More than 50 years after jaguars vanished from the United States, a team of conservation biologists led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is proposing a plan to reintroduce them.
According to the experts, there is a stretch of two million acres in the central mountains of Arizona and New Mexico where up to 150 jaguars could live.
“The jaguar lived in these mountains long before Americans did,” said study lead author Eric Sanderson, WCS senior conservation ecologist.
In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the potential for reintroducing jaguars, but did not look far enough north. The investigation concluded that there was only enough space for six jaguars in the entire country.
There are still some jaguar populations in Mexico, and the cats occasionally cross the border. However, the researchers explained that due to factors such as habitat destruction, transport infrastructure, and constrictions in the landscape, the natural re-establishment of jaguars from Mexico is not possible any time soon.
“The Southwest’s native wildlife evolved with jaguars,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They have a storied and vital place in our canyons and forests, so we should plan an intelligent and humane reintroduction program.”
The researchers suggest that bringing jaguars back to the United States could provide the species with an important refuge in the face of climate change.
“The Central Arizona and New Mexico Recovery Area is vast, covered with suitable vegetation, and well populated with potential prey,” wrote the experts. “Given its elevation and latitude, it may provide an important climate refuge for the species in the future, though further research is required.”
Bringing endangered jaguars back to the country could boost their overall numbers. The study authors also noted that recent reintroduction efforts, such as the rewilding of jaguars in Argentina’s Iberá wetlands, have demonstrated the potential for success.
“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 Dr. Sharon Wilcox of the Defenders of Wildlife. “It should serve as the starting point for a renewed conversation among stakeholders.”
“Restoring jaguars to the northernmost portions of their historic range is an issue of importance for both the US and Mexico,” said Juan Carlos Bravo of Wildlands Network Mexico and Borderlands.
“Our paper provides an initial step for both countries to draft together a roadmap of what that major rewilding effort may look like.”
The study is published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.