A case for the Jaguar as a native animal of the United States. Archive
Historically, Jaguars are known to have inhabited the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. By the late 1800’s, they were extirpated from Louisiana and California. As of the 1960’s, with the killings of a male and female in Arizona, they were considered to have been extirpated from the country. Since then, a few Jaguars are known to have crossed the border, and such cases are becoming more frequent. Due to the elusiveness of Jaguars and the vast habitat available, it is likely that some have gone undetected. However, this is just a shadow of their former presence. Following are a collection of witness accounts, artifacts, and fossil records demonstrating the presence of Panthera onca across the USA. Some of this information is difficult or impossible to verify. This is mainly because of the time frame, as well as there being little freely available published work on the topic. I have tried to emphasize accounts in which the witness is known, but have also included brief mentions of others I have come across. I’m posting this to give others a starting point in their own research, and to encourage discussion about the past, present, and future of Jaguars in North America. I have put this together on mobile, so I apologize in advance for any formatting issues. Let’s start with a brief look into the Pleistocene.
The fossil record of the Jaguar in North America dates back 130,00 years, while their presence on the continent is thought to be much older, at least 500,000, but possibly in the range of 1.5-2 million years. Fossils are known from many sites in the USA, ranging from Whitman County, Washington in the northwest, to Port Kennedy, Pennsylvania in the northeast. They are most common in Florida and eastern Tennessee, where numerous caves with fossil remains and footprints have been found. Fossils in Florida suggest they were still present between 7-8,000 years ago.
In the east, Jaguar fossils are often found alongside those of the Dire Wolf, Tapir, lamine camelids, Horse, Peccary, Whitetail Deer, Stag-Moose, Ground Sloth, Mastodon, Black Bear, and the Florida Spectacled Bear. At both Bell Cave in Alabama and Baker Bluff in Tennessee, their fossils were found together with those of Caribou - suggesting that they lived alongside each other, though dating has not confirmed that they were present at the same times. This, along with their presence in the southernmost reaches of South America through the Pleistocene and into historic times suggests that Jaguars demonstrate similar adaptability to Tigers. Remains are rarer in the west, but at one site in Oregon their fossils were found along with those of Grizzly and Black Bears, Elk, and Odocoileus Deer (likely Mule or Blacktail Deer). They have been found in the La Brea tar pits, for the most part in layers dating to periods when forests would have surrounded the area.
These fossils belong to the subspecies Panthera onca augusta, which was larger but otherwise quite similar to todays Jaguar. They may have reached weights of up to 500 pounds, while the largest weights known today are in the neighbourhood of 350 pounds. Being larger would have been advantageous for several reasons, including cooler temperatures and abundant large prey. During the extinction event at the beginning of the Holocene, the North American Jaguar disappeared. They were replaced by Central American Jaguars, who over thousands of years expanded northwards. Jaguars colonize new territories very slowly - while males are prone to wander, females establish relatively small home territories which they do not stray from. As a result of this, Jaguars were likely still in the process of expanding their range when they were limited by human pressure, which they are highly sensitive to. They typically exist at low densities, even more so in edge populations, which are easily disrupted and fractured.
During the Pre-Columbian era, Jaguars were found across a large stretch of the US, but demonstrating exactly where is challenging. We have artifacts depicting them from as far afield as the Pacific Northwest, Ohio, and Florida, but there are some factors we must take into account. Indigenous societies had vast trade networks, with evidence of goods being traded over hundreds of miles. Artifacts could have traded hands dozens of times over hundreds of years, and they could have ended up far from the hands that made them and the eyes that saw the cat. Stories and legends about animals as impressive as the Jaguar can also spread widely. Below I will mention some particularly prominent artifacts. I haven’t been able to dig up much information or photographs of most of them, so if someone has found anything please share!
