Prevalence of Jaguars in Arizona: How Endangered Species Sighting Reports are Classified

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Have you seen a jaguar in southern Arizona? To distinguish these possible sightings from young mountain lions, bobcats or even a large housecat, the Arizona Game and Fish Department uses a three-tiered classification system to rank reported sightings from the public based on the level of physical evidence available.

Often a confirmed sighting of a rare species, like the recent observation of a male jaguar by a mountain lion hunter, will generate an increase in public reports.

“The public’s involvement with wildlife and their willingness to contact the department is very valuable,” says Gary Hovatter, deputy director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “The outcome of the vast majority of these reports demonstrates that rare species truly are rare, but every public report represents an opportunity for the department to potentially learn more about the state’s wildlife and Arizonans interest in it.”

Game and Fish receives as many as 60-80 jaguar and ocelot sighting reports from the public per year in southern Arizona. In all but rare cases, the department’s policy is to follow-up and investigate these reports.

Wildlife managers visit the location of the possible sighting and attempt to recover tracks, scat, hair, scrapes and any other evidence that would help lead to a definitive identification of the reported animal.

The presence of physical evidence such as scat, hair or photos and video can lead to a classification of “verifiable” or “highly probable.” In the most recent instance of a jaguar sighting report from a member of the public, high-quality photos and video evidence were available and helped biologists arrive at this classification. In addition, the department collected hair samples that they will attempt to use for a DNA analysis, which will further confirm the sighting as a jaguar.

A second-tier classification is one that lacks physical evidence, but is considered “probable” or “possible” because the sighting was made by an experienced or reliable observer that usually has wildlife or field experience. In June, a Border Patrol pilot on routine patrol sighted a large copper-colored cat with spots and a long tail in forested mountains north of the Mexican border.  The pilot was not able to provide physical evidence and a field investigation by the department did not yield any evidence. Therefore, the sighting was considered “probable,” but not confirmed, as the pilot has extensive field experience and was able to make several passes over the animal to view it at different angles.

Game and Fish encourages the public to report sightings of what they believe to be an ocelot or jaguar by calling the Operation Game Thief hotline at (800) 352-0700.  Reports will be followed up with site visits by officers and biologists, so people should take care to provide location details (GPS or map) and not disturb any of the area around the site.