Chris Bugbee walks with "Mayke", his Belgian malinois, who he uses to detect jaguar scat in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Vail, Ariz. on June 1, 2016. Bugbee has captured multiple photos of ocelots and the jaguar El Jefe on his wildlife cameras in the range's canyons.

The way biologist Chris Bugbee sees it, if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth 1,000 pictures.

That’s why he produced and released a 41-second video of this country’s only known wild jaguar — to spread the word that a jaguar was living on federal land in the Santa Rita Mountains, near the proposed site of the nation’s third-largest copper mine. He succeeded: The video went viral, at least briefly making the Rosemont Mine a global issue.

But the move also cost him his volunteer status with the University of Arizona-run jaguar research project, through which he first put cameras in the Santa Ritas’ jaguar habitat. He previously had worked as a paid employee on the project for nearly three years.

In February, the Center for Biological Diversity Bugbee was working for it by then put the video into the public realm by widely distributing a news release that linked to it. The video shows the adult male jaguar known as El Jefe roaming the oak woodlands of the Santa Rita Mountains, walking downstream and strolling through the forest by night and by day.

Bugbee says he spliced together three clips he’d shot on his own camera after walking and driving all over the Santa Ritas, checking cameras and collecting jaguar scat for the million-dollar UA project at $13 an hour. He and others collected 127 jaguar photos and his specially trained dog, Mayke, found 13 jaguar scat samples.


El Jefe, the only known wild jaguar in the United States, was captured on film 118 times over 34 months, which indicates he made a home in the Santa Rita Mountains, southeast of Tucson, according to a federally funded study.

The video footage came from remote cameras Bugbee placed while working for the Center for Biological Diversity after the federal money ran out for the UA jaguar study.

In his words, he was “double dipping,” working on contract for the environmental group while volunteering for the UA as a “citizen scientist,” checking UA cameras for jaguar photos.

The video hit national TV news, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and dozens of media websites. It brought a Toronto Star journalist to the Santa Ritas in March to pen a 4,000-word feature on the mine-jaguar debate. It prompted the Santa Barbara, California-based Pacific Standard magazine to assign a reporter to explore the issue.

But a month later, Susan Malusa, the jaguar study’s project manager, told Bugbee the UA had terminated his status as a volunteer, meaning he’d no longer be covered by UA insurance if he were hurt in the field. His name was pulled from the university’s federal permit allowing it to study jaguars on federal land.

As the university saw it, Bugbee’s video threatened its permit, which bars the release of jaguar data gathered on Coronado National Forest land without permission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, 18 citizen scientists check remote cameras in four mountain ranges, down from 16 ranges when the research had federal money.

Bugbee says his termination was unfair because he shot the video on his own time, with his personal cameras, while checking the UA’s cameras separately.

He says others who worked on the jaguar study took photos with their personal cameras and shared them with outsiders — including an activist group — and those running the study never complained.

Bugbee’s story raises a raft of ethical questions about field research and highlights a debate that has vexed researchers and academics for years about the risks of showing endangered species in their habitat for fear that their locations will be disclosed.

Officials with the jaguar research project say it’s simply not right for a volunteer, working under federal rules for disclosing species data, to ignore them under the claim that he was working on his own time. Two experts in the ethics of scientific research whom the Star contacted agree, but a veteran endangered-species biologist sides with Bugbee.

UA and Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the video could reveal specifics of where the jaguar was roaming, exposing the animal to harm. Bugbee insists the videos gave no clues as to El Jefe’s location, which is ever-changing.

For now, all that’s clear is that Bugbee is off the permit and can no longer use UA vehicles, cameras, chargers or computer cards he used as a volunteer citizen scientist or a paid researcher on the study.

His time for camera-checking is now limited to two-week intervals, under Forest Service rules governing individuals without federal research permits. Mayke, who found 13 jaguar scat samples during the federal study period, is no longer allowed to walk in the forest off-leash, meaning her scat-hunting days are over for now.


