El Jefe is an adult male jaguar first recorded in Arizona in November 2011 and living in the Santa Rita Mountains. From November 2011 to November 2016, El Jefe was the only wild jaguar verified to live in the United States. Its name, which means The Boss in Spanish, was chosen by students of the Felizardo Valencia Middle School of Tucson, in a contest organized by the non-profit conservation group Center for Biological Diversity in November 2015 and has been used frequently by conservation groups and media. However, several researchers involved in its monitoring prefer to call it simply the Santa Ritas jaguar. On 1 December 2016 another male jaguar was photographed in Fort Huachuca also in Arizona.In February of 2017 authorities revealed that a third jaguar had been photographed in November of 2016 by the Bureau of Land Management in the Dos Cabezas Mountains, also in Arizona, some 100km north of the border with Mexico. The only picture obtained allowed experts to determine this is a different individual but it does not reveal its sex.
El Jefe was first sighted by cougar hunter and guide Donnie Fenn, along with his 10 year-old daughter, in the Whetstone Mountains on Saturday, 19 November 2011. His hunting dogs chased the animal until it climbed a tree, at which point he took several pictures of it and left to call state wildlife officials. In a news conference organized by the Arizona Game and Fish Department the following Tuesday, Fenn stated that the jaguar, an adult male, climbed down the tree and was chased up a second tree after it had injured some of the dogs in its retreat. The hunter pulled his dogs away, and left the scene. The pictures represent the first evidence of the existence of a wild jaguar in the United States since the death of Macho B in 2009. Several news outlets ran the photos with an article but a video, said to have been taken at the scene, is not publicly available.
In 20 December 2012, through a joint news release the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the University of Arizona, announced that pictures from a jaguar taken in late November of that year, at the Santa Rita Mountains using camera-traps, belonged to the same individual photographed by Fenn one year earlier. The camera-traps were set by the Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project an initiative led by the University of Arizona. Individual jaguars can be identified by their unique spot patterns, which allowed researchers to confirm it was the same adult male.
Since the emergence of the Santa Rita photographs of El Jefe in 2012, several new pictures and some videos have been released by agencies and groups working in the area, notably by the Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center at the University of Arizona. An edited video with shots from different days gained much attention in the news when it was released by the Center for Biological Diversity and CATalyst.
El Jefe is significant as it represents the only verified jaguar currently living in the United States, where they once were distributed throughout the southwest. In 2010 the US Fish and Wildlife Service was successfully sued by Defenders of Wildlife to produce a Species Recovery Plan and designate Critical Habitat for jaguars, it has since drafted an area that includes the Santa Rita mountains as the Critical habitat for the species recovery in the United States.
The Northernmost breeding population of jaguars, from where El Jefe most likely came, was identified by Brown and Lopez González in eastern Sonora, Mexico and named the Huásabas-Sahuaripa population, after two of the municipalities over which it extends. This population has been the target of several conservation efforts, most notably the creation of the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a private wildlife sanctuary first established in 2003 by Naturalia, a Mexican non-profit conservation organization and Northern Jaguar Project and since expanded from its original 4,000 hectares to 24,400 hectares in 2015.
As part of its efforts to determine critical habitat for the species and to understand how jaguars from this population have been reaching the United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned the Wildlife Conservation Society to develop a connectivity model, that could inform which areas are likely to serve as wildlife corridors linking breeding populations of jaguars in Mexico to known locations of recent sightings in the United States. The report included a series of maps that identify the areas most likely to be used by jaguars along the western states of Mexico, and reaching into Arizona. It further identifies intersections between these corridors and major highways, as a first step in addressing the challenges any females may face trying to reach Arizona. The establishment of a breeding population of jaguars in the U.S. requires that at least one breeding female uses the U.S. as part of its territory, and is regarded as a milestone in species recovery.
The appearance of El Jefe in the Santa Rita Mountains prompted several groups to increase their opposition of the Rosemont Copper mining project still in the permitting process.
The housing project Villages at Vigneto is also being contested for its environmental impact, and damage to jaguar's critical habitat has been mentioned as one of the potential effects
The Mexico-United States barrier, a series of infrastructures built since 2006, most likely represent an obstacle to any female jaguar seeking to expand its territory into Arizona, from the known breeding populations of Sonora in Mexico. The increasing infrastructure and the waivers approved, releasing the Department of Homeland Security from adhering to any environmental law in its progress towards building more walls, have been cited as a major concern for recovery of the species in the United States.
Mexican Federal Highways No. 2 and No.15 have also been identified by both the Wildlife Conservation Society's report on jaguar habitat and by local conservation groups as major obstacles to jaguar recovery in the region. Beginning in 2010 Highway 2 has been undergoing a series of expansions, on the stretches from the town of Imuris in Sonora, to the town of Janos in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. Wildlands Network, a conservation group focused on preserving connectivity for large carnivores, has alerted of the need to include wildlife crossings on the expanded stretches of road to provide room to roam for jaguars and other animals.La Times: Arizona man spots jaguar; first U.S. sighting in two years
Time: Rare Jaguar sighting in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains
Yahoo Finance: Save the Scenic Santa Ritas: Survival of America's only known jaguar seriously threatened by proposed Rosemont Mine
CBS News: Video shows only known U.S. jaguar roaming in Arizona