Two confirmed sightings of ocelots in Arizona during the past year bode well for the endangered species’ future here, a biologist said.
“This is really exciting news,” said Sergio Avila of the Sky Island Alliance, an environmental group in southern Arizona. “These cats are telling us something important, and what they’re telling us is that Arizona is a good place for ocelots.”
The latest sighting occurred Tuesday morning at a home in the Huachuca Mountains of southern Arizona. The report was confirmed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department after the young male cat was observed by a wildlife management officer, according to Jim Paxon, a department spokesman.
The ocelot, traditionally a tropical cat with a natural habitat spanning from the Mexican lowlands to central South America, was designated an endangered species in 1972. There’s only one known population in the U.S., a colony of 25 cats in southwestern Texas.
Tuesday’s sighting was the first live ocelot confirmed in Arizona since 1964. In April 2010, an ocelot was struck and killed by a vehicle near Globe.
Melanie Culver, U.S. Geological Survey geneticist and member of the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ocelot Recovery Team, said experts suspect the latest sightings are evidence of wandering males rather than a breeding population in the state.
“I don’t think this ocelot was born here,” Culver said. “In my opinion, it most likely came from Mexico and had to cross the border.”
But according to Avila, who has documented roughly 50 ocelots just 30 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, there could be a breeding population of ocelots that just hasn’t been spotted.
“The theory is that these are males traveling in search of new territory, but we just don’t know for sure,” Avila said. “They are extremely secretive, and it’s a fluke when we are able to spot one.”
Although the Arizona Game and Fish Department has no current plans to track the ocelot population, this recent sighting might create an interest in a possible study, Paxon said.
After an incident in which 2009 an adult male jaguar, dubbed Macho B, died after being captured, collared with a tracking device and released, department officials are adamant that they observe official protocols set down by the Endangered Species Act.
“The trapping of Macho B was an unfortunate accident,” Paxon said.
While Macho B was 16 years old, which is quite old for a jaguar, the ocelot sighted Tuesday appeared young and healthy, Paxon said, and a decision was made early on to leave him alone.
“He was very nonplussed by the situation; he was relaxed and licking his paws,” Paxon said. “And after a while he just went his own way.”