Industry Threatened By Endangered Species
A snare is not complicated — just a thin wire with a noose that, when triggered, closes over an animal’s leg. The device in question was anchored to a mesquite tree near Peñasco Canyon in the remote Atascosa Mountains of Arizona, about 20 miles west of Nogales and just north of the Mexican border.
Trail cameras designed to monitor wildlife had recently taken photographs of a male jaguar in the area, and researchers found a likely footprint from one of the rare spotted cats.
Biologist Emil McCain of the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project set the trap on Feb. 4, 2009, and instructed his assistant, Janay Brun, to place an attractant nearby: feces from a female jaguar in heat at the Phoenix Zoo.
Because McCain was about to leave for Spain, he gave detailed instructions on what to do if a cat was snared. He told Thornton “Thorry” Smith and Michelle Crabb, biologists with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, that trapped jaguars are so frantic and powerful they may “just rip their arms out” trying to pull free.
McCain advised Smith to carry a rifle loaded with an anesthesia-filled syringe because he might not be able to get close enough to use the pistol that works for trapped mountain lions and bears. He noted that the snare was rigged “the most jaguar-friendly way possible” with a short anchor, swivels and a bungee cord to reduce the potential for injury. Tape was applied at the tightening point to prevent wire cuts to an animal’s leg.
Smith drove to Flagstaff for the rifle. Days passed. Then, sometime on Feb. 18, 2009, an aged feline known as Macho B stepped on the tripping mechanism with his left front paw. No one witnessed what happened next. Based on injuries and evidence at the scene, however, there is little doubt that the creature’s escape efforts were panicked and prolonged.
One of the jaguar’s legs was cut and severely swollen. A canine tooth was broken off at the root. Claw fragments, hair and fluids were recovered from the tree trunk. A javelina tooth was inexplicably stuck in the jaguar’s tail.
Brun has described the cat’s struggles in an online interview, based on her visit to the site afterward. “Macho B fought,” she said. “I don’t know how long he fought, but he was climbing this tree, clawing the tree, biting the tree, banging himself against (a boulder). He fought and used probably every last ounce of strength he had. … It just absolutely killed him.”
A winter frost covered the ground when Smith and Crabb set out to check cameras and snares that same day. Hiking into Peñasco Canyon with the long gun and a special jaguar collar, they first noticed the footprints leading past one snare and toward another. They followed. Macho B lay on the ground, panting.
“I approached relatively unchallenged to within five meters and darted the jaguar in the left rump,” Smith told Game and Fish officials later. “The jaguar leaped to its feet, spun around (and) hissed/growled as I backed away.”
The dart syringe contained Telazol, a hallucinogenic drug with a knockout dosage for six hours. The Game and Fish workers waited until the jaguar was unconscious. “We gave him a quick poke — checked his eyes and stuff,” Crabb told investigators later. “Then we put a mask over his face.”
Smith and Crabb hobbled Macho B with rope, weighed him, put liquid tears in his eyes, placed a bag over his head, got DNA swabs, removed scat from his colon and sprayed iodine on leg wounds. An anal temperature showed the cat was hypothermic. They covered him with a sweatshirt.
Done with the work, they waited six hours. Smith recalled later that the cat finally raised his head and gave “a deep, throaty growl, identical to an African lion.” Then, America’s only wild jaguar staggered to his feet and wobbled away, still half-drugged, with a tracking collar on his neck and a yellow tag in his ear. He would not last a fortnight.
The furor over Macho B’s death — publicly blamed on McCain as a rogue biologist — persists to this day. Yet the truth about his demise has remained hidden for nearly three years.
An Arizona Republic investigation revealed that Macho B was caught and killed in a web of intrigue involving environmental politics, border security, greed and scientific egos.
According to investigative files, state wildlife employees were complicit in the exotic cat’s capture, motivated in part by their quest for government research funds that were being offered to study the impact of a border fence on wildlife.
Documents obtained under public-records laws also reveal that the federal government’s “jaguar lead,” the person responsible for protecting the endangered cat, was advised that snares were set in Macho B’s territory. During a criminal probe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators wrote that she obstructed justice and committed fraud by deleting evidence from her computers. She was not prosecuted or disciplined in connection with Macho B’s death.
Records make it clear that the saga of Macho B continues: Some of those directly involved in his demise are today profiting as contractors from a $771,000 Homeland Security grant to survey and conserve jaguars along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their work, financed by U.S. taxpayers, could result in new regulations and policies for public land in southern Arizona and might influence border- security efforts.
That project is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “jaguar lead,” Erin Fernandez, who was involved in Macho B’s case. She declined comment. The federal agency and the University of Arizona, which won the contract, both refuse to discuss their research and withheld key records.
When Macho B was captured, Arizona Game and Fish officials first claimed the jaguar accidentally stepped into a research snare set for lions and bears.
At the same time, they celebrated the event as an opportunity for conservation. In theory, biologists tracking a jaguar’s movement via radio collar would better understand the animal’s behavior and habitat needs. So Game and Fish administrators sent e-mails of congratulations and gratitude to McCain and others who took part in Macho B’s capture.
But the 16-year-old cat, perhaps the oldest jaguar ever documented in the wild, faltered from his stressful encounter with humans. After 12 days, he was recaptured and euthanized based on a diagnosis of kidney failure.
A guilt-ridden Brun went to the media, divulging the truth: Macho B had been intentionally lured into the snare. With the government’s first narrative debunked, state wildlife officials put forth a second story asserting that McCain had acted without the agency’s approval or sanction, and had duped the department employees who helped him.
A federal criminal investigation, an Interior Department inspector-general probe and an administrative review at the state Game and Fish Department produced an estimated 14,000 pages of evidence and testimony.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office eventually received criminal referrals naming five suspects. In the end, only two people — McCain and Brun — were prosecuted for the capture and death of an endangered animal. Neither was a government employee.
McCain, a big-cat specialist who worked under contract for the Game and Fish Department, maintained public silence after the scandal broke. But, in e-mail interviews over several months with The Republicfrom Spain and South Africa, where he continues to do wildlife research, McCain said Arizona officials encouraged him to trap Macho B and, afterward, to conceal the crime.
“Simply put, I was set up,” said McCain. “I think that my case is much more one of being ‘lured into a trap’ than that of Macho B. … They have made me out to be a cold-blooded killer of the animal I cared so deeply about and worked so hard to protect for so long.”
McCain also lashed out at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging that he advised federal officials that snares were set in the jaguar’s territory, and they did not protest or intervene.
“Basically, everybody wanted the jaguar collared, but the agencies knew there was no way in hell the capture was ever going to be authorized,” McCain said. “If everything went well, they could be on the cutting edge of modern conservation biology, and they would probably even thank me. But if something went wrong, they had an easy out: ‘It was that darn egotistical Emil. He deceived us. Hell, he wasn’t even working for us.’”
In interviews and an online publication known as “Just Seeds,” Brun agreed with McCain’s analysis — even though she expressed contempt for his conduct.
“I think they all just saw it as, ‘Here’s our chance, the only jaguar in the United States, we’re gonna get a collar on that guy and we’re all gonna be famous,’” Brun told the online magazine. “And Emil just made himself to be like the fall guy. … A lot of people involved have gotten away with everything. And nothing has changed for the benefit of the jaguar at all.”
Terry Johnson, former endangered-species coordinator for the state Game and Fish Department, said he believes Macho B was captured because researchers got caught up in the quest for prestige and a federal “pot of gold” being offered for studies of jaguar transborder movements.
“I think everything boils down to two things: One is ego and the other is money,” said Johnson. “When the (U.S.-Mexico) border fence started to go up, and the prospect of millions of dollars to support (wildlife-research) projects went up, then immediately the interest was broadened.”
“I do believe there was intent … to capture Macho B, and in turn to influence the issuance of those monies.”
Johnson acknowledges that as the state’s endangered- species overseer he was culpable for “misfeasance.” Though retired from Game and Fish, he continues working for the agency as a contract consultant on jaguars and wolves.
Gary Hovatter, assistant director at the agency, said he is still examining records from the criminal probe. Although about a half-dozen state employees were dismissed or disciplined, Hovatter said, he is discovering new evidence of misconduct and negligence.