This Jan. 30, 2016, photo provided by Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity shows carnivore biologist Chris Bugbee and his dog Mayke walking through the Santa Rita Mountains north of Tucson, Ariz. Mayke is trained to look for any sign of El Jefe, the only known jaguar in the United States.

Stalking the jaguar
in the
Santa Ritas

Bugbee, 36, was raised in the small town of Old Lyme, Connecticut, which boasts of 27 miles of coastline, tidal marsh, wetlands and forests.

Growing up, “I was one of those kids who came home after being outdoors all day with snakes in my pockets.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York and a master’s in interdisciplinary ecology from the University of Florida. Until joining the jaguar study, he surveyed for endangered snakes and other reptiles living in the path of proposed power lines as a consultant for government agencies and energy companies.

He conducted snake aversion training for dogs and got interested in native cats by working with his partner — both personally and professionally — Aletris Neils. Their nonprofit group, Conservation CATalyst, works to protect caracals, small, native cats in Namibia and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It helped produce the jaguar video.

Hired as a dog handler for the jaguar study, Bugbee worked three 10-hour days weekly. His dog, Mayke, was brought from Texas by Melanie Culver, the jaguar study’s principal investigator and a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Tucson.

Mayke, a female Belgian Malinois, had flunked out of a Border Patrol program to train dogs to hunt for drugs and explosives because she didn’t like the large trucks.

Bugbee had to pay $1,200 for the dog because the UA risk management department doesn’t let faculty own dogs for their labs, says Culver, who works in a UA lab. The USGS pays her salary. Culver says she reimbursed Bugbee for the dog’s purchase price, but Bugbee says that’s not true.


Chris Bugbee poses with "Mayke", his Belgian malinois, who he uses to detect jaguar scat in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Vail, Ariz. on June 1, 2016. Bugbee has captured multiple photos of ocelots and the jaguar El Jefe on his wildlife cameras in the range's canyons.

It took “time and trust” to get Mayke past her fears, by walking her on leash out of view of his research truck and training her to jump onto hills and ledges behind his house, he says. At the same time, Bugbee was learning how to find the best places to scout jaguars and capture their scat.

He would set cameras at sites and then wait for months.

“Sometimes the sites where I put out cameras were good,” he says. “Some were total busts.”

The animal’s routes through the mountains would change every several months, heightening the challenge.

At first, Bugbee would walk up and down the Santa Ritas’ canyons looking for scat. Eventually he realized that he had to stop “thinking like a human” and moved to ridges, clambering 500 to 1,000 feet at a time up and down steep slopes.

“That’s the kind of place you need to get to,” he says. “That’s the kind of places where the cat hangs — quiet places where they won’t be disturbed.”

“not on our agenda”

Photos showed that El Jefe did most of his walking at night. No daytime images of the jaguar appeared until two years into the project. On a single night in 2014, the animal walked over 50 percent of the Santa Ritas.

“At any given point of the day,” Bugbee says, “he could be anywhere.”

Bugbee’s motivations for releasing the jaguar video stem from his failure in 2015 to persuade Culver to release video footage of El Jefe captured during the study. To him, a video offers insights into the animal’s behavior not available through a photo.

Culver says project leaders were willing to release videos, but not jointly with the Center for Biological Diversity as Bugbee wanted, and only after they had cropped them to remove location-sensitive information. UA officials have recently edited and turned over footage to the wildlife service for release — wildlife service spokesman Jeff Humphrey says he hopes they’ll be posted on the agency’s YouTube site within two weeks.

“Sensational video releases were not on our agenda,” says Malusa, the study’s project manager.

Bugbee disputes part of Culver’s account, saying he made the request for the videos’ release on his own, before he went to work for the center in September 2015 and two months after he collected his last paycheck from the UA jaguar study. He considered her response one of many signs that UA and federal officials weren’t encouraging public interest in the jaguar.

He felt the UA “was keeping videos in a black box and locking up all the data in an ivory tower. It was the biggest survey of Sky Island fauna ever, and what were we doing with it? What was the point of all the money we spent?”

