Rare ‘El Jefe’ Jaguar That Roamed Arizona Was Spotted Across the Border

A notorious jaguar that roamed the mountains of southern Arizona for several years before disappearing in 2015 turned up more than 100 miles south of Mexico, conservation biologists say.

The Mexican non-profit group Profauna said this week that the big cat known as El Jefe had been photographed in an undisclosed mountainous location in central Sonora as part of the Border Links Initiative. That program, which involves various groups on both sides of the border and run by the Wildlands Network, monitors more than 150 motion-sensing wildlife cameras in the region.

El Jefe, or “The Boss,” named for Tucson high school students, was photographed numerous times in the mountains south of Tucson at a time when it was the only confirmed jaguar to roam wild in the United States. Two other males have since been photographed in Arizona, though both later disappeared, and one turned up poached in Mexico.

El Jefe’s long journey north of the border made him a star among those who longed for the species’ return to its historic northernmost range, and his apparent good health in Sonora emboldened big cat conservationists.

“He’s like an old friend you haven’t heard from in a long time,” said Aletris Neils, who runs Conservation CATalyst, a Tucson-based group dedicated to saving the world’s 38 wild cat species. “Just knowing they’re okay warms your heart.”

In early 2016, Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity published video of the last known sighting of El Jefe, of the previous fall in the Santa Rita mountains.

The images captured in Sonora were the first confirmed sightings since then. A Northern Jaguar Project researcher, Carmina Gutiérrez-González, confirmed the cat’s identity from its spotted pattern after software first identified a match.

“There is no question that this is the same animal photographed in Arizona that many feared may have died when it stopped showing up on trail cameras nearly seven years ago,” Gutierrez-González said in a Wildlands Network news release.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed that department biologists had reviewed the photos and agreed they are the same as the jaguar repeatedly documented in the Santa Rita and Whetstone ranges between 2011 and 2015.

Parts of Arizona, including the Sky Island forests, comprise the northernmost historical habitat for jaguars, which range south through the Americas. The only jaguars known to have roamed the state in this century have been males and it is believed that they were looking for their own territories. Finally, they could not find a mate.

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The Northern Jaguar Project maintains a reserve in the Sierra Madre Occidental, a mountainous landscape relatively wetter than that of Arizona, about 120 miles south of the border, where a breeding population thrives. There, conservationists partner with ranchers in an effort to maintain a core population that can repopulate areas where predators have been extirpated.

The species’ full-time return to Arizona faces a number of obstacles, including a border wall that has left only a few roads, such as the mountains of Patagonia and the San Rafael Valley. Conservationists also fear a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita mountains, the former territory of El Jefe, could prevent colonization.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service initially determined that Hudbay’s Rosemont Mine would not destroy critical habitat for the endangered jaguar, but a federal judge overturned that decision and ordered a new review. The company has appealed the ruling.

“I am delighted to know that a huge, beautiful cat like El Jefe has traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the border at least twice, and gone virtually unnoticed for the last seven years,” said Russ McSpadden, a conservation advocate at the Center for Diversity. Biological. in a written statement.

The fact that it apparently did so without previously triggering a camera in the region’s substantial network shows how difficult tracking these creatures can be, Neils said. Her physical condition at age 12 suggests that she has remained healthy, which she interprets as a sign that the habitat she has traversed, including in Arizona, supported her well.

American conservationists collected DNA from El Jefe’s droppings as he roamed Arizona. One day, Neils said, he hopes biologists will match the genes in a younger jaguar, confirming that El Jefe’s admixture with the core population has led to successful breeding.

Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. get to him in brandon.loomis@arizonarepublic.com or follow us on Twitter @brandonloomis.

Environmental coverage at azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic’s environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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