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Cats on the Loose 

Public help is sought in the endangered jaguar search.

If you've seen a jaguar, the state of Arizona wants to hear from you.

Bill Van Pelt, of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, says every purported sighting of the scarce cat is being investigated. Between July and December 2003, nine reports of jaguars were checked out, including several in mountain ranges near Tucson. During the same time period, New Mexico's game officials looked into two alleged sightings in that state.

There has been no documented appearance of a wild jaguar in the United States since last August, when a surveillance camera south of Tucson near the Mexico border caught a male jaguar on film as the animal tripped a sensor. The same cat was photographed in December 2001, although it's not thought to be a resident.

"At this point," says Van Pelt, "we believe that jaguars seen in Arizona are probably transients coming up from home ranges in Sonora."

The elusive felines are hard to study, but some experts believe they may roam as widely as mountain lions, which can travel hundreds of miles in the course of a few weeks.

Interviewed last month in Douglas at a biannual meeting of the Jaguar Conservation Team and Work Group, Van Pelt disclosed that his office is helping Mexican wildlife authorities in their bid to capture, collar and track jaguars in Sonora's rugged interior. Satellite-linked collars prepared by Game & Fish should be delivered to Mexico this month. It's part of a larger campaign by environmentalists and others to establish Sonoran preserves that would protect the breeding population, located about 135 miles south of the border, that is presumably the source of Arizona's jaguars.

Jack Childs, a Tucson-based tracker who in 1996 videotaped a jaguar his dogs had treed in the Baboquivari Mountains, says that four wildlife surveillance cameras are being added on the U.S. side of the border, bring the number of cameras in the field up to 17. Childs maintains many of the cameras, which are checked about every six weeks. He also set up hair snares and transects for track interception.

Four cameras are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service; the other 13 are looked after by Arizona Game & Fish. Funds for more cameras are being sought.

Childs and Van Pelt will not reveal the location of the cameras or the most recent jaguar sightings, for fear that individuals may try to hunt the animals or destroy monitoring equipment. An endangered species, the cat is fully protected by federal law, and anyone intentionally killing a jaguar in Arizona faces stiff fines and a possible time behind bars if convicted.

Some conservationists working with the Jaguar Conservation Team worry that security measures implemented along the border, including tall fences, bright lights and frequent patrols, may interfere with the natural migration of jaguars and other large animals. Kim Vacariu, southwest representative of The Wildlands Project, fears that "blocked access" may impair movement into Arizona mountains that jaguars need in order to remain viable. Given the significant number of mammals of several species photographed by border-area surveillance cameras, Vacariu says, "our concerns seem to be valid." His group is working with government agencies and the public in trying to protect known wildlife travel corridors between Arizona's "sky islands" (isolated mountain chains) and adjacent ecosystems in Sonora and New Mexico.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife is still pending, though reportedly close to settlement. The federal agency is charged with not establishing critical habitat protection or a recovery plan for the jaguar.

Once found as far north as Prescott and the Grand Canyon, as well as in Texas and California, the hemisphere's largest feline is now considered "extremely rare" north of the border. Arizona jaguars were hunted indiscriminately as recently as 1986, when a poacher shot one in the Dos Cabezas Mountains east of Tucson.

"Jaguars are still killed without much fear of government reprisal in Mexico," says Merle Edsall, a rancher in Cananea, Sonora. "They are considered varmints by many cowboys, who see them as a threat to their livestock." Acknowledging that jaguars may occasionally feed on cattle, Edsall blamed what he considers an ill-advised regional practice of allowing livestock to give birth and raise their young in Sonora's rugged backcountry, where calves are easy targets for all large predators.

It's a way of ranching that's been going on for hundreds of years," says Edsall, "so it won't be easy to change." Until it does, jaguars are at risk.

From 1999 through 2003, as many as 14 jaguars were killed in Sonora. Between 70 and 100 are estimated to remain.

On this side of the border, tracker Jack Childs is concerned about other possible adverse reactions. "It may be that some ranchers are seeing jaguars and not reporting them," he points out. "Because of the cat's endangered status, a rancher may be afraid that if a jaguar is found on his grazing allotment, his cattle may lose access to that land."

Steve Pavlik, a Tucson ethnozoologist who tracks and researches wild mammals in Southern Arizona, believes most area ranchers and hunters "are very responsible. But there may be a few who are willing to shoot a jaguar if they think they can get away with it."

Such fears are not addressed directly in the new 17-page draft report on the Jaguar Conservation Team's first six years, prepared by Van Pelt and Deborah O'Neill of Arizona Game & Fish and posted on the department's Web site. The report reiterates that it is illegal to kill a jaguar in the United States, even if the animal takes livestock. Besides state and federal penalties, one private group has established a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone accused of killing a jaguar intentionally. There have been no such reports in 20 years.

The Jaguar Conservation Team has its next meeting scheduled this summer in Animas, N.M. In the meantime, the public is invited to report any possible sightings of an Arizona jaguar to state wildlife officials at (602) 789-3573. Mature jaguars are larger than mountain lions and distinguished by spotted patterns on their golden coats. Detailed information about the cats and a sighting brochure are posted at www.azgfd.com under "jaguar management."

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