When I started learning about jaguars in the United States, no one was talking about reintroducing them. Last year, however, a team of researchers published a paper called “The case for reintroduction: The Jaguar (Panthera onca) in the United States as a Model” (Sanderson et al., 2021).
What follows is a discussion about the idea of reintroducing jaguars to the U.S., based (loosely) on that article.
When jaguars began reappearing in the U.S. in the late 1990s, most of the evidence suggested that they’d come from Mexico. The logical next step thus appeared to be strengthening the jaguar population in Sonora, Mexico – the nearest breeding population to the U.S. – so that the cats could naturally recolonize the U.S.
Unfortunately, large stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border are now effectively closed to large animal migrations.
This makes the prospect of natural jaguar recolonization unlikely, which means scientists may have to reintroduce the cats.
Why Reintroduce Jaguars?
Why reintroduce a large, predatory cat to the U.S.? There are a number of reasons.
New (Technically Old-New) Ecosystems for Jaguars
The first reason for reintroducing jaguars that Sanderson et al. (2021) mention is that doing so would add a unique habitat type to the species’ range.
There’s a type of ecosystem in the U.S. Southwest called “Madrean Evergreen Woodland,” which constitutes a, “meeting point of subtropical and temperate species” (Sanderson et al., 2021, p. 6). Allowing jaguars to recolonize this unique ecosystem, along with others in their former range, would increase the species’ overall resilience.
More Resilient Ecosystems
Reintroducing jaguars to the U.S. could also make their ‘new’ ecosystems more resilient, since they’d be gaining a native, apex predator.
All species play functional roles within their ecosystems that enable those ecosystems to thrive and adapt to change. Some creatures, like apex (top) predators, play extra-special roles by influencing the abundance and habits of many other species.
Apex predators help to prevent overgrazing by large herbivores, control the populations of medium-sized carnivores, and more (Bruskotter & Wilson, 2013; Ripple & Beschta, 2011). This means that if they were present in large enough numbers, jaguars might strengthen the ecosystems of the Southwest.
There’s also the issue of climate change.
Climate Change “Insurance”
I hate to break it to you, but the Earth’s climate is changing. The areas that currently represent jaguars’ strongholds, like Amazonia and the Pantanal, will change – maybe in ways that aren’t good for jaguars.
Assisting jaguars to reestablish themselves north of their current range might help them adapt to climate change, since they’d occupy a wider geographic area with more diverse habitat types.
The Image Problem
This last argument for reintroducing jaguars wasn’t in Sanderson et al.’s (2021) paper, but it’s something I often bring up in an attempt to destroy my reputation.
Jaguars used to inhabit large stretches of the U.S. Southwest – there are even confirmed records of them being hunted in Louisiana. U.S. jags didn’t all decide that they wanted to go to Cancún one day and never come back: Americans hunted them to local extinction (extirpation).
This didn’t happen “ages ago,” either: the last known female jaguar in the U.S. was shot in 1963 (Mahler, 2009). Geologically speaking, that’s practically last week.
Many Americans are concerned about jaguar conservation in Latin America, and rightly so. We’re okay with asking people in Central and South America to make sacrifices to protect jaguars, but we’re reluctant to restore our own jaguars.
That makes Americans look rather hypocritical.
To be Continued…
Unfortunately, I’ve now become tired, so I’ll finish up this discussion in a future post.
Sanderson et al. (2021) have provided solid reasons for why we should reintroduce jaguars to the U.S., which I’ve summarized above – poorly.
But, while there might be good reasons to reintroduce jaguars to the U.S., that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.
The next post will begin examining the practicalities of jaguar reintroductions, including the challenges associated with shipping several large cats across a heavily-militarized international border. Considering that I’m less practical than a failed childhood movie star, this should be ‘fun.’
Povilitis, T. (2015). Recovering the jaguar Panthera onca in peripheral range: A challenge to conservation policy. Oryx, 49(4), 626-631.
Sanderson, E. W., Beckman, J. P., Beier, P., Bird, B., Bravo, J. C., Fisher, K., … Wilcox, S. (2021). The case for reintroduction: The jaguar (Panthera onca) in the United States as a model. Conservation Science and Practice, 3(6).