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A jaguar crouching in green grass.
Though perhaps most associated with the jungles of Central and South America, jaguars are believed to have once ranged as far north as the Grand Canyon.
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The controversial plan to bring jaguars back to the US

Bald eagles, bison, and ... big cats?

The cat was moving through southern Arizona’s mountains one night in early January when it appeared on a trail camera, eyes glowing in the flash. It was a male. Over the past five years, this jaguar had been seen north of the Mexico border dozens of times. And like most confirmed US jaguar sightings, the rare images of this elusive creature garnered local press coverage and social media buzz.

Roaming the borderlands, solitary jaguars have become celebrities with names like El Jefe (The Boss) and, in this case, Sombra (Shadow). The felines are memorialized in murals and at school parties. For all we know, these are the only wild jaguars currently living in the US. They are as intriguing for the general public as for the researchers and big cat advocates who controversially want to make this a way less rare event — by restoring the jaguar to US soil, the very northern tip of its original range.

Though perhaps most associated with the jungles of Central and South America, jaguars are believed to have once ranged as far north as the Grand Canyon. But a US government-led hunting campaign in the 20th century, combined with widespread habitat loss, effectively eradicated North America’s largest wild cat from the US by the 1960s. The country’s resident jaguars wouldn’t be listed as endangered for another three decades. They remain federally protected today, in a portion of southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Yet some conservationists say that’s not enough, and that it’s time to bring Panthera onca back to what they consider to be the cats’ full historic range. A recent plan detailed in studies published in the journals Oryx and Conservation Science and Practice says as many as 150 jaguars could survive in a 20-million-acre swath dubbed the Central Arizona/New Mexico Recovery Area, or CANRA.

A male jaguar photographed by motion-detection cameras in the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona in 2017.
Courtesy of BLM

The proposal calls for transplanting jaguars from existing populations in northern Mexico or Argentina to land owned by Native American tribes and the US federal government. Proponents say restoring these apex predators to evergreen forests and scrubland where it’s thought they once thrived — and where they hold a singular place in the region’s natural heritage to this day — has an element of historical justice.

“You want to conserve species in their habitat,” Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and lead author of the CANRA studies, told Vox. The CANRA, he said, represents a habitat that’s completely different from the South American and Mexican jungles, making it “uniquely valuable” for jaguar restoration. “This species has been here for thousands of years, and the US government and US inhabitants basically drove it extinct,” Sanderson said. “The responsible thing would be to bring it back.”

But other experts say we should focus on fostering the existing jaguar population in northern Mexico in the hope that more of the cats might naturally migrate into the US, rather than launch a potentially costly and politically fraught reintroduction effort. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), for its part, already works with state governments in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Mexico and other Latin American countries, on jaguar research and habitat protection. Their efforts are focused on reducing the poaching of jaguars for their teeth and fur — the biggest threat facing the species — and helping ranchers see the animals not as threats, but as a living legacy that needs protecting.

The fate of jaguars in the borderlands, in other words, has as much to do with narrative as it does biology. As climate change and habitat loss imperil virtually all life on Earth, a critical piece of the jaguar’s story, then, hangs on whether it can be considered “American” or not — and if that makes the enigmatic species worth saving.

The rise and fall and rise of the jaguar

Jaguars prowled the southwest for millennia. They were depicted as a symbol of strength in Indigenous art long before the arrival of white European settlers, whose journals later chronicled possible jaguar sightings from present-day Louisiana to California. Thomas Jefferson even wrote of a “spotted cat” sighting in Virginia, though the credibility of that claim remains uncertain.

By the 20th century, however, the US government had become more set on eradicating predators like jaguars that were considered a threat to Western expansion and ranching. According to USFWS, in 1913 some states were offering jaguar bounties of up to $5 per animal ($138 in today’s dollars). The government-backed campaign to accommodate growing Sun Belt cities resulted in the 1964 killing of the last known male jaguar in the mountains around Tucson, a year after the country’s last known female jaguar was killed in Arizona.

A form of bureaucratic erasure followed that eradication, and Panthera onca has remained all but culled from the country ever since.

In a move the agency later called an “oversight,” the USFWS did not initially include resident jaguars under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, though it would list foreign jaguars — from Mexico and South America — as endangered under the ESA in 1975. (There is, in fact, just one species of jaguar.) In the eyes of the federal government, any sightings north of the border were considered proof of migration from Mexico, not an established native population.

Which explains why there was such a stir when an Arizona rancher named Warner Glenn snapped a picture of a jaguar on his property in 1996.

