Formal Petition Filed To Bring Jaguars Back To United States Southwest To Roam Their Old Homelands; Impact On Mountain Lions Uncertain

Jaguars and mountain lions are the two apex feline predators in United States history. Jaguars were common in the American southwest. Cougars overlapped that range and expanded far to the north and south. Jaguars were driven to local extinction in the United States. Cougars were essentially eliminated in the east. the situation for both cats appears to be changing. Jaguars may be on the verge of a comeback. Pumas may be expanding east.

leopard lying beside gray metal chain link fence
Jaguars are powerful muscular cats just smaller than lions and tigers. Photo by Yigithan Bal on

A few jaguars (Panthera onca) may live in the United States now, while most live in increasingly fragmented habitat from Mexico south into Central and South America. Most American jaguars are believed to roam across the border and are not believed to be permanent residents. There are permanent residents in Mexico.

However, that situation may change in the next few years. The Center for Biological Diversity has formally petitioned

the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

to reintroduce jaguars to Arizona and New Mexico. This is a part of a growing movement to protect both cats and help to expand their range. The center says its purpose is to enhance biological diversity to protect all life. The fish and wildlife service works to protect animal resources including endangered species.

photo of a cougar near a log
Cougars tend to be smaller and are lithe, lean ambush predators known for jumping skills. Photo by Nicky Pe on

Jaguars are the third biggest cat in the world after lions (Panthera leo) and and tigers (Pathera tigris). Cougars (Puma concolor) come in at number four, ahead of leopards (Pathera pardus). Jaguars tend to be stockier and heavier than cougars. The biggest jaguars weigh up to 350 pounds, the largest cougars about 220. The largest leopards weigh in at about 165 pounds. One major difference between the North American cats is jaw strength: jaguars can bite through tortoise shells, whereas cougars use a more conventional neck bite attack. Jaguars often simply bite the head of prey animals. crushing the skull.

The two cats sometimes overlap in range. Little is known about conflict between the two cats. They are thought to avoid each other and show preferences for different types of habitat. It is unknown how they will interact in Arizona and New Mexico.

nature deer elk canada
Elk are on both cats menu and are common in the forest. Feral oigs are increasing in the state and the cats may reduce those numbers. Photo by Pixabay on

Both cats face the same general set of problems. Human encroachment, traffic, fragmented range and potential inbreeding. Advocates are investigating similar solutions to many of these problems.

For the jaguar the center is asking the government to actively reintroduce jaguars into the Gila National Forest. The forest covers nearly 3 million acres in New Mexico. The land is rugged and largely undeveloped.

According to the center:

“Jaguars were placed on the endangered list in 1972. Just one jaguar is known to live in the United States today: Sombra, a male named by middle-school students in Tucson. Since 2016 Sombra has been repeatedly photographed in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona, one of the areas requested for critical habitat designation. He was almost certainly born in Mexico.

Reports and scientific studies described in the petition found the Gila National Forest and the broader Mogollon Plateau, extending northwest to the Grand Canyon, have excellent jaguar habitat. The petition seeks the release of jaguars in the Gila National Forest, which includes the Gila Wilderness and adjoining Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The Gila National Forest harbors abundant deer, elk and javelina that could support a jaguar population.”

Interestingly, the center references a project in Argentina that is seeking to reintroduce jaguars to an area from which they were extirpated 70 years ago:

“Bolstered by rural community support, a reintroduction program in Argentina is returning jaguars to a region from which they had disappeared. Argentina‚Äôs initial success suggests one possible model for a future U.S. jaguar reintroduction program. This petition similarly seeks a multi-year planning process that would involve Tribal nations, local communities, scientists and others to promote co-existence.”

Both big cats may benefit from California’s signature project the Liberty Canyon overcrossing. That project may have international applications. In addition, CaTrans now seeks to consider wildlife needs in every state roadway project.

According to AZ Central:

“The 107-page scientific petition seeks the reintroduction of jaguars to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. It also calls for the designation of critical habitat for their recovery in New Mexico and Arizona, including space to facilitate safe cross-border movements between the U.S and Mexico. “

The call for safe border crossing is a key issue similar to that raised by the need for the Liberty Canyon overcrossing in California. It is, however, politically challenging. Establishing crossings for jaguars may interfere with efforts to regulate crossing by people.

The petition identifies roughly 104 million acres in the two states as good jaguar habitat.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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