Earth Notes: The White Mountains Jaguar

Aug 24, 2016

People rightly think of the jaguar as a resident of rainforest and jungle. But the secretive spotted cat is also native to the Southwest, including Arizona and New Mexico, and was confirmed during the twentieth century as far north as the Grand Canyon and Gila Wilderness. 

Credit UA/USFWS


Surprisingly, more than 50 years ago, a jaguar was seen in the high spruce-fir timber in Arizona’s White Mountains. This female was shot in 1963 by hunter Terry Penrod, who mistook it for a big bobcat. His act wasn’t illegal at the time, because jaguars weren’t protected in Arizona until 1969. Now they’re listed as endangered by the federal government.

Four months after the female was killed, a male jaguar was also killed in the same mountains. But no other female has been confirmed anywhere in the U.S. since September 1963.  

Critical habitat for jaguars, designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is mostly in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. It does not include the White Mountains area where the female was shot. Only one jaguar has been detected in the wild now in the Southwest:  an adult male roaming pine forests of the Santa Rita range south of Tucson.

Still, the 1960s appearances lead some to ask if jaguars once bred in the region, could they do so again?