Preserving the Desert Jaguar

by Oscar Moctezuma O.
General Director Naturalia, A.C.

young jaguar

When we hear someone mentions the jaguar (Panthera onca), the first image we get is one of the big cat moving quietly through the tropical forest in search of its prey. Although this is a correct vision of the typical habitat in which this species lives, it doesn’t show a complete image of the adaptability of the largest wild cat of the American Continent, which has adapted to other natural conditions that have very little similarity to the tropical forest.

Perhaps we can find the most dramatic example of this adaptability in the case of the northernmost population of this species that lives in Northwest Mexico in the arid mountains of the state of Sonora. Here, surrounded by a strange combination of plants, including big cacti, fig trees, palms and oaks, among others, jaguars have lived perfectly adapted since they first appeared in this continent.

Today, however, this powerful predator has disappeared from more than half of its original range and is rapidly declining in the regions in which they have survived to this day. Habitat loss, fragmentation and overhunting, have contributed to place the jaguar among the most endangered species in Mexico and in most of its entire range.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States-Mexico borderlands where, within one human lifetime, the unique American jaguar has been virtually eliminated from its entire U.S. range. The last resident animals were hunted in Southwest U.S. more than sixty years ago. While individual jaguars continue to be documented in the mountains of Southern Arizona and New Mexico, these are dispersers from the nearest surviving population in the northern Mexican state of Sonora near the confluence of the Aros and Yaqui Rivers, just 120 miles south of the international boundary.

This unique ecological area hosts between 70-100 jaguars, as well as numerous other rare species including ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), military macaws (Ara militaris), lilaccrowned parrots (Amazona finschi), bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Neotropical river  tters (Lontra longicaudis) and Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum), among others.

Jaguars are, along with mountain lions (Puma concolor), the top predators in the area and their natural prey include white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), javalina (Tayassu pecari) and hares (Lepus callotis). Unfortunately, the main productive activity in the area, the cattle ranching, has supplied them with an additional prey: cows.

Occasional cattle killings have increased the rejection to jaguars and mountain lions and has moved some ranchers to kill them in spite of being an illegal action (jaguars are protected by law in Mexico but there is almost no law enforcement on the ground).

Within the last four years, at least 27 jaguars, including females and kittens, have been killed by ranchers and poachers – as much as one-third of this small but critical population. It would be a shame to allow the total extermination of these magnificent predators and lose this unique population, the jaguar of the desert.

Strategic efforts are underway to stem these losses, to recover jaguars throughout a significant portion of their historic range and to conserve the unique biological diversity of this threatened borderland ecosystem.

Naturalia, A.C., a Mexican conservation group, has decided to work for the preservation and recovery of the desert jaguar. To accomplish this goal, Naturalia has partnered with several American conservation groups, including the Northern Jaguar Project, Defenders of Wildlife and the Wildlands Project, to accomplish this by building local support for conservation, acquiring strategic ranches to protect jaguar habitat, minimizing predator/livestock conflicts and implementing programs which will change the local community’s perception of the jaguar from a liability to an asset.

Our long- term goal is to recover jaguars throughout a significant portion of their historic range by expanding this population in Mexico and by preserving habitat connectivity for dispersal and re-colonization into appropriate areas in the U.S. Recovering the American jaguar in the U.S. depends on protecting the last remaining population in northern Mexico.

In July 2003, Naturalia purchased a ranch in the core area used by jaguars, establishing a foothold in the community for conservation. From this area, we’ll continue our work to preserve the biodiversity of the area and look for productive alternatives for the local community. This way we hope to find a way to build a tolerant attitude toward jaguars and increase community acceptance for them and support for its conservation.

To save the desert jaguar is a challenge that offers an opportunity for bi-national collaboration and a hope to maintain the vital role of this magnificent creature in the North-American desert.

HealthyLife Foundation Provides Alternative Funding

 in News.

You can now help support the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance by doing your online shopping through HealthyLife Foundation, our new fundraising partner. A percentage of each purchase you make there will go to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance with no additional cost to you.

As an added benefit, from now through June 30th, you will get a $25 gift certificate for a restaurant of your choice by spending $50 or more in the Healthy Life Foundation shopping portal. You can learn about all of the other personal online shopping benefits it offers by clicking on the video link below.

We also have a Green Store that offers only environmentally friendly products. You can check it out by clicking on the “Our Green Store” link once you are in our shopping portal.

Please visit the HealthyLife Foundation website and click on the link to the Friends of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance online store. So start your shopping now, knowing that with each purchase you’ll be supporting our work at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. Online shopping never felt so gratifying!

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Did you know? – There are other ways to give outside of membership. Visit the Support Us page to find out more!

Prairie Dogs

prairiedogs 300x220Wilderness Without Wildlife Is Just Scenery

by Yvonne Boudreaux, Prairie Dog Pals

The prairie dog is certainly one of the most beleaguered of all species in the modern world.  Of the 13 original species only 5 remain. Over the last 100 years, the remaining 5 species of prairie dogs have plummeted to 1%-2% of their historical range with a resulting decline of populations.  The Utah and Mexican Prairie Dogs are protected, but the fact is they number fewer than several thousand, meaning this animal is highly threatened, mostly by lack of knowledge.

