Mysterious Photo Adds Urgency to Saving Jaguars' Home

The photo doesn't look like much at first, but on closer inspection, there's something incredible there: the spotted, rope-like tail of one of North America's rarest wild cats.

Late last month, a remote-sensor camera in southern Arizona captured a fleeting glimpse of a jaguar's tail -- the freshest piece of evidence that these big cats are here in the U.S. and trying to find new homes. The image, which was confirmed as a jaguar on Friday by state wildlife officials, also adds a new sense of urgency for protecting the Southwest's few remaining wild deserts and mountains considered prime habitat for jaguars, but under threat of being turned into toxic mining sites and sprawl subdivisions.

In mid-August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to protect 838,000 acres of critical habitat for jaguars in southern Arizona and New Mexico. That's an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, but still leaves out some of the best possible habitat farther north in New Mexico's Gila National Forest and Arizona's Mogollon Rim.

If jaguars are going to return to the American landscape -- and, as the continent's largest native cat, they should -- we're going to have to protect the places where they have the best chance of surviving and raising families.

They are still exceedingly rare but spotting one in the wild is a thrill: males can be 100 pounds or larger and they all sport a stunning spotted coat and a muscular body built for traversing rugged landscapes and capturing fleet-footed prey.

Jaguars once roamed at least as far north as the Grand Canyon and from California to Louisiana. But, like wolves and grizzly bears, they were senselessly exterminated nearly a century ago by government-funded predator-killing programs, forest-clearing and the draining of wetlands.

The Center for Biological Diversity and a host of allies have worked for nearly two decades to return the jaguar to its rightful place on U.S. soil. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service admitted as far back as 1979 that it should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, that designation wasn't provided until 1997 and only then after litigation. Since then we've pushed for the agency to develop a recovery plan for jaguars and designate protected critical habitat. It took more litigation to get the habitat designation that was proposed in August and should be finalized next year.

It's difficult to say exactly how many jaguars are in the Southwest today, but the numbers are extraordinarily low. Those that are here almost certainly came from northern Mexico, where there is an existing population.

But the point is, they are here.

Last year, a Border Patrol helicopter spotted a jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains. Last month's intriguing tail could be the same animal, finding a home in the same mountain range, where the U.S. government killed its very first jaguar in 1918. Now, the Forest Service is considering approving the Rosemont Copper Mine, which would destroy thousands of acres in the Santa Rita Mountains, while the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes protecting these same mountains as critical habitat.

The Santa Ritas, the Gila, and other imperiled, wild landscapes should be protected for the jaguar and for us all. Let's hope that the "tail" of this furtive feline begins a new chapter in a successful "tale" of jaguar recovery in the U.S.