The etymology of the modern word ‘jaguar’ is somewhat uncertain. Some sources have it originating from the Amazonian tribal name yaguarete (“true beast”) via Portuguese translation, while others trace it to our own Native American yaguar (roughly, “he who kills in one leap”).
In September 2012, scientists at the University of Arizona placed a series of cameras in the rugged foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, about one hour southeast of Tucson. The cameras, which were rigged with motion sensors to automatically detect any passing animals, photographed plenty of the usual desert suspects: black bears, jackrabbits, javelina. But when the researchers retrieved the first batch of images from the cameras that November, they realized they’d caught an even more elusive quarry on candid camera: the first jaguar spotted in the U.S. since 2009.
Over the past century, jaguars have been playing (and for the most part, winning) a game of hide-and-seek in the American southwest. Once established all the way to the Grand Canyon, the predatory cat with jaws twice as strong as a lion’s gradually retreated south as human settlement increased. Jaguar sightings on the U.S. side of the border began to drop off precipitously around 1900, leaving some to wonder whether or not the U.S. retained a viable breeding population at all. Arizona’s last known female jaguar died in 1963 and the occasional lone males spotted since then (including this most recent one in the Santa Ritas) are speculated to be long-range daytrippers from Mexico.
Rare though they may be, jaguars are being given every chance to make a comeback. On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated nearly 1,200 square miles along the border as critical habitat for the cats, citing the need to support even the slightest hint of what is now a highly vulnerable species (jaguars have been on the federal Endangered Species List since 1997). In addition to being beautiful and mysterious, the jaguar is an apex predator at the top of the food chain and helps regulate the local ecosystem via predation.
The FWS’s move comes largely due to a successful lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group that advocates and litigates for federal protection of threatened megafauna species. One might have expected the usual critics to jump all over this decision (more than 700,000 acres restricted based on one transient jaguar!), but the response in the first 48 hours was decidedly muted. Rosemont, a large copper manufacturer preparing to open a mine within the now-protected habitat zone, shrugged off the announcement and stated that the jaguar protections would not affect its business plans even though the critical habitat designation places strict limitations on land usage and industrial development. The livestock industry was also quiet, for unlike wolves, jaguars don’t provoke the same kind of irrational ire in ranchers. The big cats may be ambush predators, but they haven’t historically targeted cattle (Arizona has just one confirmed depredation incident in the past 50 years).
Tuesday’s decision paves the way for a jaguar revival, but in truth, nothing’s really been standing in the way of the cats expanding their range north besides a lack of critical mass. (Clearly they’re not getting in anybody’s way if it takes remote cameras in the mountains to alert us to their presence.) If the FWS is serious about re-establishing the species in significant numbers, the agency might eventually need to perform a manual jump start a la 1995’s Yellowstone wolf re-introduction. At the moment, such a drastic step seems unlikely. Large predator re-introductions are costly and time-consuming for the FWS and the agency might choose to spend its limited political capital elsewhere. But, if it can be demonstrated that a viable jaguar population could bring in eco-tourism dollars for the state of Arizona the way wolves do for Montana and Wyoming, then who knows? The southwestern U.S. could potentially become big cat country once more. Much will depend on what the jaguars can do on their own over the next few years. The FWS has given them a friendly nudge—will they take the hint?
Trent Knoss is the digital media editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.