April 21, 2016
Rob Peters

With one solitary jaguar back in the U.S., and plans in the works to move its conservation forward, could we soon see a real return of this long-absent native species?

Imagine a little known region of Arizona hugging the Mexican border. This rugged, beautiful landscape of mountain peaks and forests covers 1.6 million acres south of Tucson. This is Mountain Empire, an area that holds a richness of wildlife not found in the rest of the country, and home of the last known free-ranging jaguar in the United States.

The lone U.S. jaguar, a 200-pound male nicknamed El Jefe, wanders from mountain to mountain near the City of Tucson, occasionally crossing the settled lowlands in between. Recent footage of him walking down a stream bed was captured by a trail camera and went viral. This big cat captured the attention and imagination of millions who wonder: After decades, could jaguars finally be returning to the southwest?

A Dangerous Journey North

Jaguar, © Northern Jaguar Project

Our male almost certainly made his way to the U.S. from a holdout population in Sonora, Mexico. The region is 120 miles south of the border, in country so rugged that it can take 18 hours to reach by car from the U.S. In this area, we work closely with the Northern Jaguar Project and Naturalia, nonprofits that together manage a 50,000 acre reserve in the core of the jaguar’s Sonoran habitat. Our goal is to help make sure that the 70 to 100 jaguars in and around Mexico’s Northern Jaguar Reserve thrive and reproduce, hopefully sending colonists north to resettle their ancestral lands in Arizona and New Mexico. The task for the Northern Jaguar Project is challenging – but through outreach and education, and by paying for each cat photographed live on a rancher’s land, they are slowly changing antagonism toward jaguars into support. It’s work like this that can pave the way for jaguars to spread out on their way to other habitats.

Adventurous jaguars face many obstacles if they travel north. They may be shot or poisoned by poachers or ranchers who believe they are protecting their livestock. They face the challenge of finding food in unfamiliar territory, and the danger of crossing roads, such as Mexican Highway 2, already packed with high-speed traffic and now being expanded to four lanes. Then there is the border wall, standing at 18 to 21 feet tall in some places. With so many challenges to overcome, jaguars can have a tough time finding the path of least resistance in getting to the huge swaths of suitable habitat that the southwestern U.S. has to offer.

Keeping the Path Protected

Two of the last, best corridors where jaguars can still cross into the U.S. are located here in the Mountain Empire, where the Patagonia and Huachuca mountain ranges cross the border. We’re working with several local groups, including Patagonia Resource Area Alliance (PARA), to keep these corridors open and to protect suitable habitat north of the border from the largest environmental threat in the Mountain Empire: Mining.

Santa Rita Mts, © Larry Jones/USFS

Three major open-pit mines are currently being planned in the region. Defenders and PARA successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2015 to prevent improperly permitted exploratory drilling for one of these mines, a project with the ill-fitting name Sunnyside. This project would put a mine right in critical jaguar habitat, and create yet another obstacle for jaguars trying to come north. Thankfully, a judge put the brakes on the project last year in response to a lawsuit from Defenders and our partners. The project could still return in a different form, but we’re keeping a close eye on things. Development of the Rosemont mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, home to El Jefe, has also been put on hold for the moment, thanks to the combined pressure of low global copper prices and resistance from Defenders, Saving the Scenic Santa Ritas, and other partners. Work like this will never end, as corporations continue to look for new opportunities to exploit the natural resources in this region, regardless of the cost to wildlife. But with so many great organizations collaborating to protect this region for jaguars, we’re working to meet every challenge.

Helping Jaguars Once They’re Here

Once jaguars reach the U.S., they need two things to survive: suitable habitat and safety from persecution. It was people who wiped out jaguars from the U.S. to begin with, and it’s up to us to protect them as they return. Listed under the Endangered Species Act, jaguars thankfully already have some level of protection here, but the agency in charge of enforcing the ESA hasn’t always been the best advocate for jaguars.

Jaguars, © Northern Jaguar Project

Some people – including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – have taken the position that jaguars don’t really belong to us. They claim that the U.S. never had more than the occasional lost traveler wandering up from Mexico, and that since no females and their cubs have been seen in the U.S. in decades, we should leave their recovery to Mexico. Not our problem, not our responsibility to restore.

The facts tell a different story. The lack of female jaguars in the U.S. is due to one simple fact – humans killed them all. Males, needing large territories, tend to wander farther – so of course they have been the first to return. Though most U.S. jaguars were killed before there were good records kept, but the records we do have report that female jaguars were living (and sadly, were killed) as far north as the Grand Canyon, and that young jaguars were spotted in Arizona. While jaguars certainly have a home in Mexico, there is no denying it – these are our animals too. They belong to the southwest, and don’t recognize the arbitrary, invisible borders that humans draw. As the people who drove them out, we have more of a responsibility, not less, to help them return.

Fortunately, there is still enough suitable habitat in both the U.S. and northern Mexico to sustain a population of jaguars. The Jaguar Conservation Team, a voluntary partnership of government and non-governmental entities working on jaguar conservation, has estimated that roughly half of Arizona and New Mexico can still support jaguars. These states hold the most suitable habitat for the native species, and there is much more prey for jaguars there now than there has been since the early 20th century, like Coues white-tail deer, mule deer and javelina. If jaguars lived and raised their young here once, when food was relatively scarce, there’s every reason to believe that they’d do even better now.

What’s Next for Jaguars?

In the past couple years, we’ve finally seen some progress for these big cats. Thanks in part to pressure from groups like Defenders and our partners, FWS designated 764,207 acres of critical habitat for jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico. It’s smaller than jaguars will need to gain a real foothold in the U.S., and private landowners are challenging the decision (which we’re helping to defend in court), but it’s a start. And now, FWS is working on a recovery plan for the jaguar – in fact, we hope to see the first draft released soon. We will be taking a close look to see if the plan will truly help bring jaguars back to the southwest – so stay tuned!


Rob Peters

Rob Peters

Senior Representative Arizona
Rob Peters collaborates with the Defenders Renewable Energy Group, helping  evaluate and influence renewable energy policies and projects to ensure that renewable energy is developed wisely, with minimum harm to natural ecosystems.

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