When a male jaguar was spotted in Arizona in 2011—and then photographed by trail cameras multiple times over the next four years—the occurrence was so rare that it inspired a mural in Tucson and a craft beer named after the cat, who was thought to have crossed the border from Mexico. But jaguars once lived throughout the state and in other parts of the U.S. And some scientists now argue that they should be brought back to a two-million-acre swath of Arizona and New Mexico.
“The historical record supports that there were jaguars through most of Arizona and New Mexico, up to the Grand Canyon,” says Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation scientist at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society and the lead author of a new paper that makes the case for reintroduction. There were historical reports of the animals in California as far north as the Bay Area and in southern states such as Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson talked about a spotted cat in his notes on the natural history of Virginia. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, there were occasional sightings in the Southwest. But hunting and habitat loss wiped the population out, and a government hunter killed the last female jaguar in 1964.
The animal is considered endangered in the U.S., so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a “recovery plan” in 2019 that covered a small part of Arizona south of Interstate 10. But the agency didn’t suggest that many animals could live in the area. “Their models have a carrying capacity of maybe six adult jaguars,” Sanderson says. “And six isn’t a viable population of really anything.”
In Mexico, a threatened but established population of jaguars lives in Sonora—some close enough to the border that male cats have wandered into Arizona. (Female jaguars tend to spend their lives fairly close to where they were born and don’t travel as far.) In Arizona, the interstate highways and other development make it unlikely that the animals could spread farther north. The 30-foot-high chunks of the border wall that the Trump administration built in the area also make it harder for wildlife to make it from Mexico to the U.S.
But a huge area farther north in Arizona and New Mexico, covering land roughly the size of South Carolina, could provide habitat for around 90 to 150 jaguars, the scientists say. Since the cats can’t get there on their own, they would have to be reintroduced to the area.
Of course, convincing the people who live there to accept the idea would probably be a challenge. Much of the area is wilderness, but it also includes Native American reservations, the city of Flagstaff, and ranches with livestock that might occasionally be killed by jaguars. (The animals are not known to be a threat to humans, despite the fact that they can weigh up to 250 pounds; they’re solitary and prefer to stay away from people.) But Mexican wolves were reintroduced in the same area in 1998 despite resistance and have grown from a population of 11 to 163. Government programs could compensate ranchers when there’s evidence of jaguars on their property, Sanderson says, or potentially pay if livestock are killed. Jaguars prefer to eat deer, and the scientists found that there is ample prey in the area.
“We wouldn’t want to do it unless a lot of people want it to happen, and there’s support on the ground,” says Sanderson. The Fish and Wildlife Service would have to revise its recovery plan. Then the government would have to find jaguars to bring back. They might follow the example of a program in Argentina that trains cubs born in captivity to reenter the wilderness, teaching the animals to hunt without any human contact.
It could restore the local ecosystem, where mountain lions and wolves are now the main predators. “When we try and conserve a species, we’re not just trying to conserve one population or a few populations,” he says. “We’re trying to conserve the ecological interactions of that species with other things in the environment.”