“I said out loud to myself, ‘God almighty! That’s a jaguar!’” Glenn later wrote in the introduction to his book Eyes of Fire. Like many Americans, Glenn had only ever encountered one jaguar — in a zoo. “I had been waiting 60 years to see this beautiful creature,” he wrote.

What Glenn had spotted was one of some 60 jaguars that have been documented in the US since 1900, a quarter of which lived in coniferous forests at around 9,000 feet of elevation — precisely the kind of habitat the CANRA would restore. Was his sighting, replete with photographic evidence, further proof that jaguars were actually returning home?

The government has since laid a modest path to recovery, although nothing close to what some conservationists want to see. A year after Glenn’s encounter, the USFWS reversed course and added domestic jaguars to the endangered species list, meaning the animals were extended federal protection within the US. In 2014, the agency designated more than 764,000 acres of New Mexico and southeastern Arizona — a portion of land below Interstate 10, the southernmost transcontinental highway in the US — as critical habitat for jaguar conservation, meaning it would be protected from potentially harmful development. And in 2019, the agency finalized a federal recovery plan to restore the species to a point where protection would no longer be necessary.

That plan keeps the northern boundary of the jaguar habitat at I-10, a move criticized by conservationists at the time. The program is not regulatory, but it lays out ambitions for protecting habitat, preventing jaguar poaching, and funding recovery actions on both sides of the border.

The federal jaguar habitat is strategically located adjacent to the northernmost breeding population of jaguars in the Americas, estimated at around 200 individuals, in a reserve in the Mexican state of Sonora. (The USFWS says it is working jointly with Mexico on other projects, including studying jaguars’ genetics, pinpointing potential sites for road crossings to reconnect habitat, and using a constellation of remote trail cameras to monitor wildlife in over a dozen mountain ranges in southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico.)

The proposed Central Arizona/New Mexico Recovery Area (above) and current USFWS jaguar habitat (below).
Courtesy of Sanderson et al. (2021) published in Conservation Science and Practice

Connectivity through its range is key to helping the species recover, so the idea is to link the two populations — the established one in Sonora, and what few individual cats are presumed to be living in America — as one larger habitat that spans both sides of the US-Mexico border. At the same time, USFWS acknowledges that “it is unlikely that jaguars will be fully self-sustaining throughout their entire historical range.” (Roughly 99 percent of all presently known jaguar habitat is in Central and South America.)

Government models show that the federally designated habitat is likely to support a half-dozen cats. Male jaguars roam widely — their home ranges can span over 50 square miles — but females tend to stay closer to their birth areas, which is why some say it’s unlikely a breeding pair would enter the US anytime soon, let alone cross a major highway. According to the USFWS, all seven of the male jaguars spotted in the US since 1996 came from south of the border, and there are currently no known breeding pairs in the country.

That’s why conservationists like Sanderson want the federal recovery plan reopened based on what they say is new evidence of jaguar viability in the CANRA, with the aim of expanding the habitat and spurring a wider reintroduction. Under contract with USFWS, researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society spent the last decade compiling 350-plus recorded jaguar sightings in North America stretching back nearly two centuries. The observation log, they say, builds the case that the species could live beyond the jungle, preying on deer and small predators while roaming the high forests of a rugged borderland region that harbors an underappreciated amount of biodiversity.

“This is historic habitat, and a large predator has enormous benefits to an ecosystem,” said Sharon Wilcox, a field conservationist with Defenders of Wildlife and a co-author of the CANRA reports. Jaguars could help keep abundant grazing populations of white-tailed and mule deer in check, for example. What’s more, Wilcox said, they present new opportunities for ecotourism and hunting, by forcing prey into the open.

Here is a unique opportunity, she says, to unite a range of stakeholders and bring renewed focus to a keystone species in an ecologically rich landscape. “Jaguars have a real charisma,” she said. “They capture something in the public imagination.”

Disputes over jaguar history show the complexities of conservation

Not everyone is convinced that efforts to bring jaguars back to the US make sense, politically or scientifically.

In 2012, when the federal plan for critical habitat was up for public comment, the late Alan Rabinowitz, who founded the global big cat conservation group Panthera, wrote that there was a “paucity of data and information” supporting a larger jaguar range. Rabinowitz continued in all caps:

DESIGNATING CRITICAL HABITAT FOR THE JAGUAR IN THE UNITED STATES IS AN ABUSE OF THE TRUE INTENT OF THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT AND A WASTE OF U.S. TAXPAYER FUNDS.

Panthera has since softened its stance, according to the group’s program director, Howard Quigley. He considers the CANRA proposal “beautiful” and worthy of further discussion, but said that Panthera remains focused on jaguars south of the border.

Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, told Vox that “we’re at the extreme northern periphery of the habitat for what’s really a jungle animal.” Anything more than that, he said, “is really not suitable for the species.”

Heffelfinger is no stranger to the drama over jaguars in Arizona. His department fields plenty of calls about alleged sightings, which he says almost always turn out to be bobcats or mountain lions. He questions whether jaguars were ever native to the state; even ones killed here, he says, could have been smuggled in from South America by hunting guides. (A 1974 Sports Illustrated story described one such scheme, and exotic game imports still occur today.)

What makes rewilding jaguars in the US particularly complex is that both sides of the debate are largely working with the same somewhat spotty sources of information: historical sightings.

Wildlife sightings in the US are assigned to one of three “classes.” Class I events — which officials consider credible — have physical evidence or a photograph (like Sombra earlier this year, or Warner Glenn’s sighting in the ’90s). Class II events are observations from reliable or expert witnesses, with details like a precise physical description. Class III are dubious eyewitness accounts.

For its 2019 jaguar habitat decision, the US government weighed a mix of all three classes. In a statement to Vox, the USFWS said it used “undisputed jaguar records” from 1972 onward. There were only so many sightings to go on, the agency said, because jaguars by nature are “cryptic and difficult to detect, and there weren’t many on the landscape at that time.” The high bar for a critical habitat under the ESA added to what the agency called “a complicated situation that required us to look back through time.”

Despite the historical record, further rewilding may just not be worth the time and resources, Heffelfinger said. “We don’t need this kind of negative uproar about wildlife when we could focus our conservation efforts on where jaguars want to live,” he said.

If jaguars indeed once roamed parts of present-day America, the landscape then looked very different from today’s, with no suburban sprawl, no stretches of border wall (which cut off critical wildlife corridors), and fewer vehicles whizzing along highways. Emily Burns, program director for the Arizona-based conservation group Sky Island Alliance, said if a jaguar did wander farther north it would be entering a potentially inhospitable landscape. That would make her “extremely excited and equally worried” because of the unfamiliar conditions — more frequent encounters with humans, for example — that the animal might meet.

Indigenous scientists can play a role in restoring jaguars

Pueblo religion talks of a rohona, a mythical “big cat with spots” that scholars now believe could have been a jaguar. A wall painting attributed to the Anasazi at the site of Pottery Mound — an adobe village in present-day New Mexico dating to the late 14th century — depicts a large jaguar. It’s this cultural significance to Mexican and Central American Indigenous people, who traditionally associated the cats with war and power, that many conservationists invoke as yet another reason why it’s worth restoring jaguars in the present-day US.

Under the proposed CANRA plan, Indigenous peoples — mostly the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache — would manage 10,261 acres, or 13 percent, of the habitat. Tribal scientists were involved in early discussions that ultimately led to the restoration proposal. (The Tohono O’odham Nation participated in the 2019 federal jaguar habitat designation but does not manage any of that land.) While there is no set timeline on the CANRA campaign, advocates say it is essential that Indigenous governments and experts be able to continue weighing in at every stage.

The shadow of a helicopter on the Sonoran Desert with mesas in the distance.
The Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona spans 2.8 million acres.
John Moore/Getty Images

Conservationists can look to the bison’s restoration in the Great Plains, decades after white settlers nearly drove them extinct, as a potential model for jaguar rewilding. Today, 60-plus tribes are part of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, collectively managing what’s now a herd of 20,000 bison. Roger Fragua, executive director of the Flower Hill Institute, an environmental group working with tribes, said the idea is to “adopt the bison as a national animal” by helping pull them back from the brink.

Similarly, tribal input can inform our understanding of how jaguars could live in the US, even alongside people. That’s in large part because Indigenous perspectives focus on a holistic, ecosystem-wide approach that situates humans within nature.

Both tribes declined to comment on the jaguar reintroduction, as their councils had not yet debated the matter. Fragua, a former administrator for the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, said the Indigenous lens should be applied to any future conservation campaigns, including jaguars. “We tend to think of landscapes instead of states and counties,” Fragua said. “We think of the whole ecosystem instead of jurisdictions.”

Why narrative is so important to jaguar conservation

So what makes a species “American” anyway? If it can be said the jaguar has a national identity, does that make the case for bringing it back?

These are questions the US has been grappling with for over a century. The first issue of the Journal of Mammalogy, published in 1919, asked whether the jaguar is “entitled to a place in the California fauna” or not. (Its answer: Yes.) Dozens of studies over the years have weighed the veracity of cat sightings and habitat history in the US. That could explain why you don’t often see the jaguar up there as an iconic symbol of America’s natural heritage like the bison, the grizzly bear, or the bald eagle.

