Jaguar Recovery: Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is this proposal to reintroduce jaguars to the United States?

In December 2022 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce endangered jaguars to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Ultimately this could lead to a population of more than 100 jaguars living in the southwestern United States, primarily in an area known as the Mogollon Plateau, a region of mainly public lands between Arizona’s Grand Canyon and the Gila National Forest.

2. What about the proposal for protected habitat?

Our December 2022 petition also asks the federal government to protect about 14.6 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico as "critical habitat” for jaguars. Most of it, about 84%, consists of federal lands. After designation, the federal government would not be allowed to destroy such critical habitat (even if special interests demand).

3. Why is this petition so important?

Jaguars once lived throughout much of the United States but were killed off. They were placed on the endangered list in 1972.  While there have been occasional sightings of jaguars in the United States since then, today there’s only one known jaguar living north of Mexico. And, over the past several decades, only males have wandered north. If jaguars are ever going to have a viable U.S. population, we need to protect more of their most important habitat and actively reintroduce them into ideal habitat that scientists have identified.

4. Are jaguars native to the United States?

The jaguar, the third-largest cat species in the world, evolved in North America hundreds of thousands or even millions of years before it expanded its range southward to Central and South America. Paleontologists have identified ancient jaguar remains from states as far afield as Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida. Native Americans depicted large spotted cats in artwork and described them in oral histories hundreds of years before Europeans arrived in North America. As late as the 1700s, jaguars could still be found from the Carolinas to California — including the Southwest.

5. Why did jaguars decline so drastically in the United States?

After Europeans arrived in North America, jaguars were killed for their beautiful spotted pelts and to protect livestock. As forests were cleared and wetlands were drained, jaguars had fewer places to hide. They survived in the Southwest the longest, sheltered in semi-arid, rugged terrain that resisted widespread settlement. But beginning in 1915, Congress appropriated annual funds for the U.S. government to systematically kill carnivores on behalf of the livestock industry. The Fish and Wildlife Service trapped and killed the last resident U.S. jaguar in Arizona in 1964 — two years before changing sentiments led to passage of the first endangered species protection law and eight years before the jaguar was placed on the list of endangered species.

6. Can’t we just rely on jaguars wandering north from Mexico?

It is not known how many jaguars live in northern Mexico, but the two populations, one south of Arizona and one south of Texas, may be in decline. In recent decades a few have wandered over the border and into the United States. Typically these intrepid travelers are males, so it’s not reasonable to expect that a viable population can get established relying on those wanderers. Additionally, the United States has been erecting and expanding physical impediments along the U.S.-Mexico border that make it much more difficult for jaguars and other wildlife to move in through travel corridors. Reintroducing jaguars to the United States will help jump-start a viable population if it can connect to those in Mexico and improve genetic diversity.

7. Why does this reintroduction petition target New Mexico’s Gila National Forest?

Rugged and remote, the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest in western New Mexico is one of the largest national forests in the continental United States. It has a low road density, sizable areas where livestock grazing is not permitted, and plenty of deer and elk to serve as a prey base for a jaguar population. Scientists say that it’s one of the best spots to help bring back jaguars. We are also asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate other potential areas for reintroductions in Arizona and New Mexico.

8. Long term, how many jaguars could this area support?

With tolerance and proper protections, we think the southwestern United States could ultimately support a jaguar population of at least 100.

9. Will reintroduced jaguars be legally protected?

Yes. Jaguars are protected under the Endangered Species Act. If it grants our petition, the Fish and Wildlife Service would develop a management rule to guide reintroduction. The Center for Biological Diversity would advocate for robust legal protections as part of that rule. Ultimately the management rule would have to ensure the recovery of the jaguar, a right that the jaguars would continue to maintain and that conservationists could enforce in court.

10. Won’t people kill off the jaguars?

Sadly, poachers kill all types of creatures, even including endangered animals. But jaguars are cryptic, only occasionally vocal, excel in rugged terrain, and are wary of people. With better funding for protecting wildlife in the United States than in other nations supporting jaguars — and with most people inclined to act lawfully — illegal killings should be rare. The Center will advocate for dogged legal prosecution and punishment for anyone illegally killing a jaguar.

