Endangered species, and the wall that could silence them

Jaguars. They are scarce in the Southwest because the U.S. government once tried to exterminate them. Since then, people have tried to bring them back. Protect the apex species, and you protect the rest of the landscape.

ROARS AND SILENCE

 

(USA TODAY) - No one but the camera ever sees them.

They come at night, slinking across the border in camouflage. Then they vanish, retreating south into Mexico.

But occasionally the cameras catch them on U.S. soil, and a biologist later checks the shots and confirms their entry into the country.

Jaguars. They are scarce in the Southwest because the U.S. government once tried to exterminate them. Since then, people have tried to bring them back. Protect the apex species, and you protect the rest of the landscape.

The question is whether enough can cross, now or ever. Any wall that can block a migrant will also turn back a jaguar.

A wall would end this American original.

Endangered species, and the wall that could silence them

 


Passing through: Animals, as well as people, can easily cross Normandy-style barricades near Lochiel, Arizona. (Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Under the starry skies over the jagged Sierra Madre foothills, Randy Young listens. He slings his hammock between two mesquites, deep in the 55,000 acres he manages for the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project.

In the silence of nights like this, he has heard its staccato roars.

“That loud, low grumbly is a serious sound,” Young says.

In northern Sonora, jaguars are heard more often than seen, but there is no question this is big cat territory. Remote cameras document the jaguars' movements. Bones and carcasses betray its feeding habits.

Jaguars move under cover of vegetation, often following an oak-lined ridgetop or a shaded canyon. At the reserve Young manages, one particular dry wash deep in an orange canyon and shaded by palms and big mesquites has proven the most productive spot for trail cameras.

There, project staffers have opened the cameras to find video of a jaguar couple, sometimes strolling up the wash, sometimes mating. The vegetation is not so much thick as it is a continuous strand of limbs overhead, filtering dappled light that melds with a jaguar’s spots to conceal it.

It’s the same effect that oaks and piñons have farther north in the Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains, two Arizona ranges in which jaguars have wandered north from Mexico almost to Tucson, Arizona, in this decade.

So far the wanderers have all been males. Male jaguars disperse more widely in search of territory, but for the jaguar to re-establish even a small population in the U.S., females would have to make the same journey north. They can't do that unless Americans leave the trail open.


Raising awareness: An image of a jaguar is projected on the border fence in Douglas, Arizona, as part of eco-political artist Lauren Strohacker's "Un-Fragmenting/Des-Fragmentando" project. (Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Biologists say jaguars cannot survive in the U.S. without a connection to Mexico’s population. Building a wall on the border would sever that connection.

To Young and other jaguar backers, holding out hope for hearing a roar north of the border is a way of loving America. If the sound is forever silenced, he says, the “mystique of the West” will die with it.

North of the border, the cat  holds less sway.

There, ranchers say, they see frequent border crossers carrying packs of marijuana. They want a wall to block them and they’re not convinced it will matter to jaguars.

Dennis Parker, a southern Arizona attorney representing ranch and other interests in the region, wrote to federal officials in March demanding that they halt U.S. jaguar recovery planning, in part because President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall would eliminate any migration corridors that jaguars use to reach the U.S.

Such construction, he wrote, would eliminate “all of the open, unimpeded trans-border linkage corridors on which this draft recovery plan otherwise depends for its existence.”

The jaguar is an apex predator, the top of the food chain. Scientists call it an “umbrella species” and say its survival is critical to every other species. Save the neediest of animals and you’ve likely preserved a broad enough chunk of nature to shelter every ecological niche it touches.

Let the jaguar die, conservationists say, and you endanger the whole system.


Natural barriers: Manager Randy Young drives through the Northern Jaguar Reserve. He says the ruggedness of the land help keep people away from the animals' habitat. (Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK)

The Patagonia Mountains east of the Nogales border checkpoint are wild and woody. The U.S. federal forest lands are lined with heavy oak cover and crowned with pines. Tall grasses sweep across patchwork openings along stock ponds and streams with intermittent flows.