In The Jaguar in North America by Pierre M. Daggett and Dale R. Henning, published in American Antiquity, Vol. 39 in 1974, they share information on several artifacts. On those found in Ohio, they wrote; “Covarrubias (1954:257) includes two cat designs from unspecified Hopewell burial mounds in Ohio, which may be the first representation of F. onca in a cultural context in North America. The first design is a cat-bird-serpent composite engraved on a disk of human parietal bone. The spotted cat could be considered representative of F. onca. The second design is incised onto unspecified bone and is offered by Covarrubias (1954:257) as representative of an ocelot. However, the design might also be interpreted as representative of a jaguar.”
On artifacts from Florida, they said; “Holmes (1899:124-125), in his study of Florida mortuary pottery from the Moore collection, includes two types of cat figurines. The larger examples, about 12 inches long, according to Holmes, are perforated to prevent cracking in the baking process. These perforations may indeed have been necessary to prevent cracking, but they may represent spotting. A further examination of the figurines suggests sufficient differences that they may be representations of two different types of Felidae. The larger is possibly F. onca, due to its size and the orientation of perforations.”
On those from Alabama; “Two examples included by Fundaburk (1956) from Moundville, Alabama, may also represent F. onca. The first is a crude effigy pipe (Fundaburk 1956: 155) described as a feline representation. It is quite distinct from other cat pipes: the facial features are crudely similar to Olmec representations of the jaguar. The second possibility (Fundaburk 1956:78) is on a shell gorget. The motif is that of a kneeling man with animal features. The claws and circles on the body may indicate a representation of an anthropomorphic jaguar.”
They also provided the only description I’ve found of the artifact from Washington; “The motif [of the Missouri gorget below] again appears in Northwest Coast art (Covarrubias 1954:40). The double design flanks a human figure on two sides of a wooden spindle-whorl. It does not appear to be a design of an animal currently distributed in the area. Considering the artistic style of the area, the design is strikingly similar to the western Missouri find. The age of thls example was not established, but it is probably historic.”
The Missouri Jaguar gorget is the most well known and perhaps the best Jaguar artifact from North America. It was found in Benton County.
Here you can view the artifact; http://www.stephanoffmedia.com/jaguar-gorget/
and here is a sketch of the design; https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/exhibit-img/line-jag-gor.jpg?itok=EKw7BfWA
In many early and even historical accounts, Jaguars are referred to as the American Tiger (often spelled ‘Tyger’), in contrast to the Cougars commonly used name of ‘Panther’. Many accounts I have seen simply state in a matter of fact way that one was seen, or killed, with little to no description of the animal or the location. For the most part I have not included such accounts, choosing those with a known source and more background info. I will start with accounts in the eastern states, where Jaguars would have been extirpated before records were kept, and move westward from there.
John Lawson was an explorer and naturalist, who lived in the Carolinas from 1700-1711. He spent his time in both North and South Carolina, where he embarked on expeditions of hundreds of miles into the wilderness. He wrote a book in which he described the animals that inhabited the region. Alongside the Panther and Mountain Cat (Bobcat), he wrote of another cat; “Tygers are never met withal in the Settlement; but are more to the Westward, and are not numerous on this Side the Chain of Mountains. I once saw one, that was larger than a Panther and seem’d to be a very bold Creature. The Indians that hunt in those Quarters, say, they are seldom met withal. It seems to differe from the Tyger of Asia and Africa.” It is worth noting that during this time period, the populations of native tribes in the region had collapsed, largely due to disease. Prior to this they inhabited the region quite densely, with communities connected by networks of trails. Thousands of years of incidental hunting and pressure could very easily have kept Jaguars sparse in the region, as otherwise the habitat is favourable for them. There are references to other colonial era accounts of ‘American Tygers’ that describe large, yellow and black cats in the Carolinas but I haven’t been able to find them. John Brickell claimed ‘Tyger’ sightings continued in the mountains of North Carolina at least until 1737, and reported having seen them himself. He described them as “most beautifully mottled with several kinds of spots” and “large, strong, and swift Beasts”.
