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Where Jaguars Roam, Revisited

by Juan Carlos Bravo and David Theobald (Conservation Science Partners)

Ever since a photograph of a lone wild jaguar in Arizona reverberated through the conservation community in 1996, wildlife experts in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have been trying to determine where jaguars may continue to persist—and which corridors they might be using to disperse beyond their known stronghold in central Sonora.

A close-up of a large jaguar walking through the desert under a bright blue sky
A jaguar photographed by a motion-triggered camera in northern Mexico. Photo: Northern Jaguar Project/Naturalia

This information is critical to conservation efforts aimed at protecting the best remaining areas of jaguar habitat and the movement corridors between them.

In 2007, Wildlands Network brought together a landmark group of local experts to draft a rudimentary “Safe Passages” map for jaguars based on expert knowledge and existing habitat models. Over the years, others have created similar maps with improved mapping tools.

In 2011, for instance, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contracted the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to compile a database of jaguar observations and to map potentially suitable jaguar habitat and movement corridors using expert input, hundreds of historic and contemporary jaguar records, and various landscape variables.

Promising Results for Jaguars

Just this month, researchers have made another significant stride in mapping potentially suitable jaguar habitat and corridors in the borderlands region of northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

A cutting-edge team of researchers with the scientific collective Conservation Science Partners crafted a new jaguar model by building upon the WCS database and modeling approach and re-evaluating and refining core assumptions at each step. As part of that team, we employed recently available, high-resolution landscape data to improve our results.

Read Press Release

This mapping effort focused on the same geographic region as the FWS-WCS model—the Northwestern Recovery Unit (NRU)—but importantly was not limited to the earlier defined boundaries of the NRU based on coarse data and simple model assumptions. That is, we did not artificially constrain our map of potential jaguar habitat to the boundaries of the NRU, but rather extended it northward to U.S. Interstate 40.

Significantly, we found that a substantial amount of potentially suitable jaguar habitat likely extends into the southwestern U.S. (Arizona and New Mexico), including north of Interstate 10.

Our model integrates highly detailed variables describing topography, tree canopy cover, and human disturbance, and provide a nuanced vision of the potential pathways used by jaguars to move across the Sonoran landscape. The new model also accounts for sporadic jaguar observations in the state of Chihuahua, and for the presence of at least one jaguar in Cabeza Prieta National Monument.

Jaguar Crossing Structures

Our modeling effort also produced an important map of potential connectivity at a resolution relevant to transportation planning (i.e., 90 m per pixel). This level of detail is unprecedented in the borderlands region, and will be useful for providing transportation authorities in Mexico with potential locations for wildlife crossing structures for jaguars along Highway 2—which bisects the Sky Islands just south of the international border in Sonora.

Corridors in the Sky Islands have been mapped in unprecedented detail, allowing us and others to identify areas where highways and jaguar corridors likely intersect.

Similarly, these maps could help guide U.S. transportation authorities in implementing crossing structures for jaguars trying to reach potential habitat north of Interstate 10.

Access the Report and Data

The report describing the new model of jaguar habitat can be downloaded now, and the model and maps of suitability and connectivity will be made publicly available on Databasin within a few weeks.

Interested land managers and conservationists can download data to inform their own advocacy and planning work throughout the region. With Databasin’s basic mapping tools, users can customize maps to include features of interest and incorporate the new jaguar model into reports and presentations.

We are very grateful to the Wilburforce Foundation for providing the funding necessary to complete this model and to make it broadly available to the conservation community.

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