The discovery of a jaguar in the Dos Cabezas Mountains near Willcox marks the third time since 2015 a new one has been photographed in Arizona, and the seventh time the elusive cat species has been documented in Arizona or New Mexico in the last 21 years.
But this new addition to the region’s known jaguars, disclosed Thursday, does little to quell the longstanding dispute between state and federal biologists and conservationists over their significance in Arizona. The discovery has also amplified environmentalist concerns about President Trump’s plans to build a fence or wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexican border.
The jaguar was photographed in the mountain range near Willcox in November by a trail camera run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But the photo’s existence wasn’t discovered until recently, the Game and Fish Department said in announcing the jaguar finding.
Game and Fish said five biologists have determined this jaguar was a different animal from one photographed in December 2016 and January 2017 in the Huachuca Mountains, and one photographed from 2011 to 2015 in the Whetstone and Santa Rita mountains.
They couldn’t tell the animal’s gender from the photo. All six jaguars previously found in Arizona and New Mexico since 1996 have been males. No female jaguars have been seen in Arizona since 1963.
Because of the lack of females, authorities have downplayed the biological importance of jaguars discovered in Arizona for years. Some scientists and conservationists have said these males could be harbingers of a future population and future breeding, however.
Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say this new jaguar discovery still doesn’t signify an Arizona population. That’s because the various discoveries have been scattered and sporadic, spanning several mountain ranges.
“I see biological significance in its discovery, because any time you have a rare species showing up with some regularity that used to be here historically,” it’s significant, said Steve Spangle, Arizona field supervisor for Fish and Wildlife.
“Obviously, we’re looking a lot harder. Like many things, the more you look, the more you see,” Spangle said. “That this species is using this portion of its historical range, we think it’s good news. To say this is a harbinger of a future population is way premature.”
The discovery does show that jaguars, who once lived as far north as the Grand Canyon, are trying to re-establish a population, said Kieran Suckling, director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which got jaguars listed as an endangered species in the United States in 1997.
“They’re consistently coming up over time, moving through every possible mountain corridor,” Suckling said. “It’s not like a jaguar is just randomly wandering up.”
Jaguars are far more prevalent in Mexico. But Sergio Avila, a scientist for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, said what matters is that the jaguars still exist at all in the broader region — not which country they’re in.
“What matters is that the habitat supports jaguars in Sonora, Arizona and New Mexico and that there is habitat connectivity between those places,” said Avila, a conservation research scientist. “This discovery once again shows this state’s connection to northern Mexico — it proves that jaguars are here to stay.”
But while this is a unique find from a biological diversity standpoint, “that’s not to be confused with saying that we have a population of jaguars that’s breeding, that’s established, that’s producing young,” said Jim deVos, an assistant Game and Fish director for wildlife management. “If you look at the number of animals we’ve seen, we’ve had periods of a year and two years where we haven’t seen any.”
If the latest jaguar is female, that would certainly be more important, “but I would still be hard pressed to say we have a population,” deVos said. “To me, a population is one that is thriving and producing young.”
Certainly, the discovery of two jaguars over a short period speaks to the presence of good habitat in the borderlands, said Susan Malusa, who was project manager for a three-year University of Arizona-run jaguar study that tracked the male cat in the Santa Ritas.
“As long as we have movement corridors that are intact, the wildlife can move,” Malusa said. “We have stewards of public land, whether it be Forest Service land or BLM land and the ranches out there, providing healthy habitat and open space for wildlife.”
That jaguar movement could be stopped if Trump’s plan to build a continuous border wall goes through, activist Suckling said. So far, all recently discovered jaguars have been found in mountain ranges away from existing stretches of border fence in Arizona, he said.
“If Trump succeeds in blocking these open passage areas with fences, future jaguars will not be able to get through,” he said.
Today, Arizona has about 123 miles of pedestrian border fencing, out of 372 total border miles, that are high enough to potentially block large animals. Another 189 miles have vehicle barriers low enough for jaguars to cross. The rest are unfenced.
The wildlife service won’t take a position on a border wall unless asked by the Department of Homeland Security to formally determine the wall’s impact on endangered species.
“We need to see what the wall would look like” to determine if it will block wildlife migration, deVos said.
“I believe the president said it doesn’t have to be a continuous solid wall — could be virtual wall in some places,” he said. The department will work with whoever builds the wall to try to design areas to assist wildlife movement, deVos said.