Monday, November 21, 2011

Arizona hunter spots rare U.S.-Mexico borderlands jaguar

November 21, 2011
by David Schwatrz and Tim Gaynor

An Arizona hunter has made a rare confirmed sighting of a wild jaguar close to the Mexico border in southeastern Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Department said on Monday.

Jaguars' habitat ranges from Argentina to the rugged borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. There have only been a handful of sightings by hunters in Arizona, and no jaguars are believed to breed in the United States.

The report was received on Saturday morning from an experienced hunter using dogs to track mountain lions in Cochise County, in southeast Arizona, the department said.

The large cat was driven up a mesquite tree, where the hunter was able to take photographs and video. The footage was subsequently viewed by the department, which classified the sighting as "verifiable or highly probable."

"It's very exciting ... we know that jaguars use southern Arizona as part of their northern habitat ... Although confirmed sightings are fairly rare," Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman with the department, told Reuters.

Lambert said the hunter declined to be named, and did not release the photographs or video footage for publication.

After photographing the cat, the hunter left the area with his dogs and watched from a distance. The jaguar remained treed for approximately 15 minutes and then headed south.

Jaguars are the only cats in North America that roar. They prey on a variety of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles.

There were thought to have vanished from United States until two confirmed sightings in 1996. Only a handful have been spotted since then, and very little is known about their habits.

Based on the images, biologists believe the jaguar is an adult male that appeared in good health and weighed approximately 200 pounds.

The department said it hoped to compare the photographs and video shot by the hunter to images of other jaguars taken in Arizona in the past.

They will try to use comparisons between a jaguar's unique spots, known as rosettes, to determine if the animal has been previously identified.

In recent years, concern over the well-being of the U.S. jaguar population has intensified as a program to build some 700 miles of security fence along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico has gathered pace.

Some conservationists feared that the fencing would prevent the powerful, solitary hunters from roaming up from Mexico.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would designate critical habitat for endangered jaguars in the United States and develop a jaguar recovery plan.

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