Another member of the biggest cat species in the Americas has made an appearance north of the United States-Mexico border.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department recently confirmed that trail cam footage captured late last month in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona shows a previously undocumented jaguar within the US.

The video capture comes courtesy of Jason Miller, who posted to his YouTube channel a compilation of recent footage from a trail cam he set up in a canyon above a puma scrape.

Along with an assortment of other wildlife – javelinas (peccaries), American black bears, ringtails, pumas – Miller’s camera nabbed the jaguar, most strikingly in a fang-baring grimace, on the evening of December 20, 2023.

Miller proposed a name for the big cat, too: “Cochise,” the name of a legendary Chiricahua Apache leader.

As the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity noted in a press release, the pattern of rosettes on each jaguar’s hide is unique, allowing individuals to be distinguished. The rosettes of the big cat Miller photographed don’t match those of previously identified US “jags.”

“I was just over the moon about getting a jaguar,” Miller told Tucson, Arizona’s KGUN 9 News. “But for it to be a brand new one, that no one has ever gotten on camera before in Arizona, that’s mind-blowing.” He called the capture “the Holy Grail.”

This is the eighth distinct jaguar that’s been identified in the US since 1996. That’s the momentous year when in two separate instances lion hounds brought to bay not a puma but a Southwestern jaguar: the first, in March, in the Peloncillo Mountains of southeastern Arizona, and then another some six months later in south-central Arizona’s Baboquivari Mountains. The big cats in both encounters were clearly photographed (and not killed).

Like the Huachucas, the Peloncillos and Baboquivaris are among the isolated, rugged mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico known as the Madrean Sky Islands: “Madrean” for the floristic and ecogeographic region named after Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, and “Sky Island” for these ranges’ high-standing, oak/conifer-forested prominence above desert country. They’re a striking feature of what are sometimes called the Malpai Borderlands straddling the international line here.

The Pinaleno Mountains range, part of the Madrean Sky Islands. Photo: Wars

While most associated with Neotropical forests and marshlands of southern Mexico and Central and South America, jaguars are native to the Madrean Sky Islands of the borderlands – and, indeed, ranged farther within the US during historical times. Well known among the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest – the Diné/Navajo, for example, know the jaguar as Nashdoitsoh'Łikizh, “spotted big lion” – the big cats are thought to have padded their way as far north as the Mogollon Rim or even the Grand Canyon, and perhaps as far west and east as Southern California and Louisiana, respectively.

Hunting and trapping decimated northern jaguar populations over the past several centuries. The last known female jaguar in the US was killed in Arizona’s White Mountains in 1963. Sporadic reports continued to trickle in after that, but the definitive ‘96 sightings ushered in a new phase of rethinking jaguar range north of the border. The US Fish & Wildlife Service relisted the animal as an endangered species the following year.

Since then, Sky Island jaguars in the US have gained plenty of attention. There was Macho B, the roughly 15- or 16-year-old male jaguar controversially put down after being trapped and radio-collared in 2009, as well as El Jefe (“The Boss”), who made headlines for some years on the US side of the Malpai Borderlands – including for apparently munching a black bear in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains – and then, after awhile off the radar, was confirmed down in central Sonora, Mexico in 2022. A jaguar known as Sombra (Spanish for “shadow”) calls the Chiricahua Mountains his stomping-grounds and has been photographed there numerous times since 2016.

"Sombra" in the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona.

The newly documented jaguar Miller’s trailcam caught is the second confirmed individual in the Huachuca Mountains since 2016, when a jaguar that Tucson high-school students named Yo’oko (“jaguar” in the indigenous Yaqui language) showed up. A photograph turned up from Sonora in 2018 of Yo’oko’s skinned pelt.

And twice during the spring of last year, trail cams operated by US Customs & Border Protection photographed a jaguar in the Huachucas, but the images were too blurry to allow for careful examination of rosettes. It’s possible, but not certain, that the cat captured by those cameras is the same Miller more clearly photographed near year’s end.

A male jaguar named "Yo'oko Nahsuareo" photographed by motion-detection cameras in the Huachuca Mountains on December 1, 2016. Photo: USFWS 

In the KGUN 9 article, Arizona Game & Fish Department Public Information Officer Mark Hart congratulated Miller on his coup. “He worked really hard to get [...] those images,” Hart said. “And he’s provided us with the info we need to protect it.”

This new jaguar, like all the others documented north of the US-Mexico line in recent years, is a male. The nearest known breeding population to the border is more than 100 miles south in eastern Sonora. “Whether male or female, this new jaguar is going to need a mate,” said Megan Southern, The Rewilding Institute’s jaguar recovery coordinator, in the Center for Biological Diversity press release. “ “Now is the time for us to have a serious conversation and take action to bring jaguars back.”

Mining (such as the hotly debated Rosemont open-pit copper mine proposed in the Santa Ritas) and other development in the region, plus the contentious issue of the US-Mexico border wall, are among the significant challenges to this effort. Groups such as the Northern Jaguar Project, which helps maintain Sonora’s 56,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, are working to secure better habitat connectivity to bolster borderland jaguar populations and ultimately see female cats also successfully make the journey back stateside to the northernmost frontier of jag country.

Top header image: cuatrok77, Flickr