Jaguars can return to the US Southwest, if they have trails to m

Jaguars are the only species of big cats found in America. They stretch as far south as Argentina, and once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon in the US. Today, the northernmost breeding population is in northwestern Mexico, in the state of Sonora, just south of the Arizona border.

We study biodiversity and conservation in the US-Mexico border region and have documented jaguar movements close to the border. From our research, we know that there are only two main corridors in the western borderlands that jaguars can use to enter the US

We believe the maintenance of these corridors is crucial to connecting fragmented habitats of jaguars and other mammals, such as black bears, pumas, ocelots and Mexican wolves. Increasing connectivity – linking small patches of habitat to larger networks – is an important strategy for preserving large animals that disperse over large areas and for maintaining functional ecological communities.

The Northern Jaguars

The arid environment of the American Southwest naturally has a limited distribution of jaguars in North America. These cats were once apex predators in the forested ecosystems of the US Southwest, but predator control and hunting programs decimated their populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The last female jaguar in the US was killed in Arizona in 1949.

In 1996, an outdoor guide and a hunter photographed a male jaguar in the Peloncillo Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Other jaguars have since been identified, but no females or cubs have been reported.

In contrast, jaguars are known to be present in the northeast corner of the state of Sonora in Mexico. Here, the Cajon Bonito Stream, which flows intermittently from the western slope of the San Luis Mountains into the Continental Divide, supports jaguars and other large animals, including black bears, American beavers, and ocelots.

For two decades, the land around the stream has been rehabilitated by Cuenca Los Ojos, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring land on both sides of the border. They are now part of a voluntary protected area program under Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas system.

To the east, the Janos Biosphere Reserve includes a habitat for jaguars. North and South, a combination of ranches dedicated to conservation, and natural protected areas provides the habitat connectivity needed for jaguars to move between Mexico and the US

Varying in the border area

In 2021, we filmed a young jaguar we named El Bonito as he roamed the US-Mexico border. Each individual jaguar has a unique pattern of spots on its skin; when we obtained videos of both the cat’s flanks, we realized that we were actually seeing two jaguars in our study area.

We named the second jaguar Valerio. Lately, it has been spotted more often than El Bonito in the Cajon Bonito River basin.

As male jaguars mature, they must disperse to find available territories and potential mates. Females tend to occupy areas close to where they were born, a pattern common in mammals. The size of a female jaguar’s territory depends on the abundance of prey and the availability of shelter. Male jaguars will travel across different habitats of females to increase their mating chances, so the males’ habitats can measure from about 15 square miles to 400 square miles (35 to 1,000 square kilometers).

El Bonito and Valerio were juveniles when we first shot them. We first filmed Valerio at our research location in January 2021. Since then, both cats have been using the power as a hallway. Recent videos show Valerio rubbing a fallen tree, suggesting he is establishing territory in this border area.

At our research site, we recorded both jaguars just 2 miles south of the US-Mexico border. North of this site is Guadalupe Canyon, a natural corridor in the Peloncillo Mountains that enters the US at the Mexican border between Arizona and New Mexico.

In 2021, the boundary wall was built over the Guadalupe Canyon, stopping at the Arizona-New Mexico line. The New Mexico portion of the Peloncillo and San Luis mountain ranges will remain open.

Keep corridors open

US and Mexican government agencies and conservation organizations are working together to restore western species that are on the brink of extinction. Growing populations of Mexican wolves, black-footed ferrets, California condors and bison offer hope that recovery is possible for jaguars too.

According to a 2021 study, the population of jaguars in Mexico has increased over the past decade and is now estimated to be 4,800. As the number of jaguars in Sonora increases, so do the chances of females reaching the border and possibly mating with the male jaguars we documented there.

Habitat loss and illegal killing are still the main threats to jaguars in northern Mexico. Creating natural protected areas that could support breeding populations and provide routes for northward expansion would help accelerate the natural recolonization of jaguars in the US. Multiple institutions and scientific research projects have emphasized the need to keep natural corridors open to preserve habitats for diverse communities of plants and animals.

In addition to jaguars, our camera traps have identified 28 other mammal species, including ocelots, pumas and black bears. All of these animals have at least some need for connected landscapes if they are to survive in the long run.

In our view, making it possible for jaguars to naturally recolonize a suitable habitat in the US is a unique opportunity to promote the movement of animals in the border region. Keeping these landscapes connected will benefit all species in this ecologically unique region that serves as a resource and pathway for wildlife.

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