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Elusive Jaguar Glimpsed in AZ Could be Game Changer

A jaguar walks past a trail camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in November. (Bureau of Land Management)
A jaguar walks past a trail camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in November. (Bureau of Land Management)
March 3, 2017

PHOENIX - A new jaguar sighting in Arizona is raising lots of questions.

It's the third big cat caught on camera prowling the state since 2012. The photo is little more than a glimpse, a partial image of a jaguar wandering the Dos Cabezas mountains, but it was enough for wildlife experts to know they've never seen this cat before.

However, Mark Hart, public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said the photo is missing crucial information.

"Part of the mystery of this photo is that we can't tell the sex," he said. "There are no female jaguars in the region that we know of. That would be a game changer in terms of how critical the habitat is for long-term survival of the species."

If this cat is a female, it raises the possibility of a breeding pair in Arizona. Hart said he believes we're seeing more jaguars lately because there are more cameras out there taking pictures. But so little is known about the jaguar that it's unclear if its numbers are unchanged, if they're making a comeback or possibly expanding their territory.

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft recovery plan for more than 764,000 acres of Arizona and New Mexico. The area is the northern edge of the jaguar's traditional habitat, which extends into South America.

One goal is to make it easier for the cats to move back and forth over the U.S.-Mexico border, but Tadeo Pfister, regional program manager of the Sky Island Alliance, said President Trump's proposed border wall will hurt the cat's chances.

"Eventually if the border wall really goes up and creates that barrier across the whole landscape," he said, "well, that's the end of jaguar recovery in the southwestern United States, especially in southeastern Arizona."

It's not just jaguars. Conservationists say a wall would cut off wildlife corridors used by other species, and the range is necessary for genetic diversity and healthy populations.

The photograph was taken in November but only recently was recovered from the camera.

Dennis Newman, Public News Service - AZ