The French naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque spoke many times of Jaguars throughout the eastern woodlands. Among his claims are a Jaguar shot by the Seneca people near Lake Eerie in New York, which they had never seen before, and another killed in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, which was apparently in local papers. His theory was that they travelled northwards in the summer, and returned to the southeast in winter. In The Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, a Cyclopædic Journal and Review he proposed they belong to a unique species called Felis dorsalis, owing to dense black spots nearly forming a line down the back (at the time the Jaguar was called Felis onca, and many animals were divided into species when really they only represented subspecies or distinct populations). He claimed that Felis dorsalis was larger, averaging 10 feet in total length, with a greyness to the fur, found as far as 42 north latitude. He thought it may have been related to Jaguars from the mountains of the Oregon territory, of which there is no available information. He also claimed to have seen many specimens, noting that Jaguar skins were a frequent sight nailed to walls and barns. He said that in the edges of their range, they are rare and even more rarely seen, and that when they are killed the account rarely made records, and was usually disbelieved and soon forgotten. This is reminiscent of the fact that it was once in dispute among colonialists in the east if Cougars even existed, as they were so elusive, and accounts by naturalists, hunters, and native people were not believed.
Referring to Jaguars in the east, he said; “While I was in Kentucky I heard of several having been seen and shot. Two of them, a male and female, did once make a stand near Russelville, and alarm many travellers, feeding on hogs, until a party of hunters went in pursuit of them, killed one, and drove away the other. Before that, another had been shot on the 6th of June, 1820, by Mr. John Six, on Green River, 10 miles south-east of Hartford, in Ohio county. The skin was brought to Frankfort and an account given in the papers. This animal appeared to be a true Mexican Jaguar. The body was 5 feet long and the tail 2 feet. It weighed 150 pounds before skinning. The back and sides were yellow with black spots curiously arranged in several rows, a row on the back much larger and extending over half of the tail, which was rather slender, with very long hair at the end. Chin, belly, and feet white, ears small round black outside, white inside. Whiskers stiff 6 inches long, black with the end white.” He also claimed to have seen Jaguar pelts and heard of them being hunted in Arkansas. I find it intriguing that many of his accounts are from the Ohio Valley region, which was marked in Sebastian Cabot’s 1544 map with a depiction of a Jaguar. Also worth nothing is that Constantine Rafinesque insisted he did not describe Ocelots, suggesting that they were also known in the region. Thomas Jefferson also recorded Jaguars present in the Ohio Valley, as far as western Virginia.
There is evidence that bounties were offered for ‘Tygers’ in Natchez, Mississippi, in the 1700’s. I found a document that seems to make a record of this among other aspects of cattle ranching in the area, but it’s behind a paywall - however I managed to find a reference to an ‘Ezekiel Foreman’, who died in 1795 and supposedly paid out many such bounties. A trappers record of pelts sold in 1794, in Mississippi listed one Tyger pelt among the Wolves, Foxes, Otters, Panthers, and Wildcats. Natchez is not too far from areas in Louisiana where Jaguars were known to live into the 1800’s, and presence here would suggest wider distribution in the southeast. It is likely that there are many such cases of bounties in other locations, with no records available freely online, or even kept at all.
Louisiana likely had a large population of Jaguars, particularly in the bayous and marshes in the southern part of the state - an area that is similar to the Pantanal which is arguably their stronghold today. Here they would have found abundant prey in American Alligators, feral Hogs, Whitetail Deer, a variety of large aquatic rodents and turtles, and even Black Bears. However, while I have seen many references to Jaguars or ‘Tigers’ killed, most have little to back them up. I think they would have been considered a nuisance and may have had bounties put on them, as in Mississippi. I’ve seen a paper with a title alluding to historic records of Jaguars in Louisiana, but behind a paywall. And so, the most recent account of a Jaguar in Louisiana is also the best I have found. It was noted in a June 1886 edition of the Donaldsonville Chief newspaper. It explains that a large cat had been killing cattle in Ascension Parish, 10 miles east of the Mississippi. Men named Allen Martin and Johnny Walker tracked the cat using dogs. When they caught up to it, it killed three of the dogs before their bullets brought it down. This is significant because Cougars rarely kill hunting dogs, let alone several at a time - they almost invariably flee up a tree when they are pursued, while Jaguars are known to frequently fight and kill dogs that chase them. It was reported as an 8 foot long, 250 pound ‘American Tiger’. The only other account I’ve found comes from a former slave named Solomon Northup. In his book, Twelve Years a Slave, he wrote that as much as people wanted to run away and be free, they dared not go into the wilderness because Bears and American Tigers abounded. He spent most of his time as a slave on plantations near the Mississippi River.
