Thursday, September 01, 2016

Borderlands Cat - Can Mexico Save the US Jaguar?

by Richard Mahler

...So why am I here? Because this is where the infinitesimal population of US jaguars almost certainly comes from – and if they stop breeding in this corner of the Sierra Madre the species will likely lose its precarious Southwest foothold forever. I’ve been writing about jaguars for over 20 years, following their saucer-sized paw prints from US borderlands south to Panama’s Darien Gap. On this balmy evening my journey has taken me deep into the Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona and New Mexico.

The presence of jaguars in the United States would likely surprise most Americans, who may reasonably assume that Panthera onca, the biggest felid species in the Western hemisphere, is exclusively a jungle critter. While it’s true that most of the estimated 15,000 remaining jaguars are, indeed, found in the Amazon and other tropic zones, they also have been part of the natural order in the US since long before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. The majestic cat is a holdover from the millennia when it and other megafauna – including now-extinct mastodons and giant sloths – roamed a cooler, wetter, and largely human-free North America. Smaller than its ancestors, modern jaguars nevertheless rank among grizzly bears, mountain lions, and timber wolves as the New World’s most formidable predators.

Except they are no match for the wiliest predators of all: humans. Over the past two centuries, jaguars have been eliminated from more than half of their historic range, which spans the US Southwest and Central and South America. Today, they are listed as “near-threatened” on the IUCN Red List.

In Teddy Roosevelt’s day jaguars roamed across most of Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon, into southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, and over the Río Grande into the Big Bend of Texas. But about a hundred years ago, US jaguars were targeted for extermination as part of a government-sponsored program of livestock-predator removal. Bounty hunters were paid to eliminate all large carnivores, including wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions, another of the four so-called “big cat” species. The grizzlies and wolves were wiped out – though wolves have been reintroduced, they are struggling to gain a foothold here. But mountain lions and a few jaguars survived.

This northernmost jaguar is so rare and so secretive that almost no one ever sees one. During the past 136 years, fewer than one hundred jaguar sightings have been confirmed in the US, virtually all in the Southwest and most by trophy hunters accompanied by scent-trained dogs. For decades, jaguars were thought to be extinct in the US, but in 1996 two of these cats were treed by hunters’ dogs. Since then, a total of five individuals have been verified: two in southwestern New Mexico and three in southeastern Arizona. A sixth was spotted just across the border in Sonora.

...Experts who wish to see jaguars return to the US agree that saving the northernmost jaguars means protecting and expanding the small breeding population of these cats that persists in Sonora’s Sierra Madre Occidental, a jagged spine running north to south from the international border. It is from this redoubt – about 125 miles from where Sonora, Chihuahua, Arizona, and New Mexico intersect – that El Jefe and his ilk almost certainly derive, and where I spent part of last February trying to understand what these wandering outliers are up against.

“This is the ecological heart of the northern jaguar population,” according to the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP), the nonprofit group working hardest to save prime Sonoran habitat. Since its 2003 founding, the Tucson-based NJP has documented more than 50 individual jaguars in an area where experts believe as many as 120 jaguars may remain.

Operating in partnership with the Mexican conservation organization Naturalia, NJP has established an 86-square-mile reserve in Sonora for the protection and study of jaguars. This protected area is believed to be critical for the animal’s survival in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern US because the Sonoran jaguar population, too, is seriously threatened by habitat loss, reduced prey populations, and hunting. (Although killing a jaguar in Mexico is illegal and punishable by fines or jail time, poaching and retaliatory killings by ranchers are seldom reported or prosecuted.)

...Most importantly, NJP contracts with a dozen large ranches to pay for any camera-trap photos taken on these lands of jaguars, as well as mountain lions, bobcats, and ocelots. Dubbed Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Felines), the 55,000-acre effort involves placement of dozens of motion-activated cameras on these properties, which are monitored monthly by NJP’s “jaguar guardians” and scientists for evidence of cats and their prey.

“We understand that the local economy is based on cattle,” explains Javier Valenzuela Amarillas, a Sonora native and one of the NJP employees who checks cameras. “We respect that, and try to help ranchers and wildlife coexist.” Besides supplementing rancher income with cash (around $270 per jaguar photo), Viviendo con Felinos guardians suggest ways to minimize big cat depredation, such as keeping cattle away from areas frequented by jaguars and mountain lions. In addition, the NJP helps ranchers obtain Mexican government insurance policies that compensate cattle owners for proven livestock losses to jaguars.

As a result of these cooperative efforts, visiting Mexican biologist Miguel Gómez Ramírez told me, “the population of cats here is healthy and there are plenty of prey animals” for jaguars...

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