Can Jaguar Populations Recover in the US?

Everyone loves jaguars. Except perhaps central american pig farmers, and early American settlers. The settlers' campaigns to eradicate these big cats were so effective that its not surprising many modern Americans don't even know that the jaguar used to roam these hills.

In pre-Columbian America, Jaguars spanned across the southwest from Texas to California. Its hard to say what the northernmost reach of their range was, but in northern Arizona they were found as far north as the Grand Canyon, where records indicate a female and 2 cubs were killed in 1943. Aside from occasional records documenting their deaths, there's very little historical information about the jaguars of the US. How large were their individual territories? What was their main source of prey? Did they need to live near water? Did they migrate seasonally? How many were there? The questions remain unanswered to this day.

While I was researching mountain lion ecology at the Grand Canyon, by far the most common question that people asked me was, "How many mountain lions are there?"....How many are there in the canyon at this moment, or how many generally or historically reside inside the National Park, or are how many use the Park as part of their territory at least some of the time? No matter how you clarify the question, I couldn't whittle the answer down to a number. People ask this question with the inherent assumptions that A) there must be a proven, reliable way to get this information, B) that someone must have done it, and C) they must still be doing it so that we have a current count.

Censusing wild animals is not a straightforward task, unless the population is so critically endangered that the last remaining individuals are known, named, tracked, and under constant vigilance. When biologists gather information about the habitat requirements of a species (what kind of vegetation or land cover do they prefer, are they constrained to certain elevations, terrain or slope, proximity to water, distance from roads, abundance of prey....on and on), they can use that information to determine how much land meets those criteria. Coupled with statistics about how much land is needed to support an individual or a population, they can do some math to determine how many individuals a given tract of land could support. Theoretically.

For example, if we knew what constituted "good" black bear habitat in Northern Arizona, and the approximate home range requirements for bears in this area, we could use maps and data to determine how much black bear habitat exists within say, Grand Canyon National Park. Then we could walk around making pompous statements like "Given current conditions, Grand Canyon National Park could support as many as X bears." But even that would be a long shot.

Not only are we lacking the data needed to make those kinds of inferences, but those algorithms don't take into account population dynamics, current threats, mortality and natality rates, fragmentation, isolation, or even history. Given that grizzly bears were decimated here, and black bears nearly so, we don't even know if the population has recovered enough to have reached any kind of equilibrium. In short, we don't know how many bears are in Grand Canyon National Park, or northern Arizona for that matter. Yet agencies responsible for their management have been known to toss out numbers like so much confetti at a wedding. Generally its a good bet that anyone who has concrete numbers rolling off their tongue pulled those numbers straight out of their arse.

The state of information about jaguars in the U.S. is in even worse shape. Things were looking up early in the century when remote cameras snapped photos of jaguars in southern Arizona. People got excited. The cats were here. Then people got excited again in February 2009, when biologists fitted a jaguar with a satellite collar promising a multitude of fine-scale data about habitat use. This was the virtual jackpot. But days later the situation was even more grim than before. Macho B was dead.

The agencies followed up Macho B's death with a press conference, a witchhunt, and a memorial. The ceremony in Tucson morphed into a bit of a protest, with advocates publicly demanding the creation of a federal recovery plan for jaguars. The plight of Macho B has generated a lot of attention, and rightly so. He was the last known wild jaguar in the United States. Upon his death, the southwest suffered a major loss. People love jaguars.

The public outcry, backed by threats, lawsuits, and demands for retribution- lit a fire under US Fish and Wildlife Service officials who recently announced that they're going to develop a recovery plan for the jaguar. This is big news. This should be a victory for the species whose needs, and mere existence in the US, have long gone ignored. But its only a first step.

According to Wikipedia, for any permanent population to thrive, protection from killing, an adequate prey base, and connectivity with Mexican populations are essential. That means work for government officials, conservationists, and biologists alike. Agencies need to draft regulations for protecting jaguars, biologists need to learn more about their habitat and prey requirements, and somebody needs to figure out how to make the border permeable for wildlife and connected ecosystems in the face of the Great Wall of Mexico.

We would also need to educate people about living with jaguars before they get here. Just look at the way we kill every mountain lion that wanders within half a mile of a house, city, horse, or dares to show its hide somewhere its not expected. Now imagine that was an even bigger cat, about whom we know even less, and you can see that the threat posed by freaked-out citizens would be pretty great.

An integral part of any recovery plan is designating critical habitat for the species. That could be hard to do given the above mentioned dearth of information about jaguar habitat requirements in the US, which means more research is needed about whether the southwest is good jaguar habitat at all.

The Arizona Game and Fish department is currently soliciting input for the revision of the state wildlife action plan. This could be an opportunity for the public to ask the state to take a proactive stance and develop a solid jaguar management plan that dictates the need for further research; collaboration with other states, countries, and jaguar experts; and a plan for addressing conflicts and mitigating threats to the species.

While Macho B's death was a major blow to Arizona's jaguar population, a federal recovery plan could be a major boon toward better management of the species in the US. But the recovery plan alone won't "pave the way" for jaguars. We've got lots more to do; legislate, research, educate, collaborate, and more. This is our opportunity to start planning for coexisting with jaguars. Its time we stop pointing fingers and start laying the groundwork for the future. Afterall, people love jaguars.


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  2. See for addendum....