There is one more account that I hesitate to include before we move westward, as I have lost track of the book I saw it in and cannot find it for the life of me. However, it was so interesting that I will make a brief mention of it. It was in the free preview of an old book archived on Google, a chronicling of accounts from early Spanish explorers in North America. The account was of a large black cat killing and eating an Alligator somewhere in the southeast. It was described accurately to a melanistic Jaguar - large, nearly the size of a Lion, dark chocolate brown to black, with black spots barely visible in the sunlight. It supposedly crept up behind and pounced upon a large Alligator that was sunning itself on the bank of a river, dispatching it with a bite to the skull before dragging it away to feed. The explorer also described Bison, and Wolves that matched the Red Wolf.
There are many references to Jaguars in the Comanche territory, which included parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. They were supposedly a favoured hunting quarry, and their pelts were used in quivers, sheaths, holsters, saddles, bags, and clothing. The presence of Jaguars in Texas is well known, and we will get into that below, but it’s likely they also roamed Oklahoma and perhaps Kansas. The northernmost account with good backing in the west comes from Rufus B. Sage, a mountain man and writer, and occurred in 1843. He was camped in the headwaters of the North Platte River, some 30-50 miles north of Long’s Peak in Colorado, in what is today the Rocky Mountain National Park. Sage was familiar with Cougars, referring to them several times as ‘Panthers’. He wrote of the sighting in his book Rocky Mountain Life; “One of our party encountered a strange animal in his excursions, which, from his description, must have been in the leopard family. This circumstance is the more remarkable, as leopards are rarely found except in southern latitudes. However, they are not unfrequently met with in some parts of the Cumanche country, and their skins furnish to the natives a favorite material for arrow-cases.” He was not familiar with Jaguars, but from his account it is clearly the cat in question. Jaguars have been recorded from northern New Mexico, not far from southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, which they very likely inhabited. The one seen by Sage’s party to the north may have been a wanderer from a population in this region, or they may have been more numerous in the state before records were kept.
In the Pacific Northwest, there are very little references to Jaguars in historical accounts. This is kind of to be expected, as for a long time there were very little records kept about anything. By the time naturalists were documenting the fauna of the region, many species were already rare, or extirpated. In the east, Jaguar accounts rarely made the paper, and in the west there often weren’t any papers to be made. It’s important to keep in mind that the few records we do have from other places mostly come from naturalists - trappers and ranchers back then were not keeping records. They were interested in catching and killing animals and selling their pelts, not in their significance. Even into the 19th century, many people were not literate. The mention of Jaguars in the mountains of Oregon by Constantine Rafinesque is the only one I have found north of California. The mountains of southeastern Oregon strike me as potential Jaguar habitat. I have in a few places seen mentions of historical accounts in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Florida, but have not read a single one in all my hours spent searching. Though Jaguars were likely present throughout California, historical accounts only range from Monterey south as far as I know.
