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Big Cats in the Borderlands: Jaguars Have Returned to the American Southwest

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photograph. After a decades-long absence, jaguars – the largest cats in the Americas – have been sighted in the American Southwest since the 1990s.

They're among the most powerful animals on the planet. Like 200-pound pit bulls, they're stocky and square-jawed, with a bite that can readily crush a turtle's shell, or a mammal's skull. They're also graceful – they can swim and climb – and beautiful, with coats of pale yellow to tan, covered in black spots and rosettes. Jaguars are peerless predators of the Americas – secretive and solitary, synonymous with the wildest places.

And while we might associate these creatures with the Amazon, or the lush forests of Mexico and Central America, Texas and the American Southwest are part of their historic range. After a decades-long absence, jaguars have been sighted in the United States again since the 1990s. Wildlife managers and advocates are now debating their long-term future here.

Dr. Sharon Wilcox is senior Texas representative with Defenders of Wildlife. Like many wildlife lovers, Wilcox was electrified when, in 1995, two mountain lion hunters – one in the Peloncillo Mountains, a Chihuahuan Desert range in southern New Mexico, the other near Arizona's Baboquivari Peak – treed and photographed jaguars. These were the first confirmed U.S. sightings in more than 30 years.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” Wilcox said. “They went public with this information, shared with the public that they did see these cats, and they allowed these cats to continue on the landscape. And since that time we have a fairly consistent record of male jaguars in Arizona – Arizona Game and Fish released images from January of 2021, of a cat.”

Historic populations were likely denser in tropical areas, but there's no doubt jaguars once roamed from the Texas Hill Country to Arizona. River corridors, including the Rio Grande and Pecos, may have been favored haunts. At the turn of the 20th century, there were jaguar sightings in Pecos, Comstock and Ozona. A “leopard cat” was reported in Fort Stockton in 1917. Records from the Big Bend proper are scant – but a rock-art site east of El Paso, known as Jaguar Cave, features a striking prehistoric painting of a spotted feline. 

Wilcox is a cultural geographer, who's studied the shifting responses these charismatic cats have inspired in our species. For Texans, she's found, jaguars were once a touchstone – emblems of a rugged place, and a rugged self-identity.

John Woodhouse Audubon – on a research trip for his famous father – traveled to Texas in the 1840s to collect data on mammals. He was regaled with Texas-sized tall tales about jaguars – but also received accurate information on the big cats. Sam Houston famously wore a “leopard vest” with his formal attire – fashioned in fact from a jaguar hide, and likely acquired from a furrier in Waco. And Wilcox has found something interesting in archival photos of Texas soldiers, from the Confederate era and earlier.

“There are multiple photos of soldiers from Texas who either have chaps, or a vest, or a jacket, a bolero, with jaguar hide on it,” Wilcox said. “And these were definitely Texas residents, who were sourcing this locally.” 

Yet while jaguars may have been markers of Texan-ness, that didn't exempt them from the fate of other large predators in the West. Viewed as threats to livestock and game animals, jaguars, like bears and wolves, were subject to government eradication efforts. 

Ironically, two men involved in those efforts – future conservationists Ernest Thompson Seton and Aldo Leopold – were central to transforming U.S. attitudes about jaguars and other predators. 

“Each was employed by the government doing predator control,” Wilcox said. “Each hunted wolves and wild cats. And each had this reckoning in a moment of death, where saw that they were extinguishing something greater than just the life of one animal, and that they were really having broad impacts through these actions on the landscape, of eliminating predators.”

In their environmental writing, both Seton and Leopold stressed the importance of predators in ecosystems. Leopold searched in vain for jaguars, and, in 1949, described their absence as haunting the Southwest, “a potential presence” that “pervaded the wilderness.”

That perspective gained traction in the ensuing decades, and the renewed presence of jaguars has largely been greeted with admiration and awe, a sense of the Southwest recovering some of its wild balance.

All the jaguars documented in the U.S. since 1995 have been male – the big cats have likely arrived from the mountains of Mexico. There's no evidence of a breeding population here. But the confirmed presence triggered reviews by federal agencies, and, in 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a jaguar “recovery plan.” 

That plan identifies New Mexico and Arizona south of Interstate 10 as potential jaguar habitat, and estimates the “carrying capacity” of that desert-mountain area as six jaguars.

But Defenders of Wildlife – in partnership with other conservation and scientific organizations – is arguing for something much more ambitious.

The partners have identified a vast swath of central New Mexico and Arizona – centered on the rugged, mountainous country of the Gila Wilderness and the Mogollon Rim – as a site for jaguar reintroduction. The area, scientists say, could sustain as many 150 adult jaguars.

Jaguars are threatened throughout their range, but jaguar reintroduction has only been attempted on an experimental basis, in South America. Scientists are still learning how to conduct it, to insure the health of the animals. Wilcox said reintroduction in the U.S. is a long-term vision, that would depend on extended conversations with those who live in the proposed reintroduction area.

“We're acknowledging that these are really long timelines,”Wilcox said, “in order to have communities invested and on board with this, in order to do the behind-the-scenes work in veterinary medicine and ecology and biology – we're talking on the scale of decades most likely.”

During hundreds of years, there've been only a handful of reports of jaguars attacking humans. But they can kill livestock. In the Southwest, Defenders of Wildlife has pioneered techniques for dissuading wolves from taking livestock, Wilcox said, and comparable techniques could be used for jaguars.

Even under the proposed reintroduction, there would be perhaps two jaguars per 100 square-miles of wild country. And jaguars aren't mountain lions, which can thrive in suburban areas – these cats are denizens of nature's deepest dwellings, and avoid contact with people. 

Could jaguars return to West Texas, as black bears have? From Big Bend to the Guadalupe Mountains, there's habitat here that might sustain them. Even the most avid explorer of the Texas outback would be unlikely to see one, but it would certainly be a charge to know they were there.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.
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