On the Prowl

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

Sure enough, Glenn's sighting, combined with Childs and Colvin's encounter, led to litigation that forced the federal government in 1997 to list the jaguar as endangered in the United States. But in a nod to the ranchers' concerns, the FWS decided that it was "not prudent" to designate any particular areas "critical habitat" for the cat, arguing that the biggest danger the jaguar faced was illegal hunting, not habitat loss.

The FWS's position remains controversial. Last summer, the Center for Biological Diversity, the group whose lawsuit forced the government to list the jaguar as endangered, filed another suit intended to force the federal government to designate critical habitat and institute a recovery plan for the species.

The phrase "critical habitat" stokes the anger of ranchers. "All these groups want to get cattle off the federal lands—period," says Sue Krentz, a cattle rancher near the Glenns. She says that ranchers get little credit for their contribution to the environment. "We provide water and prevent the fragmentation of rangeland, now all you want to do is punish us because we happen to run a cattle ranch," she says. Krentz thinks the attention paid to the jaguar is disproportionate to the number of animals seen. Referring to Macho B, she says, "remember we are only talking about one jaguar here—all of this is just about one jaguar. If we did this much work with kids, they would all be able to read."

Ranchers opposed to critical habitat designation have some powerful allies. The Wildlife Conservation Society's Alan Rabinowitz is considered one of the world's leading authorities on jaguars. Rabinowitz thinks the jaguars that have been sighted in the United States in recent times are mostly transients. "There is no resident population in the U.S.," he tells me. "And no evidence of breeding."

Carlos López González, a Mexican jaguar expert, and David Brown, a wildlife biologist at Arizona State University, came to the same conclusion in their 2001 book, Borderland Jaguars, a history of the jaguar in the southern United States and northern Mexico. They postulate that the jaguars in the U.S. wander up from the northernmost known breeding population in Mexico, which lies 140 miles south of the border in Sonora. Jaguars are solitary animals and as young adults must strike out to find their own territory.

Although McCain disagrees with Rabinowitz that the U.S. jaguars are visitors, he is not in favor of designating critical habitat for them. That, he tells me, will only pit ranchers against cats. "The problem is that it makes the jaguar the enemy," he says. "And if that happens, we'll never have another jaguar sighting in this country." Even now, rumors of ranchers offering bounties for trapping jaguars on their property still circulate in southern Arizona.

Ranchers' historic animosity toward a predator like the jaguar doesn't dissipate easily. But, thanks in part to the conservation efforts of Childs and Glenn, attitudes are starting to change. Dan Bell, who runs the day-to-day activities of the family's ZZ Cattle Corporation, was none too pleased when Childs began documenting jaguars moving through his ranch in December 2001. "That was kind of a shock because, we were just like, 'Oh, no, now what? What do we do?' " Bell says. "I was just thinking a calf-eating machine right there. That was my first thought."

Childs and his old hunting partner Matt Colvin, who also volunteers on wildlife studies, tried to put Bell's mind at ease: the pair would investigate any suspicious kills and ensure that Bell received fair compensation. (One way to tell a jaguar kill: they like to eat a victim's tongue and ears first; mountain lions start with the heart and liver.) Bell also began attending jaguar conservation meetings. There, he says, his worry about predation subsided. But it was supplanted by a new fear: the talk of critical habitat.

Bell, 39, still worries that the jaguar will be invoked to force further limits on his herd. But he continues to host jaguar researchers on his Forest Service allotment. He hopes McCain and Childs' photographs, not just of the jaguar, but of all the other species—from turkeys to bears to skunks—will help convince people that ranches can be important wildlife corridors as well as bulwarks against urban sprawl. "People just need to realize that these ranches are providing other benefits," he says. The alternative, he insists, is condos and golf courses.

McCain and I bounce down a rutted dirt track in the Coronado National Forest, each spine-jarring lurch of his ATV bringing us closer to the canyon floor and the edge of the United States. At the bottom of the gulch, rusty steel rails—stacked and welded into an interlocking lattice as high as a man's chest—zigzag across the orange sand like a zipper drawn across the desert floor. This is "the wall"—part of the 700-mile-long border partition the U.S. government is building to stem the tide of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers who use these canyons to enter the country. But it may also seal the fate of the jaguar in the United States. "I don't think the jaguar stands a chance if there is a fence," McCain says. Jennifer Neeley, formerly the Southwest representative of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson, agrees. "When the wall goes up, jaguar recovery will end," she tells me.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus