An endangered jaguar's spotted tail was photographed this fall in the northern Santa Rita Mountains, not far from the proposed Rosemont mine site, according to public records and Forest Service officials.
This jaguar's presence in the northern Santa Ritas was discussed in emails from a Forest Service biologist to the State Game and Fish Department - emails recently obtained by the Star under the State Public Records Act.
The mine's potential impact on the jaguar is under study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the chief enforcer of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service has already written a report, back in June, saying the mine is "likely to adversely affect" the jaguar species.
The two agencies must decide, working with the mining company, what - if any - restrictions or changes they would require for the mine to protect the jaguar and nine other federally listed species in the area. The wildlife service's Rosemont biological opinion is due by Dec. 20.
A Rosemont Copper consultant's report said the mine isn't likely to affect the jaguar species or proposed jaguar critical habitat, which spans 838,000 acres including much of the mine site. The November 2012 report from Rosemont Copper consultant Westland Resources acknowledges that the mine could affect individual jaguars, but says the male jaguars that could be using the northern Santa Ritas have little influence on broader jaguar populations.
The company has, however, proposed to place a conservation easement on a private, 1,200-acre ranch near Sonoita Creek in Santa Cruz County to limit or stop damaging land uses there to protect the jaguar and seven other imperiled species known to live near the mine site. The area, with six acres of open water in two large ponds, would be fenced to protect open water and wetlands, drainages, seasonal ponds and riparian habitat. (See accompanying article.)
In a statement, Rosemont Copper Vice President Jamie Sturgess said that as part of its cooperative efforts with Game and Fish, it has been informed, "in general terms," of a recently reported jaguar sighting on ranchlands it owns in the Santa Ritas, "but not in the area of the Rosemont Copper project site." The company deferred all other inquiries to Game and Fish.
Environmental groups said the report of a jaguar photo in the Santa Ritas underscores what one group, the Sky Island Alliance, called "the devastating harm that this mine would inflict on this special place."
"Jaguars are valuable indicators of ecosystem health and clearly the Santa Ritas have what the jaguar needs - space to roam, food, cover and connections to other mountains," said Sergio Avila, manager of the alliance's Northern Mexico conservation program. "Protecting the Santa Rita Mountains from this mine is more important than ever, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Not in actual mine area
In an Oct. 10 email to Game and Fish, Forest Service biologist Larry Jones said the jaguar photo was taken within a 145,000-acre "Rosemont Action Area" where the Forest Service is studying the mine's potential impacts on biological resources - but outside the formal mine project area boundaries. That area spans about 6,990 acres and includes the mine site and related facilities.
Last week, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch said the jaguar photo was taken in an area "adjacent to" and likely "pretty darned close" to the Rosemont project area. In his email, biologist Jones called the jaguar's existence there "crucial info, because this would provide unequivocal proof that jaguars have been detected within the action area."
He wrote that this jaguar's presence will mean "absolutely no change" in the service's June report saying the mine will adversely affect the animal. But for the Fish and Wildlife Service, this Santa Ritas photograph will be considered in its deliberations because "it adds clarity," said Jeff Humphrey, a wildlife service spokesman.
"Rather than connecting very old dots on a map, we now have something that is new and precise," he said.
Game and Fish, which received the jaguar tail photo from a hunter, declined to share more specific location information or release an uncropped photo of the jaguar tail that it said would pinpoint its location because it shows a well-known landmark the jaguar could return to. Release of that photo could lead to illegal "take" of an endangered species, Game and Fish Deputy Director Gary Hovatter wrote the Star Nov. 16.
This photo was taken Sept. 23 by a remote camera 30 to 50 feet from the animal, Game and Fish records show. At first, the agency sought outside scientific opinion as to whether it was a jaguar's or an ocelot's tail. Later, it said its experts and most outside experts agreed the photo showed a jaguar's tail, a small portion of its hind quarter and a rear foot.
second report of jaguar
This is the second jaguar report in the Santa Ritas in two years. On June 2, 2011, a U.S. Border Patrol agent flying over the mountains spotted a large, spotted cat he believed was a jaguar walking in the Mansfield Canyon area on the north face of Mount Wrightson. Game and Fish officials could not confirm the report but they did give it some credibility.
That happened about 13 miles south of the smaller Rosemont mine project area and about eight miles south of the much larger action area, said the Forest Service's June report on the mine's impacts on protected species.
On Nov. 19, 2011, a mountain lion hunter photographed a male jaguar in the Whetstone Mountains in Cochise County, about five miles south of Interstate 10, Game and Fish records show. That was about 25 miles east of the Rosemont project area and about 10 miles east of the action area.
But until now, there have been no confirmed jaguar sightings inside the action area since 1961, when one occurred in the Empire Mountains, the Forest Service's June report said. Three confirmed jaguar records occurred in the Santa Ritas in 1917, 1918 and 1919.
The Forest Service's biological report said that because jaguars have large home ranges and males may take long forays, the Rosemont project area could be within one or more jaguars' home ranges. Jaguars living near the mine would likely alter their behavior to avoid light, noise, vibrations and habitat removal, the report said.
Possible lighting impact
The mine has a light pollution mitigation plan, but its lighting still could disrupt the jaguar's dispersal, communication patterns and hunting success, and noise and blasting from mine construction could change the animal's dispersal patterns and damage its hearing, the report said.
But the Rosemont Copper report said the mine's impacts on jaguar populatIons are likely to be low because, among other reasons, the odds of female jaguars in the U.S. are low and because the influence of male U.S. jaguars on Sonoran jaguar populations - where females are known to live - is small. It's 130 miles from the Mexican border to the Sonoran breeding population, and a male jaguar in that area must traverse considerable, unsuitable habitat, the Westland report said.
Even if those jaguars could breed in Sonora, they're likely to have little effect on its jaguar population, said the Westland report, which didn't mention the recent jaguar photograph. Also, because no records exist of jaguar breeding in the U.S. for 60 years, the males that do exist here likely came from the Sonora population and can't, by themselves, repopulate the jaguar species, the report said.
Finally, the Rosemont project area contains about 5,000 acres of jaguar critical habitat, only about 0.6 percent of the entire proposed habitat area, Westland said, making it unlikely the mine will damage the primary vegetation and other elements of that habitat, Westland said.
But the presence of a jaguar so close to a mine boosts the threat for illegal "take," said Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont law professor who was involved with endangered species litigation as a federal official and a National Wildlife Federation attorney.
"The more you can show that mining activity could harm or harass an individual animal, the more potential there is for take," Parenteau said. "It does matter how close the animal is."
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.