A mystery jaguar has been prowling in the mountains of Southern Arizona.

The exclusive photographs of a jaguar spotted earlier this year in the Huachuca Mountains southeast of Tucson were shared with Arizona Luminaria by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center obtained them from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department via a public records request. 

When the big cat was spotted in March and April of this year on CBP’s remote trail cameras in two separate sightings, the border agency made note of the jaguar on a public database dedicated to tracking jaguars.

These are the first sightings of a jaguar in the Huachuca range since 2017. 

The two dark, grainy photos show a jaguar on the move. CBP did not share the precise location of the cameras and the direction of travel is unknown. Nor do the photographs have enough resolution for scientists to conduct “spot analysis” and identify the jaguar by the markings on its coat.

“We have no idea who this jaguar is. It’s a mystery jaguar,” said Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. 

It was McSpadden who first noticed the new sighting on the database and then obtained the photographs. Arizona Luminaria has also sought the photographs via a public records request, which is pending.

“We’re always happy to see a jaguar who made it through the wall, or around it,” said Cholla Duir, assistant director of the Northern Jaguar Project. She added that they have their “top person working on the spot analysis.” 

It could be one of the known jaguars, either “El Jefe” or “Sombra,” two locally famous male jaguars who wandered into the Huachucas from a nearby mountain range, McSpadden said. It could also be a previously unidentified jaguar who has been living in Arizona for some time. Or it could be a new cat from Mexico who has wandered north.

“No matter where that jaguar came from, it’s a good sign of connectivity” — both between mountain ranges in the United States and between the U.S. and México, McSpadden said. “If it came from another range in the U.S., it shows tenacity on the part of the jaguar moving across the desert. If it’s a jaguar moving from México, it’s proof that there’s an increasingly healthy population in México.”

Threats from border wall construction cleaving habitats in two, major mining projects polluting and scaring off wildlife, as well as ongoing development and climate change all pose a major threat to the region’s top predator.

Healthy jaguar populations — something the United States hasn’t seen in more than a century — is a goal for conservationists and would signify a healthy ecosystem. Which is why conservationists and wildlife biologists are thrilled with every new sighting of a jaguar.

“The jaguar symbolizes wildness,” said Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator of the Wildlands Network. “It’s the last representative of free-ranging wildness we have in this part of the world. It’s nature at its apex.”

Melanie Culver, a geneticist at the University of Arizona who studies big cats, said the photographs were a good sign. “The fact that we do get jaguars here means that the habitats are somewhat complete.” The presence of a jaguar is “really important for the health of the community.”

This screenshot of the second photo of the jaguar in the Huachuca Mountains was shared with the Center for Biological Diversity by Arizona Game and Fish via an email. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not yet publicly released the full resolution photo.

History of big cats in Arizona

Jaguars first evolved in North America and only later migrated south into modern day México and Central and South America. They roamed the region’s sky islands for millennia. But by the early 20th century, as hunters saw the cats both as trophies and threats to cattle, the animals were effectively eradicated. 

Ironically, experts say it is the cattle who are the real threat to the environment. The last female jaguar seen in the wild in the United States was shot and killed in 1963. 

Despite being killed off in the United States, thousands of jaguars remained in México and further south. But now even that jaguar habitat is shrinking. 

From Brazil to México, people continue to hunt jaguars, as well as encroach on and damage their habitats. In México, according to a 2018 study, there were an estimated 4,300 jaguars. That same year, in the United States, there was an estimated one jaguar. 

The Arizona and Southwestern U.S. jaguar population is especially important, experts say, because jaguars in Sonora are increasingly under threat. Males in particular need the extra room to roam.

But protecting the apex predator hasn’t just meant facing off against ranchers and hunters. For much of the 20th century, the federal government was in the business of killing cats.

In the early 20th century, the Bureau of Biological Survey hunted jaguars on behalf of ranchers. In 1964, the Biological Survey’s successor agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, trapped and killed the last likely U.S.-born jaguar on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, according to experts at the Center for Biological Diversity. In an about-face, public pressure pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the jaguar on the list of endangered species in 1972.

Despite the designation, a 2008 study estimated that jaguars currently occupy only about 46% of their pre-1900 range. That range continues to shrink.

“Destruction of habitat and direct persecution threaten to eliminate jaguars from the Sierra Madre and the sky island mountain ranges,” according to a report from the center sent to United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. The report was part of efforts seeking further protections for the jaguar. 

It took multiple lawsuits, from both Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as years of legal brawling, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 to specifically designate critical jaguar habitat on just over 760,000 acres of land in Arizona and New Mexico. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined requests for an interview.

“They’re top predators, like wolves,” McSpadden said, describing studies demonstrating how top predators bring habitats back to equilibrium and reverse course on “the cascading effects of things being out of balance.”

“Everything in the region co-evolved with this jaguar,” McSpadden said. 

Jaguars made something of a minor comeback — both in the wild and in local lore — after Arizona Game and Fish officials, in suspicious circumstances, killed a jaguar known as “Macho B”  in 2009. It was later revealed that subcontractors of Arizona Game and Fish Department illegally baited, captured and fatally injured Macho B. One Game and Fish employee was fired for lying to federal investigators. Macho B was the only jaguar known to be alive in the wild in the United States at the time. 

