The male jaguar that roamed three years through the Santa Rita Mountains is “biologically insignificant,” an Arizona Game and Fish Department official says.
Officials for Rosemont Copper, the company proposing to build the Rosemont Mine in the Santa Ritas, also downplay the significance of the jaguar and its habitat.
Contrary to University of Arizona and federal researchers who just published a million-dollar jaguar study, Game and Fish’s Jim deVos said he finds it “hard to say” that an Arizona jaguar could contribute significantly to the recovery of jaguars on both sides of the Mexican border.
DeVos said he doesn’t disagree in theory with Melanie Culver, a U.S. Geological Survey geneticist and the jaguar study’s lead investigator, who said a lone male such as the one repeatedly photographed in the Santa Ritas can be a forerunner of a future jaguar population that includes breeding. But he finds the prospect unlikely, given the odds of continued population growth in Arizona.
“I expect Arizona to have more human population, with much more dense human infrastructure. The potential for a jaguar population is very, very limited,” said deVos, the department’s assistant director of wildlife management.
DeVos shares Game and Fish’s long-held position that it made little sense for the federal government to designate critical habitat for the jaguar on more than 700,000 acres in Southern Arizona. That habitat includes some of the northern Santa Ritas, where the jaguar was photographed during the recent study.
Department officials say they believe jaguar habitat protection and recovery efforts should occur in northern Mexico. But environmentalists have long argued that Southern Arizona should be a priority for jaguar recovery, given that jaguars once bred occasionally in the state and lived as far north as the Grand Canyon.
DeVos says the number of jaguars documented here is too small for Arizona to be a player in regional jaguar conservation.
At the Star’s request, deVos reviewed two papers discussing the extent and range of past jaguar populations in Arizona. One, the new jaguar study, reported nearly 70 jaguar sightings in Arizona from 1900 through 2015, all but four before 2001.
Another report was prepared in 1983 by David Brown, then a Game and Fish official, now an Arizona State University biology professor. He’s also a co-author of the 2001 book, “Borderland Jaguars.”
His paper in the Southwestern Naturalist journal found 58 documented jaguar killings in Arizona from the 1900s through the 1970s. His 2001 book upped that to over 60.
Such statistics have been cited by environmental groups to make the case that — with proper management, including possible reintroduction — Arizona could again host a jaguar population.
But back in 2005, a Game and Fish employee analyzed Brown’s study and came up with 33 credible reports of jaguars, deVos said. “Some of the reports that people are counting have not been verified,” he said. “Some of them were second-hand.”
Of 21 jaguar reports before 1963 the department considers credible, 17 were of males, he said. All 12 credible reports since then were of males, he said.
“The jaguars are a unique component of Arizona’s wildlife, but when you look at the species as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to say we play a significant role given the lack of animals in the past 50 years or 100 years,” deVos said.
“Having a jaguar in Arizona is neat, but from a population standpoint it is completely insignificant.”
As for Rosemont, Kathy Arnold, a mining company official, told the Toronto Star before the new UA study came out that the Santa Rita jaguar, nicknamed “El Jefe,” is a wanderer from Mexico.
The jaguar was first photographed in 2011 in the Whetstone Mountains south of the community of Dragoon and then moved over to the Santa Ritas, company officials say. Plus, the animal hasn’t been photographed anywhere in the past six months and jaguars are known to travel within their range, said Arnold, director of environment for Hudbay Minerals, Rosemont Copper’s Toronto-based parent company.
The new UA-USGS study described the jaguar as a resident of the Santa Ritas since it was known to live there for three years.
Rosemont officials have repeatedly said the mine’s impact on jaguar habitat won’t be significant because the 5,000-acre-plus site would occupy a small fraction of all jaguar critical habitat. When the Toronto Star reporter pointed out that the mine site would block part of a major jaguar corridor, Arnold replied that the animal “might have to time his trips,” but there’s no reason it has to use that corridor.
Two remote camera sites in the Santa Ritas are the only places in the U.S. and Canada where four wild cat species including jaguars and ocelots have been photographed.
In a statement emailed to the Star, Hudbay said the 5,000-acre mine project would occupy less than .5 percent of the jaguar’s critical habitat. It said the mine itself would occupy only one-eighth of the entire Rosemont project area, which also would include waste rock, mine tailings, buildings and roads.