by Mike Evans
Desert Rivers Audubon Society
The recent stories of jaguars and ocelots being spotted in Arizona got me thinking about the historic role that our desert rivers played in wildlife population distribution. My thoughts wandered to the impact the “dang fence” on the border would have in limiting the future distribution of these tropical species back into Arizona. I also got to thinking about how our modern system of canals has come to partially replace the role that our desert rivers historically played in wildlife distribution, especially here in the Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, and Mesa area.
Jaguar, Panthera onca.
For those that missed the news reports, the Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed through photographs that a mountain lion hunter treed a jaguar southeast of Tucson. The Arizona Daily Star also reported that in June a helicopter pilot for Homeland Security spotted a jaguar loping down a forested hillside in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona. Arizona Game & Fish also reported that a further five reports by hunters have been confirmed and the department is now attempting to determine through photographic analysis how many jaguars may be roaming about southern Arizona. The Game & Fish believe that these individuals represent the most northern part of a population of jaguars living in Sonora, Mexico.
We were also recently briefly regaled with the story of a sighting of an ocelot. Upon further analysis, the Game and Fish Department believes that the cat was more likely a serval, or serval hybrid, an African cat popular in the pet trade. However, there were two other confirmed sightings of ocelots earlier in the year, both in the Huachuca Mountains.
These are only the third and fourth reports of ocelots in Arizona since the 1960’s. It was generally agreed by most wildlife observers
Ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, also known as the dwarf leopard or McKenney's wildcat.
that the ocelot was extinct in Arizona until one was found dead along the highway in the Globe area in 2010 and one was photographed in 2009 by a trail camera belonging to the Sky Island Alliance. There is a small remnant population of ocelots in Texas and the rest of the range was believed to be much farther south in Mexico, but now Arizona has to be added to the list of locations where the species is still holding on to some territory.
Historically, Arizona’s desert rivers have been corridors for wildlife. Although the exact locations of the traditional corridors used by jaguars and ocelots remain uncertain, there is good evidence that the prey species of both cats were originally found in abundance along our desert rivers. For these species to survive, movement corridors need to be maintained. Conservation efforts are crucial as habitat becomes more fragmented and isolated. The Sky Island Alliance is one organization working to maintain the connections north and south of the border through their Wildlife Linkages program.
One threat to the continued efforts to conserve both of these species is the proposed border fence. The Center for Biological Diversity has been warning of the environmental catastrophe that the border fence would be for wildlife populations for five years. Back in 2006, the Center said:
More border walls, militarization, low-level aircraft and roads would further damage already-stressed wildlife and places, such as the Cactus Pygmy Owl and Sonoran Pronghorn in Arizona, Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard and Peninsular Ranges Bighorn Sheep in California, Jaguar and Mexican Gray Wolves in New Mexico, and the Rio Grande River, Ocelot, and Big Bend National Park in Texas. Triple walls are harmful to wildlife blocking critical migration corridors and destroying valuable habitat. The distance of the triple wall – 370 miles – is approximately the distance of the entire border in Arizona.
With two Arizona desert rivers having their headwaters in Mexico, the border fence will affect wildlife distribution. It seems clear that the northernmost range for the ocelot and jaguar would be cut off from the population in Mexico and stop any natural repopulation of these species in Arizona.
Roosevelt Water Conservation District
Closer to home, our canal system is the wildlife corridor for coyotes and other mammals. In the southeast valley, the four SRP canals (Consolidated, Eastern, Western, & Tempe) plus the Roosevelt Water Conservation District canal are regular coyote corridors. When we add in the Eastern Maricopa Floodway, we have a wildlife corridor that stretches from the San Tan Mountains in the south to the Salt River Recreation Area. So the next time you see a coyote in one of the East Valley riparian areas, or a coyote loping through a southeast valley neighborhood, remind yourself that it is the same mode of transit that wildlife has always used in the southwest: our riparian desert rivers. And, if you want your children and grandchildren to someday see jaguars and ocelots in the wildlands of Arizona, let your opinion be known to our elected officials the next time they start talking about building “the dang fence”.