His death became a rallying cry for local environmentalists. And then another young male jaguar, later known as El Jefe, showed up on a remote camera in 2011. El Jefe has been emblazoned on t-shirts and has also inspired Barrio Brewing Co’s Santa Rita Jefeweizen beer. 

At least seven adult male jaguars have been documented in the Southwestern U.S. since 1996, including five in Arizona. No females have been documented in the U.S. since the 1960s. The most recent sightings could be number eight.

Though conservationists have gotten some flack for naming wild animals — accused of anthropomorphizing them — McSpadden says, “the real goal in naming is using the deep psychological power and intimacy that naming has for humans.” He said, “There’s a reason my grandma named her dogs but not her chickens.” 

With endangered species, naming can allow the public and policy makers to see certain animals as important individuals, not just numbers, McSpadden said. “Naming is an incredible tool to help celebrate rare, tenacious and magnificent beasts like El Jefe within local communities in Tucson or Sahuaripa.” 

He said it also encourages people to make connections between conservation and their own place in the world. 

Walls and mines

Earlier this summer, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a legal dart to jaguar conservation when a three-judge panel reduced protected jaguar habitat south of Tucson. The May 17 ruling overturned a previous decision that designated the land surrounding the proposed Rosemont Mine site in the Santa Rita Mountains as critical jaguar habitat.

“Basically, they removed protections from the proposed mine site,” McSpadden said, referring to the controversial proposal to dig a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. The order cut about 50,000 acres of designated jaguar protection.

Besides wanting to scrape back those acres of protection, as well as add more, the center and other groups are also fighting to reintroduce jaguars into the wild. 

“​​It’s time to consider the prospect of a thoughtfully planned reintroduction,” said Laiken Jordahl, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The American Southwest is jaguar country.”

“Our region’s story, our heart and soul just aren’t complete without them here,” Jordahl said. “Their full recovery would enrich us all.”

The proposed mine in the Santa Ritas isn’t the only threat to jaguars and other wildlife in Southern Arizona. Other proposed mines, with all of their attendant roads, infrastructure, and giant pits, translates directly into habitat loss. Studies also show that jaguars, even more than other large wild mammals, tend to stay far away from roads and human development. 

The proposed Copper World project is smack dab in the area where El Jefe was seen numerous times, as well as an ocelot. 

Farther south, the Hermosa Mine in the Patagonia Mountains, has been fast tracked to dig for manganese. Yet another nearby mining venture, the Sunnyside Exploration Drilling Project, is expected to begin a seven-year, 24/7 drilling operation. 

But the border barrier is probably the biggest threat, McSpadden said. 

“There’s a core breeding population in México, and those cats need to roam.” He stressed the importance of connectivity between populations in the two countries, saying that, “a sealed border is a nail in the coffin.” 

The Huachuca Mountains, where this jaguar was recently seen, are part of the Coronado National Forest in Cochise County. The location of the jaguar in this specific mountain range is particularly significant. 

“That’s very near where Ducey was trying to build his junkyard border wall,” McSpadden said, referring to the temporary Arizona-built border wall, constructed out of old and sometimes rusting shipping containers that former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey illegally built on federal land

The project cost Arizona taxpayers about $200 million. McSpadden, along with a diverse coalition of Arizona residents, protested and physically blocked construction of the wall, forcing the federal government to demand Arizona stop building and then dismantle the wall.  

But McSpadden said that the fight is far from over. 

The Biden administration is reversing course on one of its central campaign promises to stop wall construction. 

“There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration, No. 1,” Biden said. And yet, in Southern Arizona and elsewhere, the Biden administration is closing gaps in the wall, including waiving environmental laws meant to protect endangered species. Filling in those gaps could be a serious threat to populations of jaguars and other large migratory animals. 

“Those gaps serve as critical passageways for wildlife,” said Culver, the UA researcher. “As an ecologist, I would hope that there’s enough permeability in the wall that if individuals want to cross, they can,” said Culver.

“We got lucky that border wall construction stopped where and when it did,” said Traphagen, who recently co-published a paper on jaguar migration in response to the border wall.  

Corridors remain open, but Traphagen worries that if gaps in the wall are closed, critical habitat will be effectively sealed off from jaguars. If the most important animal migration corridors west of Nogales, what Traphagen called “ground zero for jaguar crossings between the U.S. and México” are closed off, it would be “game over for jaguar dispersal” into western Arizona. 

That’s why understanding the details of this most recent sighting is so important.

Documenting the jaguar for many local conservationists and scientists isn’t just about the individual animals, or even the species, but how humans interact with and inhabit the world. 

“We want people to see,” McSpadden said, “the connection between community strength and the health of nearby ecosystems.”

Clarification: This article has been updated with more details about the death of jaguar Macho B. After Macho B died in 2009, it was later revealed that subcontractors of Arizona Game and Fish Department illegally baited, captured and fatally wounded Macho B. One game and fish employee was fired for lying to federal investigators.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...