Prairie dogs are important to as many as 160-170 other species of wildlife, such as burrowing owls and ferrets. Besides being a key link in the food chain they provide homes or shelter to many species. They enrich plant communities in their habitat, and help to maintain the health of arid grasslands, which means they actually help cattle, by making the grasses more fertile. In fact, the burrowing animals, like prairie dogs, open breathing tubes in the Earth.  The underground aquifers act like a lungs in human bodies. The moon as it passes raises and lowers the underground water table like tides and the earth breathes, through the many fissures and tubes they create. Nine species are considered completely dependent on prairie dogs as prey, including the Black-footed Ferret, another very endangered mammal. 

It’s unfortunate that prairie dogs are lumped within the huge taxonomic order of rodents.  They miss out on the agility of squirrels and the sexual reproductive prowess of mice. The only rodent with worse “public relations” is the rat!  But here are some facts:

  • Prairie dogs are the victims of plague, not the vectors. Fleas carrying the Yersinia Pestis bacteria are brought into the colony by wild animals, roaming cats, or off-leash dogs. They have no immunity, prairie dogs die within days.
  • Prairie dogs are territorial. They remain in or near their ancestral habitat.  The prairie dogs towns you see in Albuquerque are the remnants of vast prairie dog towns that go back hundreds of years.
  • Prairie dog burrows are complex, with a different area for each function of life.  There are chambers for sleeping, nesting, food storage, toilets, and flood.
  • Poisoning prairie dogs is not only cruel, causing a slow agonizing death that may take several days, but ineffective. While a mature colony tends to expand at approximately 2% annually, a poisoned colony can expand at an annual rate of 70%.

Something else you did not know. Prairie dogs have the most complex language of any animal ever studied.  They have over 200 words and can form sentences. Bark, snitch, yap, chirp, yip, chatter, yelp, twitter, chip, squeak, chirrup and woo hoo are all prairie dog sounds that humans can identify.  Dr. Con Slobodchicoff, a researcher at Northern Arizona University, has used state of the art equipment to parse the sounds that prairie dogs make. What he discovered was astonishing, a language that is way beyond the limited comprehension of other species. Prairie dogs possess a rich and remarkable language that may surpass the complexity of whales and dolphins. 

What was the most surprising?  As you would expect they identified intruders, but they also identified size, color, speed, direction and risk. Experiments revealed a real coyote elicits a clear and identifiable response, but a silhouette of a coyote run on a wire through the same colony elicited a different response, their word for coyote, but distinctively different. A language skill called displacement: the ability to talk about something that isn’t actually there.  When a similar experiment was conducted by running a black oval through the same prairie dog town, they created a new word. The members of the colony agree to describe and assign meaning to the unfamiliar object.  That, my friend, is productivity – one of the highest levels of language, aside from being able to “rap” extemporaneously.

Following years of controlled experiments, Dr. Slobodchicoff was also able to discern that prairie dogs are frequently separated by regional dialect. An Arizona prairie dog would sound a little different compared to a New Mexico prairie dog, and both would sound different compared to a Texas dawg,… fer shurr ya’ll.

El Rio Grande del Norte Bill Introduced

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On April 23rd, 2009, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced legislation that would protect over 300,000 acres of wild public land in northern New Mexico. The bill is cosponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM).

plains west of ute mt 215x300The “El Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act” would protect approximately 235,980 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land by designating a combination of “conservation” and “wilderness” areas.

“This is a great time for wilderness in New Mexico,” said Nathan Newcomer, Associate Director with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Senator Bingaman’s legislation comes on the heels of the newly designated Sabinoso Wilderness, and as the birthplace of wilderness, New Mexicans should be proud that our congressional leaders are actively preserving our natural heritage.”

Creation of the National Conservation Area and Wilderness areas would give local communities a natural attraction and resource to use as part of a long-term sustainable economic development plan.

“These are some of the most spectacular lands in all of New Mexico,” said John Olivas, Northern Director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “This legislation will ensure that we are protecting the hunting and fishing opportunities for New Mexico sportsmen as well as preserving a special place for our children.”

The area is also the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway – one of the great migratory routes in the world. Eagles, falcons and hawks make the basalt walls of the Gorge their nesting homes. Ospreys, scaups, hummingbirds, herons, avocets, merlins and willits all traverse the Gorge.

This substantial chunk of wild land is bounded by the Gorge Rim on the east and Highway 285 on the west. The northern portion spills over 285, encompassing the broad, gently rolling grass and sage brush plains of the Rio San Antonio Gorge, bisected by yet another gorge where raptors nest in 200-foot high lava walls and conifers clamber down to the Rio los Pinos. Perhaps the crown jewel of this whole area is Ute Mountain, a 10,093 foot high volcanic cone rising nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain.

Descendants of the land grantees run cattle all along the Gorge and out into the table-lands between the rim and Highway 285.



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