On the Prowl

Rare jaguar sightings have sparked a debate about how to ensure the cats’ survival in the American West

(Cheryl Carlin)
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There are at least seven mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico where jaguars were historically sighted that have yet to be surveyed. Additionally, a panel of scientific advisers to a jaguar conservation team (with representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and other government agencies) recommended last year that a jaguar be trapped and fitted with a satellite tracking collar. That would enable scientists to identify exactly what pathways the cat was traversing between mountain ranges and where and how often it crossed into Mexico. It also might enable researchers to locate other jaguars—including possibly those elusive females—if they exist. But game officials are still evaluating the plan.

One area where scientists have yet to look for jaguars is the Animas Mountains in New Mexico. On February 20, 2006, Warner Glenn and his daughter were leading a mountain lion hunt there when one of his dogs, Powder, went missing. Powder soon reappeared, but with a gaping hole in his neck and shoulder. "Something had whipped the dickens out of him," Glenn says. At the same time, the rest of Glenn's pack took off down the face of a bluff after something.

Glenn watched from the ridge as the dogs surrounded a cedar tree across the canyon. Worried that his pack had struck out after a feral hog, Glenn piloted his mule off the steep ridge, "sliding mostly," he says. "The boulders were rolling and the brush was popping." But when he got within 100 yards of the cedar, lo and behold, he saw a big cat sitting there. In the shade, it looked chocolate brown, and Glenn assumed it was a large male mountain lion. Suddenly, the cat charged out into the sun after the dogs, and Glenn saw it had dusky gold fur and spots. "I said, my gosh, it's a jaguar!" Glenn recalls.

Hunters can spend a lifetime in the Southwest and never see a jaguar. Now Glenn had stumbled across his second cat in a decade. Glenn calls this one Border King. Based on the weathering of its teeth, seen in Glenn's photos, Border King is thought to be an 8- to 9-year-old male, weighing as much as 200 pounds.

Border King was the fourth confirmed jaguar in the United States. Glenn has not seen him since but thinks he and others are probably out there, haunting the isolated mountain ranges that run south to the border and into Mexico's Sierra Madre. "It's a wonderful wildlife corridor," he says. "The prey base is just number one." And Glenn thinks the cattle that also graze there are part of the reason it's such good jaguar habitat: the cattle rancher who owns the land runs pipelines and wells that provide water for his livestock, but also for wildlife.

At 71, Glenn is a legend in this corner of the Southwest. A fourth-generation cattleman, he grew up tracking mountain lions with his father and has spent his whole life guiding professional hunts. Tall and lean and as leathery as cowhide, Glenn looks like he stepped out of a "Bonanza" episode. But beneath his cowpoke exterior lurks a media-savvy and politically astute businessman.

Two years before his jaguar sighting in the Peloncillos, Glenn and his wife, Wendy, and some neighbors formed a group to advocate for ecologically sound range management. The motivation was to alter growing public perceptions of ranchers as poor stewards of the environment and pre-empt political pressure to further restrict grazing on public lands. Grazing limits—quotas on the number of cows a rancher can run and rules on how frequently he has to rotate pastures—were hard on cattle ranchers. And perversely, according to Glenn, they also harmed the very environment they were supposed to protect by forcing many ranchers to close up shop and sell out to developers, who then subdivided the land for housing, ruining wildlife corridors.

The Malpai Borderlands Group (derived from the Spanish word for "badlands," Malpai is the name of Glenn's ranch, where the group maintains its office) now encompasses nearly a million acres of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. It has pioneered a host of innovative land management techniques. These include payments to ranchers in exchange for conservation easements that guarantee their land will never be subdivided.

Glenn expected that his jaguar photos would be controversial. For a lot of ranchers in this part of the country, the accepted wisdom for how to handle an endangered species—especially a potential calf-killer—is "shoot, shovel and shut up." After all, the thinking goes, rare wildlife brings only more grazing restrictions. But when Glenn showed his jaguar photos to the Malpai members, the group decided to go public with Glenn's sighting. "We talked it over, and we thought it was kind of a neat thing," Glenn says. The Malpai ranchers viewed the jaguar as a sign of the health of their land.

Not everyone thought they made the right call. In 1972, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had listed the jaguar as endangered, but only south of the border. For two decades the service had successfully resisted efforts by environmentalists to make it list the United States as part of the jaguar's range, which could lead to new limits on cattle ranching on public lands and hunting in parts of Arizona and New Mexico if the area were declared "critical habitat" for the jaguar. Now, other ranchers feared, Glenn's photographs would force the government's hand.


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