The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and one of the largest found in the wild in the Western Hemisphere. The magnificent cats with their distinctive rosette markings once roamed from South America and Central America through the southern and central United States, but lost habitat and were killed off in the east in the 1700s.

According to recent estimates, there may be as many as 30,000 jaguars total across their range, with between 3,000 and 4,000 in Mexico. Populations thin out toward the northern end of the range to the border with the U.S.

Individuals from Mexico—where the cat is known as el tigre—have reappeared sporadically in the U.S. in the last several decades. While no one knows exactly how many jaguars are here, or how long they hang around before sneaking back to their breeding grounds in Mexico, their presence has set off repercussions on both sides of the border.

In 1915, in response to the general threat of livestock predators in the western U.S., primarily wolves, Congress funded the US Bureau of Biological Survey, previously an agency devoted to scientific research, to implement a program of predator extermination. The Biological Survey killed its first jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson three years later.

A jaguar along an isolated canyon in Sonora State in Mexico. (Photo: Earth Island Institute)

By 1972, with the jaguar presumed extinct in the US and declining elsewhere in the western hemisphere, the USFWS listed it as endangered, but only south of the border. Fifteen years later, a jaguar was tracked by hounds in the Dos Cabeza Mountains of Arizona and shot by a hunter. The slaying did not violate the Endangered Species Act because U.S. jaguars were still considered extinct rather than endangered.

Whatever they were designated they kept showing up. Ten years later two separate parties of cougar hunters photographed jaguars that their hounds had treed in the Peloncillos Mountains, in New Mexico near the Mexican border.

Using photos of the two cats as evidence, the Center for Biologic Diversity filed a lawsuit that forced the federal government in 1997 to list the jaguar as endangered in the United States, a move the USFWS had long resisted fearing that listing of the jaguar’s range as “critical habitat” could lead to new limits on cattle ranching on public lands and hunting in Arizona and New Mexico.

The cats kept on coming. Trap cameras set by a non-profit conservation group called the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project captured images of a male that was dubbed Macho A. In 2004, trail cameras set by a biologist named Emil McCain working with the Borderlands Jaguar Project captured images of a second cat in the Coronado National Forest, whom they called Macho B. When McCain analyzed Macho B’s spots, he discovered that this was one of the jaguars that that had been treed and photographed eight years earlier.

Macho B wandering the border in southern Arizona. (Photo: Emil McCain)

    In February, 2006, in the Animas Mountains, animal guide Warner Glenn photographed a jaguar that his dogs had chased into a big cedar tree. “He did not run,” Glenn said. “He was not afraid of anything.” Later he estimated that the jaguar, by the look of his teeth, was eight or nine years old and weighed nearly 200 pounds. Glenn named the cat Border King.

    Border King in the Animas Mountains, March 7, 1996. (Photo: Warner Glenn)

    USFWS dragged its feet for years failing to develop a recovery plan for the jaguar as required under the EPA. In 1997 it gave this chore to a new inter-agency group, the Jaguar Conservation Team (JCT), that was created by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in order to forestall the jaguar’s listing as endangered in the U.S.. The JCT pledged to “provide long-term commitments to identify and eventually coordinate protection of jaguar habitat.” Dominated by the livestock industry, that resists any attempts to have the federal land where they graze their cattle designated “critical habitat,” the team failed to protect any land, including even failing to meaningfully engage the Department of Homeland Security as it erected a jaguar-proof wall to stop illegal immigration into the U.S..

    In an attempt to appear it was doing something, the Jaguar Conservation Team made plans to capture a jaguar to affix a radio-collar for research. Conservationists warned of the potential risks and questioned the purpose of such a plan and how it fit into protecting the big cat’s future. Non-intrusive methods of research were available, but the Jaguar team swept both objections and suggestions aside. They wanted to capture a jaguar and that was it. Yet, as an endangered species, to make capturing a jaguar legal, USFWS first had to issue a permit authorizing such “take.”

    Macho B.

    On February 18, 2009, Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists found Macho B captured in a wire snare.

    The snare had been set by biologist Emil McCain, who was working as a subcontractor for Arizona Game and Fish Department capturing mountain lions and bears for radio-collaring. Ostensibly, snaring a jaguar was a happy accident. The biologists tranquilized, radio-collared and released the cat.

    Twelve days later, after he did not move as far or as frequently as expected following his capture and after he was observed ailing, Macho B was re-captured, diagnosed as terminally ill from kidney failure, and euthanized.

    Macho B snared, Feb. 18, 2009. (Photo: AZ Dept Fish and Game)

    Game and Fish said the capture was accidental, occurring as part of a bear-lion study. The Center for Biological Diversity called for an independent medical investigation, which revealed that the jaguar’s death was at least in part due to agency mismanagement.

    Investigating Macho B’s death, the Interior Department’s inspector general concluded that Arizona Game and Fish did not have a permit for the capture, and stated that skinning the jaguar to preserve the pelt, undertaken instead of a necropsy because a Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor was unfamiliar with the word “necropsy,” resulted in loss of information and left doubt as to what had ailed Macho B. Although the entire corpse was not made available for a necropsy, some organs were preserved. A veterinary pathologist who examined the jaguar’s kidneys, but whose report was never released, told the Arizona Daily Star that the organs appeared healthy and that Macho B may have just suffered from dehydration.

    In January 2010, the Interior Department’s inspector general released a report concluding that Macho B’s capture had been intentional—and that Game and Fish had no permit to capture jaguars, either intentionally or incidentally.

    In May, 2010, Emil McCain admitted in federal court that he deliberately and without a permit captured Macho B by baiting a snare set in a canyon that he knew Macho B traversed and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime: illegal take of an endangered species. (McCain had convinced a female co-worker to plant the bait, and she was sentenced as well.) McCain said he knew there had been recent evidence a jaguar had appeared in the area of the snares as photographs of the cat had been taken near the capture site months earlier. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and fined $1,000.

    Twelve years after it was created, and with little else to show for its efforts, the Jaguar Conservation Team and its powerbroker the Arizona Game and Fish Department, had killed, for scientific purposes but absent the rigor of real science and outside the constraints of federal law, the last known wild jaguar in the United States.

    Maybe it’s the political climate in Mexico, who knows, but they keep on coming. In June of last year a helicopter pilot working along the border for the federal Department of Homeland Security reported seeing a jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson but the report couldn’t be confirmed.

    In November, Donnie Fenn, a mountain lion guide based in Benson, Ariz. was taking his 10-year-old daughter out on her first lion hunt in a mountain range in Cochise County when his pack of eight hounds treed a jaguar “twice the size of a big mountain lion.” Feen said that his dogs were scratched pretty badly by the cat. He made sure to confirm his run-in with the jaguar with photos and a video. Experts believe it was an adult male about 200 pounds.

    In September of this year a trail camera took this picture.

    Trail camera photo taken southeast of Tucson, Arizona in September, 2012, identified by Arizona state game officials as a jaguar. (Photo: Arizona Game and Fish Dept)

    It’s not known if the jaguar tail photographed is of the same animal as the one photographed by Donnie Fenn, since authorities don’t have good enough photos of that jaguar’s tail to make a comparison.

      Part 1 of 2 parts.