There, just north of a rugged border segment known to attract jaguars into the U.S., Sky Island Alliance conservation science director Scott Wilbor can imagine a big cat ambling past the white sycamores to a nearby berm to lap at the water impounded behind it.

“This is suitable habitat,” he says, similar as it is to the Sonoran hills near Sahuaripa. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees, having included the Patagonias in the critical jaguar habitat designation.

Wilbor's Tucson-based group is among the network of wildlife defenders and researchers watching dozens of trail cams for signs of new U.S. jaguar incursions.

“It would not be their prime habitat,” he allows, “but it’s suitable.”

There’s plenty for a cat to eat: javelinas and whitetails.

Whether these mountains ever see breeding jaguars should be up to the jaguars, Wilbor says.

“Right now (the border) is still open, but it sure is under threat in the last few months.”


On the prowl: Tutu'uli, a 6-month-old female jaguar at the Ecological Center of Sonora in Mexico. (Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK)

The big cat’s hunger was its downfall.

The spotted big cats are native to Arizona and New Mexico, and prowled the hills between the border and the Grand Canyon region when settlers arrived and started killing them.

Starting in 1915, the U.S. Biological Survey, a forerunner of today’s Fish and Wildlife Service, started helping ranchers and homesteaders protect their livestock from jaguars. The agency’s Predatory Animal and Rodent Control branch trapped and poisoned cats or paid bounties to hunters.

In 1963, a hunter in the Mogollon Rim northeast of Phoenix killed the last one that the U.S. would officially record for decades.

By the time Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, the last known American jaguars were gone.

A healthy population of the cats remained in the Sonoran hills a couple hours’ drive south of Douglas, Arizona, though, and in the 1990s some of those started appearing in the U.S. When automated trail cameras detected two new jaguars, in southern Arizona’s Huachuca and Dos Cabezas mountains in 2016, the total number detected north of the border since 1996 grew to seven.

The U.S. added jaguars to the list of animals it safeguards within its boundaries and the Fish and Wildlife Service began writing the species recovery plan that it is still not final.

Arizona is more of a fringe habitat for the species, according to biologists, though that doesn’t mean it can’t support them. Diana Hadley, the Northern Jaguar Project’s president, says there’s plenty to eat in the southern Arizona mountains.

“We’ve got a substantial prey base of javelinas and whitetail deer,” she says. 

A jaguar killed last century along the Santa Cruz River had a stomach full of frogs — evidence that the hunters are opportunistic and adaptable.

A wall is the only thing likely to block more jaguars from pressing north.

Even without a wall, the prospects for a U.S. jaguar recovery are debated and controversial.

Ranchers fear the federal regulations that could accompany the cats or any other federally endangered species, and some prioritize security — theirs and the nation’s — over biodiversity.

When two mountain lion hunters photographed separate jaguars in the Southwest during 1996, federal biologists realized they had overlooked protections for a species that could yet make a comeback. They moved to list jaguars as endangered.

Arizona has argued against designating so-called “critical habitat” for an animal that scarcely touches the state, but Fish and Wildlife did so after a federal judge ordered it. Now the agency is completing a recovery plan that some in southern Arizona denounce as illegal and pointless when most jaguar habitat is to the south.

Arizona law and the Arizona Game and Fish Department protect jaguars in the state, and officials say few conflicts arise when jaguars are present. A recent three-year residency by a male jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, for instance, yielded only a couple of sightings beyond the automated trail cam shots.

Still, Game and Fish argues against federal habitat protections in a state with little or no bearing on the species’ long-term survival globally.

Hunting groups also question whether jaguars belong north of the border, or whether they could establish a population if allowed.

“Random excursions by non-alpha males from Mexico is what happens,” Arizona Deer Association President John Koleszar says.

The jaguar is just one species that a wall would likely affect. Ocelots, their smaller, spotted cousins, also have made repeated and sustained crossings from Mexico into Arizona over the past two decades. In Texas, black bears from Mexico have recolonized the highlands of Big Bend National Park after a long absence and would face genetic isolation and local extinction if cut off. Desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn antelope, desert tortoises and a number of birds all could find themselves isolated from larger populations on one side of the border or another.

