For the first time in two years, a male jaguar was seen in the U.S. two weeks ago. Snarling from a mesquite tree, where Donnie Fenn’s hunting dogs bayed at the 200-pound jaguar before backing off and watching it leave, showed Fenn and his daughter, as well as wildlife managers and officials, that some cats are still making their way north across the border.
“It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me,” Fenn, who leads hunters to mountain lions with his dogs as a hobby, told the Arizona Daily Star. “To be honest with you—I got to see it in real life, my daughter got to see it, but I hope never to encounter it again.”
A helicopter pilot from the Department of Homeland Security reported a sighting in June, but wildlife experts couldn’t confirm that what he saw was in fact a jaguar, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Before that, the most recent sighting was the 2009 controversial capture of Macho B, a 15-year-old cat that was caught, radio-collared, recaptured, and euthanized at the Phoenix Zoo, resulting in a state and two federal investigations, as well as federal criminal investigation.
This most recent finding, however, doesn’t indicate a growing population of jaguars, the Western Hemisphere’s largest cat, in the states, wildlife managers and conservationists warn.
"Some people will get excited, and there will be applications for funding to go study it, but the presence of one male jaguar has no ecological significance," Larry Audsley, the Arizona Wildlife Federation's Southern Arizona regional director, told the Arizona Daily Star in another article. "What would make a difference is discovering a female jaguar because that opens the possibility of a breeding population."
In a 2010 op-ed published in the New York Times, Alan Rabinowitz, who has been studying jaguars for three decades and is now the president and chief executive of Panthera, a wild cat conservation group, cautioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with protecting endangered species, against designating critical habitat despite sightings.
“The jaguars that now and then cross into the United States most likely come from the northernmost population of jaguars, in Sonora, Mexico,” he wrote. “Rather than demand jaguars return to our country, we should help Mexico and other jaguar-range countries conserve the animals’ true habitat.”
For those animals that might wander over the border, the Department of Homeland Security is setting up cameras at 120 locations to evaluate the effect of the agency’s actions, a Congressional mandate given to federal agencies that protect endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is administering the study and plans to use the information obtained.
Jaguars may not be the only creatures they see. Ocelots, smaller spotted cats, have also recently been seen in the area.