Collaring refocuses attention on border fence, habitat issues
By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.21.2009
The capture and collaring of a jaguar for satellite tracking will give authorities the best information they've ever had on how the rare cat behaves in this country, a state official said Friday.
Two days after the first capture of a jaguar in the United States, Arizona Game and Fish officials said the animal had traveled three or four miles in the first three hours after its release from a snare trap that day.
On Friday afternoon, data from the collar showed the cat was still roughly in the same area, after probably spending most of the day under an overhang of a rocky slope, said Terry Johnson, endangered-species coordinator for the state Game and Fish Department.
The jaguar, age 15 to 16, has been dubbed "Macho B" by scientists for some time. It appears to be the oldest known jaguar documented in the United States, Johnson said. It was first photographed in Arizona in 1996 by Jack L. Childs, now project coordinator of the non-profit Jaguar Border Detection Project, based in Amado. It has been photographed repeatedly since then. Data from the tracking collar will provide specifics about where the jaguar goes, rests and forages, including any crossings of the Mexican border, Johnson said.
A benefit from the collar will be to learn how a planned border fence would affect the jaguar, authorities said. Data also will help authorities decide how to manage jaguar populations and handle land-management plans for federal agencies, Johnson said. It will help the federal government review new projects' effects on endangered species.
But an environmentalist on Friday sharply criticized the jaguar capture on the grounds that it could have risked the safety of one of only four jaguars confirmed to be living in the Southwest — and in the entire country — since 1996.
Matt Skroch, former director of the Sky Island Alliance, questioned the sincerity of Game and Fish's statement that the jaguar was captured accidentally during a broader study of black bears and mountain lions.
"I'm pretty perturbed this has occurred, and surprised," Skroch said.
Whether to capture a jaguar has been hotly debated by scientists and activists for some time. But Johnson said this capture was clearly accidental and that the researchers also have trapped eight black bears and three mountain lions in the area since last May. The lion-bear project is a long-planned research effort, aimed at gaining information about bear populations, the border fence's effects and wildlife corridors, he said.
"The jaguar is a species we hoped to learn about by inference," Johnson said. "We were trapping lions and bears, and we prepared for the possibility of capturing a jaguar."
Environmentalists from the Center for Biological Diversity said Friday that they're not upset at the capture, but they said it will do little good if the federal government doesn't reverse course and agree to do a recovery plan and designate critical habitat for the jaguar, which is listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's refusal to do either has prompted a center lawsuit that has a U.S. District Court hearing in Tucson scheduled for March 23.
"It is ironic that these agencies are refusing to conserve jaguars but yet are investing time and money in radio-tracking projects," said Kieran Suckling, the center's director. "It's a bit cynical to spend time on a project like this if you don't have political willpower to build a jaguar population in the U.S."
The animal was discovered by researchers at about 9 a.m. Wednesday inside a snare trap in oak woodland and desert grassland at about 4,000 feet elevation in an area southwest of Tucson, Johnson said. The department has refused to give more specific information about the location, except that it is within a day or two's trek for the animal from the Mexican border.
"We don't want to attract a lot of people to come down and photograph it," Johnson said. "There's worldwide interest in this thing. This animal is sitting right on top of the border-wall issue — that's huge enough to swallow a whale. Loving it to death is entirely possible."
The animal was given an anesthetic so researchers could approach it and put the radio collar on it. The animal was kept in captivity for six hours — the time for the anesthetic to wear off — before its release.
The collar is programmed to transmit information about the animal's whereabouts every three hours. The collar is programmed to give off a signal if the cat crosses the Mexican border. Although Macho B has been tracked crossing the border by dogs, these data will give researchers far better information on its border crossings, Johnson said. The collar's battery is expected to last up to two years.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials would not comment on the recovery-plan issue Friday due to the pending litigation.
Recovery plans are generally required for endangered species such as the jaguar, but the service has said in the past that the cat should be exempt from the requirement because this country contains a small fraction of the jaguar's population and habitat. The vast majority of the jaguar's range lies south of this country, the service has said.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org