The Biggest Wild Cat in North America – Are There Jaguars in the United States?


As I readily admitted in a recent blog post, inquiring reader, sometimes there will be “overlap” in the respective subject matters of my two blogs – “dqhall1″ and “dqhall2.”  Today’s post is such an example, and is featured in this blog because it is prompted by a news/documentary piece featured yesterday, January 30, 2011, on the CBS long-standing feature, “Sixty Minutes.”

At considerable effort, expense, and commitment of all kinds of resources, the “Sixty Minutes” crew made a long trek down to the Brazilian/Bolivian border region in South America to travel about with naturalist/wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz, considered by many to be the outstanding expert in the world on the wild jaguar.  As you may already know, the jaguar is the largest wild cat in the Western Hemisphere; and like all the rest of the world’s big felines, is under severe threat of continued habitat loss, reduction of its range throughout the hemisphere, and decline threatening extinction.

At various times in my blog posts I have at least mentioned the other two larger wild cats of the USA – the mountain lion or cougar, and the bobcat – but I had not made reference to jaguars.  According to “Sixty Minutes,” that would not be an omission on my part, because they told their vast audience that “there are no jaguars in the United States.”  Furthermore, they are rare enough in their population centers in South America that researchers and observers can go for days and weeks without ever sighting one.  Alan Rabinowitz stated that even he didn’t see one down there for the first three months he was there.

I admire Rabinowitz and encourage people who care about the world’s big cats to support his ambitious efforts to study jaguars and work for their survival.  They are magnificent predators.  And his attempts to get multiple nations to establish and protect “Paseo del Jaguar” represent what the March, 2009, issue of National Geographic called one of “the world’s most ambitious conservation programs.”  (The “Sixty Minutes” attention given to him and his work was far from ground-breaking nor a “first” in the attention given to Rabinowitz and his life’s passion.)

Paseo del Jaguar is a corridor/network of wild lands that would enable the wandering jaguars to travel and reproduce regularly and widely throughout its critical habitat, crossing international boundaries of eight countries in Central America and most of South America.  The concept is important, because the jaguar is the only large, wide-ranging carnivore in the world with no subspecies – which means that for millenia it has mingled its genes throughout its entire range in North America, Central America, and South America.  And that requires a lot of unrestricted roaming by individual cats.

I was interested, however, in that flat-out statement on television that there were no jaguars in this country.  Arizona, especially, might disagree.  Not only is the Northern Jaguar Project headquartered in Arizona; but more important, throughout these first several years of the 2000’s jaguars have actually been photographed north of the Mexican border in Arizona mountains.  The same adult male jaguar was photographed over a few years, 2001-2003, by the Borderlands Detection Project.

Since its initiation in 2001, the Project has documented at least 49 jaguar data points in Arizona, including over 30 photos, scat/fecal samples and sets of tracks. Even the Arizona Game and Fish Department has recorded 57 “jaguar occurrences” between 1901 and 2002 (I lack updated information since 2002.), overlapping the work of the Detection Project.

Some would argue that most, if not all, of these individual jaguars are probably of cats that have crossed over from Mexico in their legendary wanderings….and that perhaps they cross back again.   Even so, it would seem just inaccurate for “Sixty Minutes” to deny that there are any jaguars in our country.  There may well have been two, three, or more, animals north of the border as they so spoke.

I would hope so, at least.  Jaguars are amazingly beautiful, powerful, third-largest cats in the world after the champ, the Siberian tiger, and, of course, the lion.  They used to do their impressive roaming throughout Southern California, Arizona, along the Grand Canyon, New Mexico, all the way up into Colorado….even as far east as across Texas.

In the 1840’s, at the end of the “Mountain Man” era of the old West, several jaguars were shot in the vicinity of San Antonio, Texas; the last jaguar on the Great Plains in Texas was killed in 1910; and a couple were even shot all the way over on the state’s Gulf coast as “recently” as 1946 and 1948.  They hung on for a long time under great duress and lack of caring for their survival.

Their re-establishment in appropriate habitat in the Southwestern corner of America would be quite a thrill for many of us.  To prove that, in fact, there are no jaguars wandering here would be truly sad.

About Rev. Dr. David Q. Hall

Outdoor sports writer: fly fishing for stream trout, hunting of grouse and woodcock, big whitetail bucks. Writer of Nature pieces and Native American stories, myths and legends.
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