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Scientists Vote to Track Down Jaguar

May 1, 2006

TUCSON, Ariz. — A team of government scientists has voted to capture one of a handful of jaguars known to live in the United States, drawing protests from environmental groups.

The scientists want to follow the jaguar’s movements, along river corridors or through mountain ranges, to help authorities figure out which areas most need protection in the name of the species.

The decision still needs to be approved by game agencies in Arizona and New Mexico, meaning it could take until the end of the year before one is collard, Arizona Game and Fish officials said.

At least three environmental groups have protested the idea.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sky Island Alliance contend that the stress of capture is risky for the animal.

In 2002 and 2003, two jaguars died after being captured in Sonora, Mexico for radio-collaring. That’s two out of the three research-based jaguar captures ever made in Sonora.

The 2003 death stemmed from stress, overheating and probably an overdose of the tranquilizer used to subdue the animal. Those problems were caused by improper capture techniques and equipment and by inexperienced personnel, said Emil McCain, a technician who helped capture the jaguar.

McCain is now lead biologist for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, a team of private researchers operating out of Amado, south of Tucson.

Despite the deaths, he said jaguars have been captured and studied successfully by dozens of researchers through a range in Mexico and Central and South America.

He said it’s important to monitor the animal.

“If you are going to provide a sound future for the jaguar, you’ve got to know its needs,” McCain said. “Radio telemetry has been the best tool in the wildlife-research community for the past 35 years.”

But Michael Robinson, carnivore conservation coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity, questioned whether the team’s stated goal – “healthy jaguar conservation” – is specific enough to justify the risks of capture.

“Jaguars are much more likely than other animals to fight back,” he said. “The risks are greater than to mountain lions or black bears.”

Sergio Avila, wildlife biologist for the Sky Island Alliance, asked what one animal will prove about the others.

“Nothing,” he said. “You cannot generalize from that to what all jaguars will do.”

Supporters say that they must start somewhere with an animal this rare in the United States. Four jaguars have been confirmed seen or photographed in the United States in recent years. If the effort works, authorities may capture more animals in the future, supporters said.

“What do you learn from studying nothing?” said Terry Johnson, an Arizona Game and Fish Department official who chairs the Jaguar Conservation Team. “You need enough information to be able to manage wisely. If the information proves not to warrant that kind of cost of investment or it proves inappropriate for some other reasons, you stop.”

As is now planned, the capture effort would use U.S. Wildlife Services and its dogs to find the jaguar, but once the animal is caught, a biologist experienced in jaguar handling would then tranquilize and immobilize the animal, McCain said.

Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com




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