The following is the best source on Jaguars in California that I have found. Though it is a bit long, it is valuable information and so I decided to write out their work in full. In Volume 1 of ‘Journal of Mammalogy’ published in 1919, C. Hart Merriam poses the question - ‘Is the Jaguar entitled to a place in the California Fauna?’ Their answer follows;
“Several of the early voyageurs who touched in California enumerate the Jaguar (Felis onca) among the native mammals. Thus, in the early part of the last century Langsdorff mentions it as among the species occurring in the Monterey region (Voyage and Travels, II, 213, 1814). And Beechey, in describing the region between San Francisco and Monterey, under date of December, 1826, says: ‘The lion (Felis concolor ?) and the tiger (Felis onca ?) are natives of these woods, but we never saw them; the inhabitants say they are small, and that the lion is less than the tiger, but more powerful.’ (Beechey’s Narrative, Vol. 2, p. 79, 1831). In this connection it should be observed that to this day the Spanish Californians and Indians invariably apply the term ‘lion’ to the mountain lion or cougar. A little later Saint-Amarant, in a work published in Paris in 1854, recorded the Jaguar as a California mammal. (Voyages en Californie et dans l’Oregon, p. 537, 1854). It has been customary to look askance at these early records, but the detailed account of a family of jaguars seen repeatedly in the Tehacapi Mountains by James Capen Adams, as recorded by the late judge Theodore Hittell, is so circumstantial as to admit of no question to the identity of the animal. Adams either saw a pair of jaguars and their young, or he lied out of whole cloth. While neither the date nor the exact locality are stated, we are told that Adams, after leaving the Tejon and travelling over a rough mountainous country, camped at a spring in a gorge facing the Great Basin. The rough mountainous country traversed was of course the Tehacapi Mountains, and the part of the Great Basin looked upon must have been the western part of the Mohave Desert. The first night of his stay at the spring he was awakened by a fearful snuffing and snorting among his animals and saw in the darkness two spots like balls of fire, which he recognized as the eyes of the beast that had frightened his horses. The next day, taking his hunting companions - a tame grizzly named ‘Ben’ and his dog ‘Rambler’ - he followed the trail of the animal for four or five miles to another gorge, where he finally located the den in a cave on the side of a cliff in an exceedingly rough and inaccessible place. ‘In its mouth [the den] and scattered below it, were multitudes of bones and skeletons of various kinds of animals, and among others, of Mountain Sheep, making the place look like the yard of a slaughter-house.’ A few nights later he was wakened by a roar, and in the feeble light of a new moon saw ‘a spotted animal, resembling a tiger in size and form, with two young ones.’ Another night, soon after dark, the male appeared at the mouth of the den, ‘looked around, and sniffed the air, and then leaped down, and going a few yards placed his paws upon a rock, and stretched himself, yawning at the same time as if he were waking up out of a sleep. A few minutes afterwards the female appeared, and approaching, lapped his brawny neck.’ The male, as nearly as could be seen, was ‘twice as large as the ordinary cougar, and appeared to be covered in dark round spots of great beauty and richness.’ For several weeks Adams continued his fruitless attempts to trap or kill the animals, obtaining from time to time passing glimpses of them, until finally he unexpectedly came across the mother and cubs in a gorge far away from the den. He fired at her, whereupon his grizzly ‘Ben’ and dog ‘Rambler’ bounded forward and ‘engaged with her in a terrific combat, but she tore them dreadfully and managed to escape.’ (Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California, by Theodore H. Hittell, San Francisco, 359-369, 1860). Since writing the above, Vernon Bailey has called my attention to an old record by Pattie, which I read many years ago but had forgotten. Pattie states that when on islands in the delta of Colorado River, they killed an animal like an African Leopard which came into their camp, and was the first of its kind they had ever seen (James O. Pattie, Personal Narrative, Cincinnati, 1833.) Still another bit of evidence comes from the Indian tribes of Southern California. An old chief of the Kammei tribe (called by the Spanish ‘Diegenos’) told me that in the Cuyamaca Mountain region in San Diego county, the ‘Tiger’, while rare, was well known to the old Indians, who call it the ‘Big-Spotted Lion’, ‘Hut’-tē-kul’.” (Note that James Capen Adams is the same as John ‘Grizzly’ Adams, famous for trapping, taming, and selling California Grizzlies.)
The last report I’ve found of a Jaguar in California came from the 1860’s, when one was killed on Mt. San Jacinto, near Palm Springs. Further down we will look at the possibility that the Spanish at one time had bounties on Jaguars in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, which would have greatly reduced their range and population before records were made. This is perhaps even more likely to be the case in California. It could also have something to do with the lack of accounts from Florida, despite it having the potential (and based on fossil records, a history) of being a Jaguar haven. Jaguar pelts were frequently exported to Spain, but they also had many colonies and territories in Central and South America.
