Jaguar sighting in southern Arizona reinvigorates conservationists

A wild jaguar was spotted in southern Arizona's Huachuca Mountains in March and May of this year, and the mysterious feline was photographed by federally run trail cameras.

Photographs have yet to be released to the public but have been seen by Russ McSpadden, a southwest conservation advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

"The image captures unfortunately don't allow us to determine which cat this is," he said.

McSpadden says in the last 20 years, there's been photographic evidence of seven jaguars in our region and three in southern Arizona since 2015.


El Jefe, one of the jaguars previously spotted in Arizona (file)

This mystery jaguar is now the fourth.

"They nearly disappeared from this part of the range over the last 100 years due to habitat loss," he explained.

Another factor was the now-removed double-stacked shipping containers on the southern slopes of the Huachuca Mountains right at the border.

"The federal government intervened, my organization, the Center for Biological Diversity. We also took legal action, specifically notifying the governor of our intent to sue for him, blocking this important jaguar migration corridor," he said.

Now that the containers have come down, McSpadden says this could be a jaguar that they haven't spotted before.

"It could be a brand new cat that crossed from Mexico into the United States, or it could be the cat Sombra, which means 'shadow' in Spanish, that has lived in Arizona since 2016," he said.

Sombra or not, it was an exciting sighting.

"Every single time we get a jaguar detection in this very fragile northern population, it's a moment to celebrate," he said.

More on the southwest's jaguar population

"A lot of folks don't know what jaguars once lived throughout the American Southwest, and they reach as far north as the Grand Canyon and even the mountains of southern Arizona. But they nearly disappeared from this part of the range over the last 100 years due to habitat loss. And there was a historic government predator control program. That nearly extirpated them. But we've had, in the last 20 years, we've had 7, photographic evidence of 7 jaguars in our region, and at least 3 in southern Arizona since 2015. So this is a new jaguar. It would be the fourth since 2015. We don't know from these detections if this is a new jaguar, or if this happens to be an existing jaguar. We have another jaguar who's been living in southern Arizona since late 2016. He was named Sombra by students in Tucson and he lives in the Huachuca Mountains, and it's possible that this is with Jaguar that we're seeing," McSpadden said.

He said this is proof efforts to save these animals from extinction are working.

"From environmental organizations like where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity, but also agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have laid this groundwork for jaguars to be able to re-establish territory in the United States. And so these detections are proof that that work bears fruit," he said.

Although they can't determine if this jaguar was known to conservationists already or is a brand new cat, they know in fact it is a jaguar.

"It's clear that it's a jaguar, but we're unable to identify what individual cat this might be. Often the spots are the rosettes on a jaguar, or like a little bit like human fingerprints. They can help us identify individual jaguars. But the image that was captured, unfortunately, doesn't allow us to determine which cat this is. So. It could be a brand new cat that crossed from Mexico into the United States. Or it could be the cat Sombra," the conservation advocate said.

What about the jaguar known as El Jefe?

McSpadden says he's believed to have lived in the Santa Rita Mountains, about 25 miles from downtown Tucson from 2011 to 2015.

He then was no longer spotted. But that was until seven years later when he showed up on a trail camera in Sonora, Mexico, about 120 miles south of Tucson.

"It shows how wide-ranging this cat is. So he was in Sonora, Mexico last year. You know it's all speculative because we don't know who this mystery cat is. But it's possible … He'd be quite an old cat now. 14 years old. He's moving back north, back to his home range in Arizona," McSpadden said.

Another jaguar named Macho B lived to be 14. He was euthanized – McSpadden didn't say why.

As for seeing the footage, we may or may not see it.

"The detections were entered into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jaguar observation database. The cameras that captured the photos belong to Customs and Border Protection, and sometimes they never share their photographs. So it's hard to say. I do hope that they do," he said.