“This is a hell of a mystery,” he added. “There are a lot of lessons to learn about personalities and motivations, ego and ambition. I’d love to know the absolute truth.”
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the world’s third-largest feline, behind tigers and African lions, and the lone representative of that family in the Americas. It is also the only big cat in the Western Hemisphere that roars. Long before the white man arrived with guns and poison, biology historians say, jaguars thrived in the Southwest and ranged farther into the U.S.
Today, jaguars are found from the U.S.-Mexico border through South and Central America. The nearest breeding population is in Sonora, about 130 miles south of the international line. In recent decades, only an occasional male has wandered north into the U.S.
Because of their rarity and majesty, jaguars are regarded as “charismatic” creatures in the U.S. wildlife pantheon: They inspire the imagination, provide an iconic image for environmentalists and attract money for conservation. Their presence — or potential presence — also foments controversy.
Even before Macho B was first spotted in Arizona, environmentalists pressed the U.S. government to list jaguars as endangered, and to designate “critical habitat” that would encourage repopulation.
But many ranchers and hunters, supported by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, opposed that plan. They argued that jaguars are no longer viable in the U.S. They said assigning an endangered status and “critical habitat” would be a fruitless and costly conservation move that would alienate cattle ranchers and interfere with the use of public and private land.
The dispute went beyond rhetoric. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed federal and state lawsuits to establish jaguars as endangered and to force government conservation efforts.
Against that backdrop, Macho B made his first Arizona appearance in 1996, when he was treed and photographed in the Baboquivari Mountains, a range 50 miles southwest of Tucson, by a houndsman named Jack Childs. The cat, recognizable because of a rosette on his coat resembling Pinocchio, provided environmentalists with a mascot for their cause.
Game and Fish authorities in Arizona and New Mexico, fearful of federal oversight and regulations, obtained permission to take charge of jaguars in both states through a new government entity known as the Jaguar Conservation Team, or JagCT. Despite the moniker, members advocated only one conservation measure: to catch a jaguar and put a tracking device on it.
Johnson, an opponent of endangered-species status and habitat designation, was chair of JagCT. Childs, a wildlife enthusiast who advocated capture, founded the Borderland Jaguar Detection Project, a non-profit organization created to use state money to place motion-activated cameras along game trails in the hope of capturing images of a big cat.
By 2006, McCain, a Humboldt State University graduate student focused on jaguars, had partnered with Childs and taken over field work with cameras. He also began trapping bears and lions under a government contract.
According to state and federal records, those carnivores were fitted with tracking devices as surrogates so that scientists might learn from them about jaguar travel on the border. It was unclear if the research was valid, because no one knew whether jaguars and lions behave similarly. That question could only be answered if a jaguar was collared.
Johnson worked with Childs and McCain to develop capture plans over the objections of environmentalists, who knew that McCain had previously trapped at least one jaguar in Mexico that died during a botched snaring attempt. In fact, trapping the spotted cats for conservation had proved problematic throughout the Americas because of fatalities attributed to the stress of capture.
Nevertheless, JagCT unanimously elected to go for it. The team even produced a slide show that ended with a picture of the state’s iconic jaguar and this message: “Macho B — the man for the job.”
The next step was to get approval from the Arizona Game and Fish director.
Before that occurred, however, news of the project leaked to the media. The Governor’s Office was swamped with furious mail from naturalists and animal lovers, and the politicians blinked.
“They were all afraid to make a decision,” recalls Childs. “It caused a lot of frustration because everybody wanted to catch the thing except the environmentalists.”
Plans to collar a spotted cat were stymied, but not abandoned. By 2007, illegal immigrants and drug smugglers had magnified Macho B’s political importance.
Then-President George W. Bush had approved an 18-foot-tall fence and other barriers along the Arizona-Sonora border. The project, in itself controversial as a border-security measure, also incurred the wrath of conservationists who said the fence was blocking wildlife travel routes.
The endangered jaguar loomed as Exhibit A. When the federal Fish and Wildlife Service issued a finding that jaguars were such infrequent visitors to the U.S. that conservation efforts “cannot be defended as essential,” environmentalists went ballistic and noted the lack of solid data to back such a position.
The debate over critical habitat had collided with border-fence politics. A year later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security responded by announcing plans to finance border-wildlife studies.