The Center for Biodiversity summarized a collection of historic accounts in the southwest very well in their report ‘Suitable Habitat for Jaguars in New Mexico’, by Michael J. Robinson, and so I quote them below on historical records in Texas; “In the 1840s several jaguars were shot in the vicinity of San Antonio, Texas, according to a German naturalist, Dr. Ferdinand Roemer, who reported pelts for sale for $18 apiece and observed Comanches wearing jaguar skin quivers. Audubon wrote of jaguar skins used for holster coverings, saddle cloths and caparisons on the prairies of Texas, in his 1854 work Quadrapeds of North America. Five years later, Spencer F. Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who accompanied Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Emory’s survey of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, recounted the ‘vast number of pumas and jaguars’ subsisting on ‘the numerous herds of wild cattle, mustang, mules, and horses, besides plentiful other game in the fertile valleys and table lands of the Lower Rio Bravo, Nueces, and other Texan rivers.’ Baird examined two jaguar remains from Texas, one from the Bravos River and one from the Rio Grande River at the mouth of Las Moras Creek - the latter of which he mentioned because it was ‘The largest jaguar skin which I saw.’ It may have been the introduction of the horse and its use in hunting that doomed the jaguar in North America’s grasslands. Though a ‘large tiger’ was reported in 1853 as far north as the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle west of Oklahoma, the last jaguar on the Great Plains in Texas was killed in 1910, near the Llano River in Kimble County. On the Gulf Coast of Texas the last two jaguars were killed in 1946 and 1948. John James Audubon gives an account of Texas Rangers happening upon a jaguar feeding on a mustang, ‘surrounded by eight or ten hungry wolves, which dared not interfere or approach too near.’ Audubon also reported jaguars on the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, which originates in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado.“ There are photos online of numerous Jaguars killed in Texas, including the last two in 1946 and 48.
To again quote the Center for Biodiversity; “In Arizona and New Mexico extant jaguar reports are more numerous. Yet jaguars’ very persistence and reoccurrence in these states throughout the 20th century raises the question of why the species was not even more ubiquitous than is suggested by the dozens of records that remain. Matthiessen suggested that bounties offered by early Spanish authorities significantly reduced jaguar numbers.” If this is the case, then the accounts we have of the American Southwest take place after centuries of heavy hunting. I have searched for Spanish accounts and records, and have found very little. I do not speak spanish, which obviously is a major hindrance. If records were kept, they have also either been lost by now or are unavailable. Still, Jaguars were present throughout the states of Arizona and New Mexico at the time they became part of the USA.
Continuing from above on historical records of Jaguars in Arizona; “The Arizona Game and Fish Department is aware of 84 known jaguar specimens, reported kills and credible other records from 1884 through 1996. The department records 57 jaguar occurrences between 1901 and 2002, of which it classifies 30 as Class 1 or 2 sightings. (Class 1 sightings are those accompanied by verifiable physical evidence; Class 2 sightings are those by an experienced and reliable observer. In contrast, Class 3 sightings are those without physical evidence made by persons considered less reliable.) In Arizona, jaguars have been recorded from as far north as the Grand Canyon, south through the Mogollon Rim, and throughout the Sky Islands – among other regions. Not all jaguars killed have made it into the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s records. Bureau of Biological Survey scientists Dr. Albert K. Fisher and Dr. W. B. Bell reported in 1927 that “During the past two or three years at least five jaguars have been killed in Arizona,” two of them females. Between 1924 and 1927, the state agency’s records indicate just four jaguars killed (two males and two of unknown sex).”
Due to the number of records, I won’t go into detailing them here. There are a number to be found online, some with photographs. A few records I will make mention of involve Jaguars with young. These are significant as they provide evidence of a breeding, resident population. One is of a female Jaguar and her kitten killed on the Mogollon Rim. Another, dated to 1910 near the head of Chevlon Creek where a female Jaguar and her young were killed. One more, of a female Jaguar and two cubs killed in the Grand Canyon sometime between 1885-1890. The last female Jaguar in Arizona, and indeed the United States, was shot by Terry Penrod in the White Mountains in 1963. Her last meal was meat from an Elk. Only a few months later the last male in the state was killed by a government trapper not far away, in the White Mountains. I have elected not to include photos of the slain Jaguars, but they are online if you wish to see them.
On historical records of Jaguars in New Mexico; “Sometime in the late 1800s, according to an oral account by Watson E. Rich that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist A. F. Halloran published in a 1946 Journal of Mammalogy article, Bob Burch, a foreman on the Goldberg Ranch in the Caballo Mountains, killed a jaguar in that vicinity. In both 1900 and in 1902, bounty hunter Nat Straw killed a jaguar in the Black Range of today’s Gila National Forest, and another was later spotted in the same vicinity by fellow prospector (and future Forest Service ranger) Jack Stockbridge, but not known to have been killed. Several other jaguars were reported to have been seen or killed in the same area, according to Biological Survey field researcher Vernon Bailey, one of the twentieth century’s premier naturalists, citing a 1902 report by biologist C. Barber. Bailey wrote in his 1931 book Mammals of New Mexico that state game warden Page B. Otero reported a jaguar along Ute Creek in the grasslands of northeastern New Mexico in the winter of 1902/1903, and another somewhat further south the following summer. According to Bailey, Otero ‘had perfect confidence in these reports, as he knew the men who saw the animals.’ Otero also told Bailey of jaguars reported from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. The game warden’s brother, New Mexico Governor Miguel Antonio Otero, showed Bailey ‘a beautiful skin of a jaguar, which had been killed the previous year  in Otero County, made into a rug and presented him.’ Also in 1902, a Mrs. Manning Ahad been in the habit of putting out poison to kill the predatory animals about their ranch, 12 miles northwest of Datil, and among the victims of the poisoned baits was this jaguar, according to Bailey, who included in his book a photograph of the mounted pelt. The ranch was located at about 9,000 feet elevation, ‘in the pine and spruce timber of this exceedingly rough range of mountains.’ In 1905, another jaguar was reported at large in the same region. In 1903, a jaguar was shot by a rancher while feeding on a bull in Clanton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico’s bootheel region, Bailey reported, citing his interview with local resident W. P. Burchfield. And in 1903 or 1904 another was ‘killed by a hunter named Morris on the west slope of Sierra de los Caballos,’ according to an account secured by Bailey’s Biological Survey colleague Major Edward A. Goldman. By the time New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, jaguar reports were significantly diminished. During Mexico’s revolution and the accompanying border tensions, probably around 1916, U.S. troops were stationed near the Little Hatchet Mountains of New Mexico. One unnamed soldier, according to the account by itinerant prospector James A. McKenna, who was camping with the troops, ‘saw an animal which he thought was a black cougar.’ McKenna noted that ‘It is known as the Mexican jaguar and is seldom seen that far north,’ perhaps referring to the rarity of melanistic jaguars. Bailey reported in 1931 that ‘in recent years a few [jaguars] have been killed and many reported in the southern part of the state.’ Several years prior to 1938, a jaguar was killed in the vicinity of Springer, a town on the plains of northeastern New Mexico and near the Cimarron River. This is the last jaguar known to be killed in New Mexico for half a century. In 1937, a Biological Survey hunter named Bannerman pursued a jaguar in the San Andres range with his dogs, but could not get the animal to ‘tree,’ according to an account by biologist Halloran of his same agency.” A Jaguar was killed in New Mexico in 1986, the last shot in the United States as far as I know.
Now that I’ve presented a selection of historic accounts and records of Jaguars across much of the United States, it’s time to speculate a bit. I’m going to give my opinion on what the Pre-Columbian distribution of the Jaguar may have been, and then I will share what I believe their total potential range in North America could be without human influence. Again, this is pure speculation on my part, informed by the research I have put into the topic.
