It’s Time to Reintroduce Jaguars in the U.S. Southwest, Scientists and Conservation Groups Say

Hunting decimated the big cat’s population in the United States by the mid-20th century

A picture of a beige colored large spotted Jaguar seen stalking towards the left of the picture.
Several male jaguars have been spotted in Arizona and New Mexico over the last twenty years, but no evidence of breeding pairs establishing territories beyond Mexico has been seen or reported. Charles J. Sharp via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Jaguars (Panthera onca) had called the Americas their home since the early Pleistocene epoch when their ascendents crossed the Bering Land Bridge that once joined what is now Alaska and Russia. The big cats roamed the central mountains of the southwestern United States for hundreds of years until they were almost driven to extinction in the mid-20th century after government-sanctioned hunters shot the last one in the 1960s, reports Harry Cockburn for the Independent.

Now, after more than a 50-year absence, conservation scientists are calling for the jaguar’s return to their native habitat in a study that outlines what the rewilding effort may look like. The paper was published this month in Conservation Science and Practice.

Currently, jaguars are found in 19 different countries. Several males have been spotted in Arizona and New Mexico over the last 20 years, but breeding pairs have not been seen or reported north of Mexico. Natural reestablishment of the spotted big cats is also unlikely because of urbanization and habitat fragmentation caused by existing segments of the U.S.-Mexico border blocking jaguar migration routes, reports Susan Montoya Bryan for the Associated Press.

Citing a study published in the journal Oryx in March, the authors of the new paper suggest a suitable habitat for jaguars spanning 2 million acres from central Arizona to New Mexico. The space would provide a big enough range for 90 to 150 jaguars, the researchers explained in a statement. Authors of the Oryx study also argued that bringing jaguars back to the U.S. is crucial to species conservation as the cats are listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. Reintroduction could also help restore native ecosystems, the AP reports.

“The jaguar lived in these mountains long before Americans did. If done collaboratively, reintroduction could enhance the economy of this region and the ecology of this incredible part of jaguar range,” said Eric Sanderson, senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and lead author of the study in a statement.

The suggested area is located in regions that humans do not densely populate, publicly-owned state and national parks, and indigenous tribal lands, reports Ed Cara for Gizmodo. The rugged terrain also includes enough water and prey sources to be a refuge for the species, per the AP.

Environmentalists and conservationists argued the two-million-acre habitat was not considered in 2018 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigated and proposed a recovery plan for jaguar reintroductions. In the plan, a habitat for only six jaguars was set aside within the entire U.S., the Independent reports. Officials say conservation efforts would focus on protecting habitats, educating the public about jaguars to aid social acceptance, and banishing poaching, the AP reports.

The rewilding proposal has not been reviewed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials but may face some opposition by rural residents and ranchers who already showed resistance towards Mexican grey wolf reintroduction, the AP reports.

For now, the researchers proposed the plan to begin the conversation of rewilding jaguars by outlining conservation rationale, history, ecological context, human context, and practical considerations in their study.

“This represents a turning point for this iconic wild cat, identifying a path forward for restoration of the jaguar to its historic range in the United States,” said study author Sharon Wilcox, the Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “It should serve as the starting point for a renewed conversation among stakeholders.”