Driven into near-extinction in this country during the 20th century by hunters and federal trappers working on behalf of ranchers, the jaguar was listed as endangered and got critical habitat protection only after the Center for Biological Diversity sued to force those protections.

Bugbee also was frustrated that the university and the feds weren’t releasing the jaguar report after a draft was finished in July 2015. It wasn’t released until May of this year, three months after the Star filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain it, and shortly after the paper threatened to write a story about the delays in its release. Until then it was undergoing peer review at the USGS, Culver says.

Bugbee also was frustrated that the jaguar report didn’t deal with any of the myriad management issues swirling around the big cat, including the Rosemont Mine and the border fence, which many biologists say has hampered the movement of jaguars into this country.

A biologist working on the jaguar study, Ron Thompson, proposed a series of management implications for the jaguar that, while not mentioning the mine or border fence, included having U.S. and Mexican government officials explore ways to increase law enforcement and conservation efforts in areas where the cats travel.

Another proposal would have restricted ranchers’ rights to kill mountain lions in some cases. A third would have set up “refugia” — areas where special circumstances enable a rare species to survive — by buying land and development rights to habitat.

Most of these proposals were scrubbed from the study by USGS reviewers, who believe — correctly, Culver says — that the study should avoid policy matters.

By releasing the video, Bugbee says his intent was to “put this information out there for the good of the cats.

“Jaguars have become this dirty, dark little secret — we’re not supposed to talk about them,” he says. “I like to call it the J-word.”

He wanted to tell a more positive story about Arizona jaguars than what unfolded after the 2009 death of 15-year-old jaguar Macho B, whose capture and euthanization by state and federal agencies sparked massive controversy and a prolonged criminal investigation. Like El Jefe today, Macho B at the time was the nation’s only known wild jaguar.

“We wanted to show the world that we still have jaguars in Arizona,” Bugbee says. “We wanted to get the American public involved in this question: Do we want to recover jaguars, or do we want them to just become a piece of local history?”


"Mayke", a Belgian malinois, walks ahead of her owner Chris Bugbee, left, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Vail, Ariz. on June 1, 2016. Bugbee has captured multiple photos of ocelots and the jaguar El Jefe on his wildlife cameras in the range's canyons.

Concern that UA permit could be in jeopardy

In the 48 hours after the video was released on Feb. 3, a TV monitoring service used by the Center for Biological Diversity found it had appeared on 830 TV segments in the U.S., including ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Today Show” and “CBS This Morning.”

The monitoring service concluded that about 21 million viewers saw it, says Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based environmental group.

The center reached another 1.2 million people by sharing the video on social media, and millions more saw it on news websites. The video also led to tens of thousands of signatures on petitions asking the federal government to protect the jaguar from the mine, including 20,000 signatures on the center’s petitions.

“Look at all the buzz it created,” Bugbee says. “It made a positive impact. It got people talking about this jaguar and about jaguars in Arizona.”

But on Feb. 4, Coronado National Forest official Jim Sutton emailed the UA’s Malusa, asking, “In your research of the jaguar, have you ‘partnered’ with Conservation CATalyst or the Centers for Biological Diversity?”

That email gave officials with the study concern that their permit — already expired and under review for renewal — might be in jeopardy.

“The minute those videos came out, our permits to do research on endangered species were at risk of being revoked,” she says.

Forest Service officials have not responded to queries from the Star about that point, except in a statement saying, “Coronado National Forest personnel expressed concern that the permit be managed according to terms and conditions contained in the permit.”

Besides requiring 24-hour notification of jaguar detections to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the permit forbids anyone from using information gathered through the permit for personal gain or for any purpose without permission from the feds, Culver says.

“If you violate any of those three rules, we have the risk of having the permit taken away. Then our project ends, citizen scientists go home and cameras go down,” she says. “Rather than risk losing the permit, we removed someone who can’t follow the rules from the permit.”

Bugbee insists he did nothing wrong legally or ethically. While acknowledging that the UA can dismiss volunteers at any time for any reason, he says that because he was also working for the Center for Biological Diversity, he was operating under a different set of rules.

Because he has a hunting license, he can — under federal rules — set cameras in one place for two weeks. Most of the cameras in the Santa Ritas and other mountain ranges used for the jaguar study had been pulled by July 2015.

Bugbee moved his cameras around while leaving those used for the UA project in place. He says he didn’t feel obligated to tell UA officials about his video clips because he shot them separately and wasn’t getting paid by UA anymore.

“I can’t erase the knowledge I gained during my years of tracking El Jefe,” he says. “I just took my knowledge with me from the UA study to my next job.”

He says he had told Culver and others with the jaguar project long before the video was released that he was putting out his own cameras. While Culver says she didn’t learn of his work with the center until the day the jaguar video was released, Bugbee says he had told her of his work with the center during an Oct. 15, 2015 meeting with her, Malusa, and Kirk Emerson, another UA official involved with the jaguar study.

He says it was OK for him to take that jaguar knowledge from the UA study to another job.


says she recalled “making some general point about transferring knowledge gained in one position to another.” But she says she didn’t intend for that philosophy to be applied to knowledge that was protected by confidentiality agreements, as the UA says was the case for jaguar detections made in the study.

“Regardless of whether he subsequently set up his own cameras and had his own videos and photos, he learned of the jaguar location by virtue of his work on the university project,” says Emerson, a UA professor of cooperative governance.

Culver says she did learn at that meeting — although she says it was on Sept. 23 — that Bugbee was using his own cameras. “However,” she says, “we informed him that he must use other sites for these new cameras, and that he was working under our permits (since he did not have his own research permits) so the data he obtained would be submitted to the UA until he secured a permit on behalf of his private interests.”

Ethical quandary

Two experts in the ethics of scientific research, Michael Kalichman at the University of California at San Diego and David Winickoff at the University of California at Berkeley, take the UA’s side in this dispute.

If the UA’s permit doesn’t allow release of data such as videos without federal approval, “those actions can be called wrong at at least one level,” says Kalichman, director of the university’s Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and of its Research Ethics Program. “It seems that the default would be that UA, and the (project’s) principal investigator in particular, should be able to make that determination.”

As a volunteer on the project, Bugbee falls under the terms of the research permit, Winickoff says. “The generation of data in the course of that work, or resulting from experience in that work, should not have been made public without agreement from the project directors.”

But Vermont Law School professor Craig Pease says that whatever wrong Bugbee may have done pales in comparison to the wildlife service helping clear the way for Rosemont mine construction by issuing two biological opinions saying the mine won’t jeopardize endangered species or destroy their critical habitat.

Pease says he suspects one reason the UA responded so strongly is that video images, especially of big cats, are emotionally compelling. It’s one thing to write a scientific paper that angers federal officials, he says, “but a video has the potential of getting the public in a real uproar.”

Recognizable locations a worry

Bugbee and officials with the jaguar study disagree over whether the video endangered the jaguar, which hasn’t been captured on camera since October 2015, but was seen an average of once every 7.9 days in the 34 months before that.

Culver and Malusa say that when they saw the video, they immediately recognized the places shown. Even though some of the footage was at night, some landmarks can be seen, Malusa says.

Withholding specific locations of endangered species has been standard practice “as long as I’ve been in the business,” says Steve Spangle, the wildlife service’s Arizona field supervisor.

Bugbee, however, says the three video clips, each 10 to 20 seconds long, reveal nothing about the locations. A number of people have told him they know where the clips were shot — and they’re all wrong, he says.

Spangle doubts that.

“Anyone who knows the Santa Ritas knows where that site is by the water,” where the jaguar was walking, he says. “The folks I’m aware of know exactly where that was shot.”

Bugbee says he wouldn’t have knowingly put the jaguar at risk because he felt a bond with El Jefe after monitoring him three years.

“Nobody cared as deeply for El Jefe as I did,” he says.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at or 806-7746.

On Twitter: tonydavis987.