Scientists Want to Bring Jaguars Back to America's Mountains

Two jaguar cubs (Panthera onca) are pictured at the “Reino Animal” zoo in Teotihuacan, Mexico, on April 27, 2018.
Two jaguar cubs (Panthera onca) are pictured at the “Reino Animal” zoo in Teotihuacan, Mexico, on April 27, 2018.
Photo: PEDRO PARDO/AFP (Getty Images)

A group of conservation scientists say it’s time for the return of an American classic: the jaguar. They argue that jaguars can and should be safely reintroduced to the U.S., not only to help ensure their continued survival but also to address the injustice that led to their local demise more than 50 years ago.

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Jaguars, or Panthera onca, are only the living big cats native to the Americas (cougars, another native wild cat, are actually more closely related to domestic cats than tigers and other big cats). Once, the jaguar’s domain reached far across South and Central America and extended up to the mountainous forests of modern-day central Arizona and New Mexico. But human hunting, some of which was sanctioned by the U.S. government, obliterated the U.S. population by the mid-20th century. Nowadays, the lone jaguar or two might end up in the U.S. after traveling from Mexico, but that’s not often.

In a new paper published this month in Conservation Science and Practice, wildlife researchers from several institutions and conservation organizations are making the case for jaguar reintroduction to their native habitats in the Southwestern U.S.

“The jaguar lived in these mountains long before Americans did,” said lead author Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, in a statement released by the group. “If done collaboratively, reintroduction could enhance the economy of this region and the ecology of this incredible part of the jaguar range.”

Their basic argument is that bringing back jaguars would meet all the essential criteria for reintroduction. Jaguars remain an endangered species, and reintroduction would likely increase their chances of long-term survival, partly because their native habitat in the U.S. is uniquely diverse compared to the regions where they live now. It would be safe for both the cats and people, since the scientists are proposing they be reintroduced to areas that are largely owned publicly or by indigenous tribes and are sparsely populated by humans. And it would simply restore a crucial part of the local ecosystem.

“The Southwest’s native wildlife evolved with jaguars,” said study author Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They have a storied and vital place in our canyons and forests, so we should plan an intelligent and humane reintroduction program.”

There have been past proposals for jaguar reintroduction in the U.S., but the current recovery plan for these cats drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018 is far too unambitious, the group argues. For one, the estimated habitat would likely only be suitable for a handful of jaguars to populate. Instead, their proposal, supported by a recent study of theirs published this March, calls for enough land to accommodate as many as 150 jaguars—all land that historic populations lived on.

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No one’s expecting these big cats to return tomorrow, but by making their case now, the authors hope to get the ball rolling.

“This represents a turning point for this iconic wild cat, identifying a path forward for restoration of the jaguar to its historic range in the United States,” said study author Sharon Wilcox, the Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “It should serve as the starting point for a renewed conversation among stakeholders.”

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Born and raised in NYC, Ed covers public health, disease, and weird animal science for Gizmodo. He has previously reported for the Atlantic, Vice, Pacific Standard, and Undark Magazine.

DISCUSSION

dixie-flatline
Dixie-Flatline

I’ll leave it to the experts, but I do wonder what happens when you re-introduce a evolutionary-refined apex predator into the wild after a 50+ year absence, during which time the local game wildlife has devolved this particular set of prey instincts. I’m sure they ran simulations, but nature is weird when it comes to man’s meddling, and I can’t help feel that this move would alter the equilibrium that took 50+ years to self-right after the last jaguar was spotted.