools, Avila said.
"Regardless of the mine, it's important that the public knows about this," Avila said. "For many years, jaguars have been sending us a message, saying they want to live in Southern Arizona, that the Sky Islands are their home.
"That is a message that we need to hear, loud and clear," Avila said.
The continued presence of jaguars in southern Arizona is testament to the healthy habitats, prey populations and wildlife corridors across the region, the alliance said in a statement.
The tracks were also found four years to the week when remote cameras run by the alliance photographed a jaguar for the first time in northern Sonora's Rancho El Aribabi, about 30 miles south of the U.S. border. A jaguar was photographed on Jan. 2, 2010 and again on Jan. 10.