Five photos of the first jaguar seen freely roaming U.S. soil since 2009 were published on Thursday by the Arizona Daily Star. The adult male jaguar was spotted in the Santa Rita Mountains, southeast of Tucson, by cameras set up by the University of Arizona on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall. The big cat, which has been on the endangered species list since 1997, has shown up in photos on half a dozen separate occasions since September.
According to a December press release on the federally-funded tracking project, the photos were captured using motion-sensor-activated trail cameras positioned in areas where the big cat was believed to be located. The federal agency began tracking the jaguar last fall after a hunter snapped a picture of what is believed to be the animal’s tail last September. The last known jaguar seen in the wild in the United States, a male cat known as Macho B, died in Arizona at an estimated age of 16 in 2009, according to the New York Times.
The Arizona sighting is particularly unusual because the jaguars are more commonly seen south of the border in northern Mexico. Although their native terrain once extended as far north as the Grand Canyon, and they were seen in southern Texas as recently as the 1940s, by 1990 jaguars were believed to have been eliminated from the United States. “That changed in 1996 when two different male jaguars were photographed in southwestern New Mexico and Arizona,” according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The lone spotted cat’s appearance has contributed to the debate over whether to designate 830,000 acres of land in Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat for the nocturnal jaguar. The proposal conflicts with mining company Rosemont’s plans to build an open-pit copper mine in the middle of the contentious site. The mine aims to account for 10% of American copper production, according to the company’s website.
The federal wildlife service will decide whether to designate part of the land as habitat for the jaguar on August 20, according to the Arizona Daily Star, which also reported that the mining company knows about the jaguar’s presence and has provided support for the research project.
Arizona state’s Game and Fish Department website says that jaguars need an abundance of available prey and resting sites in order to thrive in the wild. Its prey includes more than 85 different species, but on the U.S.-Mexico border, it would most likely be deer or javelina, a hoofed mammal.