On the Jaguar Trail

At the end of May a group of people interested in big-cat conservation convened in southern Arizona to learn about the future of jaguars in Arizona.

Jaguars in Arizona? That’s right – for the last 13+ years there has been at least one male jaguar making his home in the wildlands of southern Arizona.

Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project

I wrote up this overland trip for the Summer 2008 issue of Overland Journal (due out in mid-July). It was a tremendous experience to spend time in the field with people like Jack Childs of the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.

I met Jack, who is one of the Southwest’s most exerienced houndsmen and wildlife trackers, about 7 years ago, when I was working with a group that was pioneering using tracking as a way to survey important wildlife corridors around Tucson, Arizona, to determine if bears and cougars were using them (and so we could save these corridors from the rapid urban and suburban growth). Jack was one of the tracking instructors for our program.

Over the years Jack and his wife Anna Mary (left) have become friends with me and Jonathan, and just before our Jaguar Trail trip, we had a chance to head out in the hills near our home to go tracking with them. We live in the Sierrita Mountains southwest of Tucson, and Arizona Game and Fish had gotten a report that two jaguars were seen just a mile from our home. They called Jack, and Jack called us.

It just so happened Sue Morse, from Vermont’s Keeping Track, was in town (Sue developed the tracking protocol used by groups all over the country to survey for wildlife tracks for conservation projects) and so she came along when we set out up the dry creekbed looking for signs of the mystery jaguars (everyone was pretty much in agreement that it was unlikely to be jaguars since the report was for two, a highly unlikely scenario since only males have been documented here since 1969).

We spent a few hours casting around, looking for tracks, scratches on trees (wild cats are just like your housecats: they will use trees and fenceposts as scratching posts and for spraying – photo at right shows Sue and Jack checking a tree for bobcat sign), and scrapes in the leaf litter and sand (again, just like a tabby, wild cats will scratch up the ground and urinate on the mounds as scent markers). Sue and Jack are amazing trackers; Sue, one of the most accomplished bushcraft practitioners I’ve ever met, is especially keen at detecting and differentiating scent markings. She checked out a couple spots that had bobcat markings but we found no big-cat activity.

The chance to get out in the field with people like Sue and Jack and Anna Mary is always something we appreciate – it adds enormously to our own bushcraft education. If you want to learn more about wildlife tracking and similar activities, check out the following resources:

Keeping Track – the organization Sue Morse founded and directs; “inspiring community participation in the stewardship of wildlife habitat”

Tracking and the Art of Seeing – the best publication we’ve found for teaching the bushcraft of tracking

Earth Skills – a really good bushcraft school in California

Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project – founded by Jack and Anna Mary Childs, dedicated to learning more about the lives of our Southwestern jaguars

Other links mentioned in the story include: Northern Jaguar Project, information about jaguars from Wildlife Conservation International, and information on the region of the trip’s overland route, which we called the Jaguar Trail – Coronado National Forest (Ruby Road) and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

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