Jaguars in the United States?

Jaguar leaps at a vulture in the Pantanal, Brazil. Photo by Khanh V. Le/Caters News
Symbols of the rain forests of South America, jaguars are known for their strength and mystery. But with recent sightings in the United States, is it possible that jaguars could be making a comeback above the Mexican border?

Apex predators that once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon, jaguars have largely been eradicated from the United States. There have been just 7 sightings since 1996, and all of those spotted have been males. But recent footage features another sighting in Arizona, suggesting the possibility of a recovering population.

Jaguars have a long storied history in the United States and prowled the southwest for millennia. Before the European settlers walked on our shores, indigenous art depicts the majestic jaguar. Years later, Thomas Jefferson himself would go on to write about a “spotted cat” in Virginia that historians would later speculate to be a jaguar.

However, by the 20th century, the government grew worried that predators like the jaguar would negatively impact America’s movement further west. During this time, some states even offered bounties for jaguars – up to $130 in today’s dollars.

In 1963, the last known female jaguar was killed in Arizona. The year after, the last known male jaguar was killed in the same state.

Photo by Eric Kilby.

To make matters worse, the once the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the jaguars were worth protecting, they did not include jaguars native to the U.S. in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This oversight caused more challenges in the jaguars’ recovery.

Fortunately, recent years have brought good news for jaguars. U.S. and Mexican agencies have partnered with conservation organizations to restore these species and establish protected lands.

The good news? A 2021 study found that the jaguar population in Mexico increased over the last decade to 4800 individuals. As the numbers increase, it becomes more likely that a female jaguar makes her way to the U.S. border to make with one of the males that have been documented there.

While habitat loss and poaching are still a threat to jaguars in northern Mexico, the conservation initiatives in the works could pave the way for the big cats to prowl their way back into the U.S.

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