The ancestors of these big cats crossed the Beringian land bridge which once joined North America with Asia, and lived for millennia in the central mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, until the last one was shot dead in the 1960s.
Now, more than 50 years later, scientists believe the time is ripe to reintroduce the species to the USA.
A study by a group of scientists from institutions including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Centre for Landscape Conservation, Pace University, Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, in Santiago, Mexico and the Wildlands Network, sets out a framework for reintroduction and describe “writing a wrong” done to “America’s Great Cat”.
“The jaguar lived in these mountains long before Americans did,” said Eric Sanderson, WCS senior conservation ecologist and lead author of the study.
“If done collaboratively, reintroduction could enhance the economy of this region and the ecology of this incredible part of jaguar range.”
The researchers cite a separate study which suggests an area in central Arizona and New Mexico spanning 2 million acres could provide suitable habitat for 90 -150 jaguars.
The area had not previously been considered during a 2018 investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for reintroducing jaguars, which did not look so far north, and concluded there was only space enough for six jaguars in the whole of the United States.
Though there are populations of jaguars living in Mexico and occasionally individual jaguars have been known to cross the border, the researchers said habitat destruction, transport infrastructure, natural constrictions in the landscape, and the US/Mexico border wall mean natural re-establishment of jaguars from source populations in Mexico “is unlikely over the next 100 years”.
With the growing impact of the climate crisis, the authors also suggested bringing jaguars back to the US could provide the species with an important refuge.
“The Central Arizona and New Mexico Recovery Area is vast, covered with suitable vegetation, and well populated with potential prey. Given its elevation and latitude, it may provide an important climate refuge for the species in the future, though further research is required,” they said.
They also said recent reintroduction efforts, such as the rewilding of jaguars in Argentina’s Iberá wetlands, have demonstrated the potential for success.
A reintroduction in the US would help boost numbers of jaguars, which are currently on the endangered species list.
“This represents a turning point for this iconic wild cat, identifying a path forward for restoration of the jaguar to its historic range in the United States,” said Dr Sharon Wilcox, Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
“It should serve as the starting point for a renewed conversation among stakeholders.”
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “The Southwest’s native wildlife evolved with jaguars.
“They have a storied and vital place in our canyons and forests, so we should plan an intelligent and humane reintroduction program.”
Wildlands Network Mexico and Borderlands programme director, Juan Carlos Bravo said: “Restoring jaguars to the northernmost portions of their historic range is an issue of importance for both the US and Mexico.
“Our paper provides an initial step for both countries to draft together a roadmap of what that major rewilding effort may look like.”
The research is published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.