The elusive jaguar has evaded researchers in the southwestern United States for more than a decade—until now. Last week, scientists captured one of the rare cats in Arizona and fitted it with a GPS collar before releasing it. Every three hours, the collar will transmit valuable information via satellite to researchers about where the feline travels, what it eats, and how often it crosses the border into Mexico.
“This is kind of like the ivory-billed woodpecker discovery for the birding community,” says Bill Van Pelt, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s birds and mammals program director. “Although we knew of the presence of the jaguar in Arizona, to be able to collect this detailed information was really a pipe dream. The opportunity for collaring a jaguar in the northern extent of its range was almost nil.”
Thought to be extinct in the United States until two distinct sightings occurred in 1996, the jaguar ranges from northern Argentina to its northernmost range in Arizona and New Mexico. They are now listed under the Endangered Species Act, but have only been seen a few more times since then, as we reported here. The energy industry, development, and the border fence continue to put pressure on the species’ survival.
The individuals spotted in the United States have all been males, but researchers know of a breeding population just 150 miles south of the Mexican border. Tracking the jaguar could show researchers if a breeding group might exist even closer to the U.S.
Scientists here are coordinating with Mexican conservationists, who are making a tremendous effort to preserve the species, which is crucial to the jaguars survival in this country, says Van Pelt. “People don’t actually realize that jaguars are native to the United States. Through wise management planning and good information about the movement of this animal, we can ensure its presence on the landscape,” say Van Pelt.
Researchers caught the cat when they were studying mountain lions and black bears in an effort to better understand wildlife corridors. Scientists were taught what to do if the opportunity to capture a cat ever arose, and when the unlikely event occurred, the researchers were prepared. Van Pelt says that officials have been taking photos of the 15-year-old cat periodically for 13 years.
“It just boggles the mind to know that this animal has been here on the landscape in Arizona and all we have right now is that it was here one day and there the next day,” says Van Pelt. Now they can find out how the animal lives, he says. “We’re so excited to finally unlock some of those mysteries.
To see how the jaguar is doing, visit www.azgfd.gov/w_c/es/jaguar_management to get updates from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.