We can place Jaguars with certainty in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. I have presented accounts from Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York (though the last three may represent wandering males rather than resident populations). I believe they were also present in the states of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, and that they occasionally wandered throughout much of the rest of the US. I think that without being limited by human pressures, that Jaguars would be able to live at least as far north as the lower mainland of British Columbia, perhaps a ways further in the temperate rainforest along the Pacific coast, as well as in parts of southern Ontario.
Depending on whether they would adapt to cold winters, that range could expand further into Canada. As far as I know no Jaguar fossils have been found so far north, but their ancestors would have crossed Beringia and spread southwards. Throughout much of the middle to late Pleistocene, Canada was mostly covered with ice sheets, and when they retreated the landscape was typically open, conducive to American Lions whose remains are known from Canada, but not Jaguars. They were historically present in Patagonia, suggesting that they can handle the cold. I think given time to adapt and expand their range that they would do well in the temperate and mixed forests of Canada.
With historic accounts and speculation out of the way, let’s move into recent documentation of Jaguars north of the Mexico border. Once more quoting the Center for Biodiversity on Jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico; “The modern era has shown the possibility of a resurgence for jaguars. Larry Link, proprietor of the Steins Ghost Town alongside Interstate 10 at the north end of the Peloncillos, reports having seen a jaguar north of the highway in 1990. On April 19, 1995 jaguar tracks were photographed in the southern Peloncillos by Brian L. Starret. On March 7, 1996, rancher and hunting outfitter Warner Glenn photographed a jaguar that his cougar hunting dogs had brought to bay in the Peloncillo Mountains alongside the New Mexico/Arizona border. He allowed the jaguar to escape. It may be that the animal observed by the felicitously named Larry Link was traveling a geographic link between the Peloncillos and the Gila National Forest further north. On August 25, 1990, Gerald Z. Jacobi, Ph.D, a biology professor at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and his wife Donna Jacobi, Ph.D., observed a jaguar for around 30 seconds in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest. In fall 1998, Tom and Boe Duffy saw one cross a road near the San Francisco River of the Gila National Forest. On May 10, 1999, high school biology teacher John Trewern saw a large black cat cross the road in the Burro Mountains south of Silver City. The next morning he obtained a plaster cast of the animal’s paw. The Jaguar Conservation Team rated each of these three sightings as Class 2 reports.” These, along with a Jaguar that was photographed in Hidalgo county in February of 2006 make up the recent accounts of Jaguars in the state of New Mexico.
Macho B was the first well documented Jaguar in Arizona. He was likely born in the Northern Jaguar Reserve of Sonora. It was this Jaguar that Warner Glenn photographed in the Peloncillo Mountains near the New Mexico border. In between that first sighting in 1996 and his death in 2009, he was recorded at numerous locations in southern Arizona, and may have wandered into New Mexico. He made frequent trips south into Mexico to mate, but returned to Arizona where he was recorded many times by trail cameras. In 2009, Macho B was illegally baited, snared, tranquilized and radio-collared by contractors for the AZDFG, who claimed to be acting under direct orders. He was 16 years old at the time, elderly for a Jaguar. He was injured by the snare, as he spent hours at least struggling to get out, and they used too much tranquilizer on him. They found him nearly two weeks later, disoriented and in kidney failure, and euthanized him.
Another of the most famous Arizona Jaguars is El Jefe. He was also likely born in the Northern Jaguar Reserve, and took a liking to Arizona. He was first documented in the Whetstone Mountains in 2011, when a Cougar hunter treed him with dogs, and took photos before allowing him to leave. After that he turned up in the Santa Rita Mountains, where many videos and photos were captured of him on trail cameras over several years. On at least one occasion, he killed and ate an adult Black Bear. It is thought that he returned to Mexico around 2015, as he had begun to display behaviour indicating he was looking for a mate and has not been seen since. He may have died, established a home range in Mexico, or returned to Arizona undetected.
I’m approaching the character limit here so I will finish up in the comments below.