Educational Series: North America’s Rarest Cats Need Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
Majestic, beautiful, and famously elusive, wild cats are among the most regal predators to roam the world’s forests, grasslands, and deserts. Lists of wild cat species native to North America commonly include three members: the cougar, bobcat, and lynx, all of which are found over large geographic areas in the United States and/or Canada. What even many wildlife enthusiasts don’t realize, however, is that the historic list of cats found north of the Rio Grande is actually twice as long. An additional three species once existed in significant numbers in North America, mainly in the U.S. Southwest and South.

All three of these rare cats–the ocelot, jaguar, and jaguarundi–are today either considered extinct north of Mexico, or cling to survival in very small numbers. Reintroducing and securing a thriving future for them in the deserts and scrublands of the United States represents both a challenge and a monumental opportunity for conservationists and animal lovers hoping to restore the country’s historic biodiversity.

Only one of the three near-extinct North American cats, the ocelot, now exists in anything like a viable population on the U.S. side of the border. Yet, ocelots are still incredibly rare; fewer than 60 of these smallish cats are believed to cling to survival in southern Texas, where they cross back and forth across the border to mingle with larger populations in Mexico. Occasional ocelot sightings in nearby Arizona show the cats have potential to disperse beyond their current range; indeed, they once roamed throughout large parts of the Southwest and even into Arkansas and Louisiana. However, habitat destruction, hunting and poisoning, and other human-caused threats like automobile collisions have reduced them to a tiny fragment of their historic numbers.

At about 3.5 feet long and weighing as much as 35 pounds, ocelots are larger than a house cat but still small enough to be adorable. Their spotted coats make them somewhat resemble a miniature jaguar, but ocelot spots are arranged in rows often described as a forming “chain rosette” pattern. They are highly adaptable in terms of habitat, being found throughout much of Central and South America from dry landscapes in Mexico to the wet tropical forests of the Amazon Basin. Texas ocelots inhabit a landscape of chaparral scrubland, where they make their dens in caves or hollow trees. These medium-sized predators feed on a range of prey from rodents and lizards to birds and even small deer. Today, the largest challenge to their survival is continued habitat destruction and fragmentation which threatens to isolate their already-small populations until they are no longer genetically viable.

Even rarer in North America than the ocelot is the jaguar, the largest cat species native to the continent. Jaguars were once found over an even wider area than their smaller ocelot cousins, from the Carolinas on the East Coast all the way to California. They were one of the continent’s top predators, hunting deer, elk, and peccaries as well as smaller mammals and birds. However, the big cats were no match for human hunters equipped with guns, dogs, and poison bait, and systematic efforts to exterminate predators in the early twentieth century had a devastating impact. By the time of their listing under the recently-passed Endangered Species Act in 1972, jaguars in the United States had been very nearly eliminated.

In 1963, the last known female jaguar in the U.S. was shot dead in Arizona. Since then, wildlife researchers have verified camera trap sightings of nine individual jaguars in the country, all of them male. Some have met their end due to human actions; in 2009, a jaguar named Macho B was tragically injured in a trap and later euthanized by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Today, one tenacious jaguar, named Sombra, continues to eke out a lonely existence in southern Arizona. However, with action from U.S. policymakers, Sombra could one day be reunited with others of his species relocated from viable populations to the south.

A study published by wildlife researchers in 2021 pointed the way to rebuilding the U.S. jaguar population, arguing that habitat in parts of New Mexico and Arizona–including the area where Sombra is believed to live–has potential to sustain an estimated 90 to 150 of the big cats. Reintroducing jaguars to this area would likely involve importing individuals from healthy populations in Central America and releasing them onto a landscape where their kin once reigned as supreme predators. Sombra would finally have the opportunity to find a mate and help found a sustainable new jaguar population. Not only would a species native to the American Southwest have finally returned; the establishment of a breeding population of wild North American jaguars would also have positive implications for the species as a whole, allowing genetic mixing with dwindling populations in northern Mexico that are currently in danger of collapse.

While ocelots persist in the U.S. in only tiny populations, and jaguars are down to one known individual, a third rare wild cat–the jaguarundi–may now be completely extinct north of the Mexico border. Weighing no more than about 20 pounds, jaguarundis are only a little larger than a domestic cat, and with their lithe bodies and small ears they are often described as having a weasel-like appearance. The littlest of the Southwest’s rare cats, their population north of the Rio Grande was likely relatively small even prior to their extermination at the hands of hunters, trappers, and habitat loss. That said, southern Texas is part of the natural range of the species, which still survives throughout much of Central and South America.

The last reputable sighting of a wild jaguarundi in Texas was recorded in 1986. However, like jaguars, the species could potentially be reintroduced to its native habitat on the U.S. side of the border. Or, given enough time, habitat restoration efforts in Texas might encourage them to naturally repopulate the area without assistance. However, any effort to re-establish a viable jaguarundi population must contend with challenges facing all three rare cats of the South and Southwest. These include continued habitat degradation and fragmentation, illegal hunting, and a newer threat: construction of an ill-considered wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border wall championed by former President Donald Trump, and which continues to be a priority for some politicians, is devastating for all sorts of wildlife, including the three rare cats. Construction of the wall threatens delicate desert and chaparral ecosystems that could take years to recover from the effects of using heavy machinery to build the wall along the border. Even more importantly, animals accustomed to roaming over vast territories–like ocelots, jaguars, and jaguarundis–are prevented from crossing freely back and forth between what is now the U.S. and Mexico as they have done for thousands of years. Since establishment of viable cat populations on the U.S. side of the border may depend on their ability to mingle with their kin to the south, this presents an existential threat to all three species discussed above.

A century ago, reckless hunting and persecution of predators drove jaguars, ocelots, and jaguarundis from all or most of their range in this country. Today, ongoing threats like habitat loss and the hubris of politicians endanger efforts to rebuild their populations. Returning these three rare cats to the U.S. in anything like their former numbers will require hard work and cooperation from wildlife officials, conservation groups, and ordinary animal lovers from all over the country. Only if elected leaders know that voters care more about wildlife than projects like a disastrous border wall will the full set of North American cats be able to thrive north of Mexico once again.

Photo credit: Cburnett

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Which cat species was last sighted in its natural habitat in the U.S. in 1986?
Which of these animals might a wild jaguar prey on?
What cat is famous for having a “chain rosette” spot pattern?
In what state were wild jaguars formerly found?
True or false: Jaguars are the largest cat species native to North America
What state are jaguarundis native to?
Who is “Sombra”?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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