11. Do you expect jaguars will wander out of the Gila National Forest and into other areas?

Yes. Jaguars are highly mobile and, most typically, young males tend to set out on their own in search of new territories. Over time, jaguars reintroduced to the Gila National Forest or their offspring will seek new places to live, especially on the Mogollon Plateau and on the sky islands where they can enjoy functional connectivity to jaguars in Mexico.

12. Once re-established, what role will these jaguars play in the ecosystem?

Like other large carnivores, jaguars are a keystone species playing crucial roles in shaping the evolution of prey populations like deer and elk, as well as controlling harmful disease outbreaks. In the three decades since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, scientists have discovered surprising benefits to other animals and even plants. Jaguars were present for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years in what is now the United States. Returning them to a small portion of their historic range will allow them to again play their natural role and possibly open our eyes to how restored southwestern ecosystems keep themselves in balance.

13. Will jaguars pose a threat to people?

People have coexisted with large carnivores for thousands of years around the world, including jaguars in North America. Jaguars have no desire to interact with people; attacks on humans are exceedingly rare and typically precipitated by jaguars being provoked or harassed by hunters and their dogs. We can coexist with jaguars in the Southwest again with a combination of education, respect and tolerance.

14. Why are you asking for additional habitat to also be protected?

Right now, a little over 700,000 acres in Arizona are protected as “critical habitat” for jaguars. That’s simply not enough if jaguars are going to recover and thrive in the United States. Jaguars tend to be solitary, and each has a relatively large home range. Based on modeling criteria, previous studies and plans, and historic information about the presence of jaguars, we’ve asked that more than 14 million acres be protected for jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico. These geographic areas, including sky islands, will help ensure jaguars can survive in the Southwest and also travel between areas in the U.S. and northern Mexico.

The requested area includes much of the Mogollon Plateau in the two states. In Arizona it also includes portions of the Rincon, Santa Catalina, Galiuro, Winchester, Pinaleno and Santa Teresa mountains, and farther southeast, portions of the Chiricahua, Dos Cabezas, Swisshelm (and in New Mexico) Peloncillo, Animas, San Luis, Big Hatchet and Little Hatchet mountains.

15. Does your request for additional critical habitat include Tribal lands?

It does not. Instead we’ve asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to consult with the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the San Carlos Apache Tribe about what habitat protections might be appropriate on Tribal lands.

16. How does this petition fit into the fight to combat the global wildlife extinction crisis?

One species goes extinct every hour or so, and we’re on track to lose 1 million species in the coming decades. If we’re going to halt the extinction crisis, we have to act boldly and with vision. It isn’t always enough to simply stop forests from being clear cut or wetlands from being drained. We need to act proactively to preserve life on Earth. Reintroducing jaguars to the United States is a prime example of the ambitious, courageous steps we must take to save species before it’s too late.

17. Will the actual reintroductions be dangerous to jaguars?

Anytime you capture and handle wildlife there is potential risk, so we urge utmost care to ensure that no jaguar would be injured. The Fish and Wildlife Service would consult with jaguar experts to develop protocols to protect these cats during the process. Those protocols would be made public as part of the environmental review process.

18. Where will the reintroduced jaguars come from?

It will be vital not to imperil any existing population of jaguars while reintroducing them to the United States. Jaguars are most numerous in the Amazon rainforest in South America. Agreement from any nation donating jaguars should be reciprocated by high standards for protecting the reintroduced population. Conceivably, jaguars could be captured from several populations to maximize genetic diversity. Alternately or supplementally, jaguars already held in captivity, or their cubs, could form the basis for reintroduction. In Argentina a jaguar reintroduction program breeds jaguars in captivity with no human contact. After jaguar pairs breed and cubs are born, a gate is remotely opened to enable the family to enter the wild.

19. What’s the process for this petition?

The first step is the scientific and legal petition that we’ve submitted to the secretary of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service. We’re hoping the agency takes this request seriously and begins a process that will include multiple opportunities for public input. We’ll continue to build support for this ambitious effort in communities in the Southwest and nationwide.

20. How can I help?

The best thing you can do right now is add your voice to our call urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to take up our petition to reintroduce jaguars and expand its protected habitat. As the process moves along, we’ll keep you posted on how you can weigh in.

 

Photo © Jonathan Truong