Rare Jaguar Sighting in Arizona, 60 Miles North of Mexican Border

A jaguar was spotted November 16, 2016, in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of Arizona, 60 miles from the Mexican border, the farthest north one of these animals has been spotted in many decades. Courtesy of BLM, via USFWS Southwest

A jaguar has been spotted by a trail camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of Arizona, a rugged range more than 60 miles north of the Mexican border. This is the farthest north a jag has been seen in many decades. The photo was captured in mid-November, but only retrieved late last month and released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency confirms that this specific animal hasn't been seen before in the United States before, making it the third jaguar to be confirmed in the country since 2011. The most well-known of these animals roamed the Santa Ritas, a mountain range southeast of Tucson. A male, he was named "El Jefe" (Spanish for "the boss") by schoolchildren in Tucson. But he hasn't been seen for more than a year.

Cameras picked up a second jaguar in the Huachuca mountains in early December, in the mountains surrounding Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army installation close to the Mexican border. He was seen again in January, and may still be in the area.

Both of these animals have been determined to be males, whereas the sex of the new jaguar hasn't yet been determined. It's likely to be a male as well, as they are known to wander much more widely than females, and all originated from Sonora, in northwestern Mexico, where there is a reproductive population of the cats. However, in the unlikely event it's a female, that would be exciting, since a female jag hasn't been confirmed in the Untied States for many decades.

Five scientists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department analyzed the spots on the newfound jaguar (their markings are unique to individuals), and confirmed that it hasn't been picked up by other cameras.

"This is a unique development," said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the department. "Jaguars are a historical component of Arizona's wildlife diversity. However, given the irregularity with which jaguar presence in Arizona is documented, even with the expanded use of trail cameras, this sighting is not an indication that jaguars are establishing a population in Arizona."

There is likely enough territory for such a population to exist, however, and jaguars once roamed throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and even southern California, says Howard Quigley, a scientist with Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.

Jaguars have "now traveled here through every large mountain range connecting Arizona and Sonora," says Randy Serraglio, with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. "The appearance of a third jaguar in Arizona in just the past year and a half is hard evidence that they're making a comeback here. These jaguars living in the U.S. are still connected to the breeding population in Mexico, but Trump's [planned border] wall would cut them off and end any chance of recovery here."

Nearly 300 miles of border fence currently run along Arizona's southern border, the majority of which is somewhat porous, and mainly intended to prevent vehicles from coming through. Luckily, animals like jaguars appear to be capable of passing through it, though if the wall becomes more impermeable that could be a problem for larger wildlife, says Melanie Culver, a researcher at the University of Arizona. She oversees a network of approximately 75 wildlife cameras mostly manned by volunteers in mountain ranges throughout southeastern Arizona. Cameras from the project, which used to be funded by the federal government, were the first to pick up photos of the jaguar in the Santa Ritas.

This is the seventh jaguar to be confirmed in the Southwest since 1996; in the preceding 20 years, only one had been documented in the country, notes the Arizona Daily Star.