“But they are American,” Sanderson said. “Travel back to 1912 and ask ranchers, and they would of course say, ‘There are jaguars here.’”

The WCS compilation of hundreds of sightings from the past 200 years chronicles what Sanderson and other wildlife experts hope can “change our perception” of the jaguar’s place in the narrative of American history. With limited resources for conservation and an ever-growing list of at-risk species, a species’ cultural role can help strengthen the case for protecting it.

Scientists at Zoo Miami, for example, spent years studying accounts of flamingo sightings in Florida as part of a campaign to declare the birds native and worthy of reintroduction. (Despite the efforts, in May the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted not to grant the birds extra protection.) Meanwhile, groundbreaking genetic research persuaded officials that the Mexican gray wolf is a certifiably distinct species native to the West and thus worthy of protection.

Public approval is also crucial to any restoration effort, especially when the species in question could threaten livestock. (Take the controversial reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, which was fiercely opposed by ranchers and hunters.)

This is already playing out in the jaguar reintroduction. In 2009, a joint Arizona-New Mexico big cat conservation team stalled amid concerns from ranchers, who largely view the predators as pests that prey on cattle. This summer, a successful lawsuit from livestock groups in New Mexico prompted the removal of all of the proposed acreage in that state — nearly 60,000 acres — from the federal government’s critical habitat designation.

“To think of a jaguar and its opportunity to thrive in the arid southwest is absurd,” Chad Smith, CEO of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, told the Carlsbad Current-Argus in July. He called the decision a “victory” for private landowners.

The tension around jaguars feeds into a broader urban-rural divide over managing big predator species that is supercharged in the current political moment.

A June study from the Colorado State University Human Dimensions of Natural Resources department that classified Americans on a “sociocultural index” illustrates this clash vividly. On one end of the spectrum is “domination,” whose followers believe that nature exists for human use, and on the other is “mutualism,” which considers wildlife as companions that should be protected. Extrapolating from surveys of values related to nature and society, the study found domination prevalent across the rural US, whereas mutualism was concentrated in cities. A county-level map (seen below) showing domination (in red) and mutualism (in blue) could easily be mistaken for the 2020 US presidential results. And the study authors warn the divide is just as bitter.

The CSU wildlife values map.
Courtesy of Manfredo, Berl, Teel, and Bruskotter, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

In the lead-up to last year’s vote in Colorado to restore gray wolves to that state, for example, a pre-election survey predicted an easy victory for wolves. But the final vote was a narrow 51-49 win, with support concentrated in the urban Front Range corridor. Rural residents had turned against the measure over the perceived threat wolves could pose to homes and ranching.

When mutualistic voters exercise political power, a “backlash” can ensue, according to Rebecca Niemiec, an assistant professor at CSU who studied the wolf reintroduction vote. “That can mean anything from minor disagreements to major, intractable conflicts or hatred and negative assumptions among the stakeholder groups,” she said. Indeed, wolves continue to be a political touchpoint across the West.

That’s why Quigley, of Panthera, said that an expanded jaguar campaign will require a strong dose of social science and storytelling in order to gain a foothold. In his own work in Mexico and South America, for example, Quigley meets one-on-one with any ranchers who might be affected by jaguars to get buy-in from within the community.

“This is a mythical, mystical, historic beast,” said Quigley. “But as soon as someone starts losing sheep or cattle, it’s a different situation.” Building up stakeholders on the ground, he said, is a long-term commitment.

Many residents in the US and Mexico “take pride in this piece of their natural heritage,” the USFWS has previously noted, and tracking public sentiment toward jaguars is an ongoing effort. Perhaps notably, the agency adds, “there has been ample interest in a citizen science program where private citizens are trained to help monitor trail cameras and document the presence of the species.” As a further incentive for ranchers who might be wary of the cats’ presence, US officials could take a cue from the system in place near the Sonoran jaguar reserve, where ranchers are compensated when they snap a photo of a jaguar on a trail cam, instead of killing it.

In the meantime, the groups behind the CANRA proposal are focused on establishing the habitat, above all, and working with local tribes, state governments, and landowner groups to build the case for reintroduction. It’s not yet clear where exactly the animals would come from, let alone how much money it would cost to pull off — or who would put up those funds. (Based on other reintroduction efforts, it would likely be a mix of federal, state, and private funding.) Two forthcoming studies — one on climate change and the other a population viability study — will help supplement the scientific record as the cultural work continues, according to Sanderson.

“Do we want to live in a society that causes species to go extinct?” he asked. “Or do we want to be a society that takes even the smallest efforts to save them?”

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