Near Sahuaripa, about 120 miles south of Douglas, the Northern Jaguar Project works to protect habitat for the jaguars that occasionally set out for America. The non-profit bought historic ranches in the mountains east of town and rehabbed vegetation while barring hunters from killing the cats’ prey.


Don't try this at home: Handler Shandira Astrid scratches Baawe, a year-old male jaguar, at the Ecological Center of Sonora, which gives people a chance to see the endangered cats up close. (Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Then managers started rewarding willing ranchers around the preserve for allowing jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions and big cats on their property. Owners accepting motion-detecting cameras on their land can get hundreds of dollars a month if multiple cats show up in the pictures. The ranchers agree to restrict hunting, and some say they’ve learned that protecting deer reduces conflicts because the jaguars are no longer hungry for their calves.

The land around Sahuaripa is slightly wetter than southern Arizona, with resulting thickets of brush, oak and organ pipe cactuses. There are more places for a jaguar to lurk in the shadows, invisible in its dappled coat.

As dusk nears on a warm May afternoon in Douglas, Lauren Strohacker points a slide projector at the slatted metal border fence. On the slides are a series of images: jaguars, pumas, ocelots and coatis, the native denizens of the borderlands.

The idea had come to the Scottsdale artist in a dream. Worried that her country would soon extend a wall along the Mexican border where these wild animals walk, she awoke with a vision.

Shining images of the creatures on and through the slats would leave half of their bodies invisible, missing through the gaps. It would symbolize the loss of habitat and potential local extinction of Arizona’s top predator.

Some conservationists believe jaguars never really left Arizona, and that the habitat is waiting for more.

“There’s prime habitat in Arizona,” says Aletris Neils, executive director of Tucson-based Conservation CATalyst. “Anyone who’s spent time in southern Arizona knows how wild and remote and lush these mountains are.”

Sightings seem to come in waves, as with the three jaguars detected in the past year, she says. But they likely always came and went at night, she believes, elusive as “a needle in a field of haystacks.”

Even though the Southwest is on the jaguar’s fringe, she says, the local cats’ adaptations to their harsh environment could be crucial as climate change and other disruptions sweep the species’ core range.

“It’s not just a few (American) cats,” Neils says. “This could be the key to saving the species.”

As the night darkens in Douglas, Strohacker’s art project flickers on the fence, with Americans watching images projected on one side and Mexicans watching the same show on the other. Through the slats a Mexican speaker tells the crowd that stretches of fence that already exist were built “by ignorance."

Strohacker stands with her back to the Douglas border fence and imagines a longer border wall blocking jaguars and other animals. She considers such a plan an affront to her right to live in an Arizona with its most inspiring creatures intact.

“Even if I never see one, I don’t want to live in a world where jaguars don’t exist,” she says, “or where we’re fighting to have five.”

This report is a portion of ongoing environmental coverage from The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

Other animals affected

In addition to the jaguar, there are several other species that could vanish from the United States if a border wall is built.

Black bears: They roam along the border, where genetic researchers say they are more closely related to bears in central Mexico than to those in the Rocky Mountains of the United States.

Border effect: Walling off the border could jeopardize populations in southern Arizona and New Mexico and likely eliminate a small population that has recolonized Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Sonoran pronghorns: There were only 21 left in the early 2000s, when Arizona's game managers set out to save them. Today there are about 1,500, with one-third in the U.S. and the rest in Mexico. They could be on their way to removal from the endangered species list.

Border effect: A continuous wall without animal crossings would likely prevent that delisting.

Ocelots: They disappeared from Arizona in the 20th century but have since started crossing back from Mexico.

Border effect: A few dozen ocelots still live in south Texas, where authorities hope to reconnect the animals' brushy habitat to the border and cats to the south. But experts say the ocelots are unlikely to cross a wall, even through an opening.

Bighorn sheep: Once on the brink of disappearing across the Southwest, these sheep have effectively been brought back through states' efforts. They now live in mountains where their only connection to other bighorns is across the Rio Grande.

Border effect: Continuing to transplant them is one option, though letting the sheep intermingle is a simpler plan for genetic diversity.

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