After meeting the grim fate of overhunting in the 20th century, is it time the stunningly ferocious jaguar had another shot at living in the US? This team of researchers believes so.
Writing in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Defenders of Wildlife put forward their case for reintroducing jaguars to the mountainous southwestern stretches of the US.
Jaguars are the largest cat species in the Americas, armed with lean muscles and a powerful bite, also known for their distinctive spotty tan-colored fur. The species (Panthera onca) roamed the central mountain ranges of Arizona and New Mexico as late as the 1960s until they were hunted to local extinction. Today, odd individuals can very occasionally be spotted living in the southern corners of the US, but the species is generally limited to portions of South America and Central America. Even here, it’s estimated they have lost over 50 percent of its historic range seen before human disturbances.
The authors of the new study argue that bringing back the jaguar would not only be “righting a wrong,” but it could also bring back a pack of ecological, cultural, and economic benefits too.
"The Southwest's native wildlife evolved with jaguars," Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. "They have a storied and vital place in our canyons and forests, so we should plan an intelligent and humane reintroduction program."
A study earlier this year suggested that an area in central Arizona and New Mexico spanning 82,000 square kilometers (2 million acres) could be a potentially suitable habitat for 90 to 150 jaguars. Much of the land designated as the potential new home of the jaguar is sparsely populated and managed as public land by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. It also covers the ancestral and reservation lands for a number of Native American Nations, including two Tribal nations, the White Mountain Apache, and the San Carlos Apache.
First and foremost, the reintroduction of jaguars to this range could provide opportunities for the troubled species. The region is a habitat unique in all of the jaguar's range, but it has the potential to become a much-needed climate refuge for the species in the future.
Reintroducing jaguars may bring some economic benefits too, the researchers argue. For one, so-called “apex predator ecotourism” could bring money and new jobs to the area which already relies on tourism and outdoor activities for much of their income.
The danger to humans is low, the study authors claim. In a historical review of jaguars in the southwestern US, they found no reports of anyone being killed by a jaguar. Unprovoked attacks were found to be extremely rare. However, they found several reports of dogs being killed and the chances of a jaguar killing livestock was “likely.”
The arguments being pushed in this study are unlikely to prove convincing to everyone. Owners of livestock, for example, are likely to see the negatives of the reintroduction more prominently than they see the positives. Equally, it’s extremely tough to predict how the restoration of an apex predator could change the wider ecological landscape. Nevertheless, these researchers argue that it’s certainly worth a shot.
"This represents a turning point for this iconic wild cat, identifying a path forward for restoration of the jaguar to its historic range in the United States," said Sharon Wilcox Ph.D., Texas Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.