Competition for research grants is often stiff. According to investigative files, Arizona Game and Fish officials began making inquiries and writing up proposals. They also exchanged emails with McCain and Childs, whose Borderland Jaguar Detection Project already was doing similar work, and who had been complaining that they were out of money.
In February 2008, Game and Fish officials traded e-mails with McCain about a $50 million Homeland Security plan to “study and mitigate the negative impacts that the border fence would have on endangered species.” Messages note that the telemetry collaring of a jaguar would create “funding opportunities” for the state, and for the Jaguar Detection Project.
On Aug. 8, 2008, McCain complained in another e-mail: “Feds won’t let me catch any cats. … Mostly they fear the implications of the data from a GPS collar.”
Three months later, McCain messaged Ron Thompson, the Game and Fish administrator for lions and bears, with a recent jaguar photograph from the border and a note that “Macho B is alive and well.” Thompson answered: “Great news of Macho B. I would like to reemphasize the need to watch the trapping situation and to know if there is a possibility of snaring him soon.”
About the same time, the head of research for Game and Fish was working on plans “in case we catch one of the spots,” according to an e-mail from Smith to McCain. In interviews, McCain said Thompson had told him department Director Larry Voyles also had been advised and “would support a jaguar capture.”
In early December 2008, McCain, Thompson and other Game and Fish employees attended a conference with the Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the chance of getting cash for border-carnivore studies. The event was convened by Fernandez, the federal “jaguar lead.” E-mail records from late 2008 through early 2009 indicate Fernandez was advised of Macho B’s presence in the trapping area.
Days later, McCain said, he and an assistant met with Thompson at McCain’s house in Patagonia. According to McCain, Thompson’s conversation was all about catching a jaguar for prestige and federal money. “He stated several times, ‘What you need to do is get a GPS collar on a jaguar — not in Mexico, but in the U.S., on Macho B.’”
The next morning, McCain said, Thompson “placed a paper bag in my truck containing fresh jaguar scent. … In a later phone call he asked if I had found the ‘little present.’”
Thompson denied each of McCain’s allegations. He said he did not know about or encourage any effort to capture Macho B, and had not been aware that McCain used jaguar scat as a lure at camera and snare sites. “We now know he lied about this and much more,” Thompson added.
At Game and Fish headquarters, administrators faced a dilemma: On the one hand, environmentalists were sure to raise a ruckus over any capture plan. On the other hand, a federal jackpot was looming to study transborder movements. The Jaguar Conservation Team wanted to collar a cat, and McCain also was clamoring for money.
On Dec. 4, 2008, according to federal investigative records, Johnson presented a question to Voyles: “Do we pull the trigger on authorization or not?” The two Game and Fish officials later told criminal investigators the answer was a decisive “no” because Macho B was too old and presumably feeble to withstand such a trauma.
But Johnson did not issue a memo or advise colleagues of that decision. Instead, he sent Thompson and others a message under the heading: “Jaguar: Homeland Security Funding.” In it, he wrote something very different: “I also discussed Macho B with Director Voyles again yesterday. I am now putting the final touches on an authorization – to – capture – and- collar memo. The TENTATIVE plan is for Larry to brief the Governor next week.”
Johnson closed the e-mail with a warning: “Please don’t take any of this information outside of this loop. That includes agency folks. I do not want to see another anti-trapping postcard/letter/e-mail campaign.”
In interviews, Johnson insisted a capture was to be approved only if a younger jaguar showed up. He said Voyles planned to speak with then-Gov. Janet Napolitano because she was about to become director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Janet was the deep pocket,” Johnson noted.
Assertions that Macho B was not the target appear to be contradicted by a Game and Fish report published Feb. 2, 2009, outlining a proposed budget of more than $3 million to catch a jaguar. The draft document announced that Arizona, New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and JagCT “propose to capture, collar (with GPS and satellite technology) and monitor jaguars in this region. To start, likely a jaguar referred to as Macho B would be selected for monitoring.”
In interviews with The Republic, Johnson took responsibility for the report but said its reference to Macho B was flat-out “wrong.” He said he cannot explain the error, then added, “I am truly shocked that, given its content, the document never surfaced” during the criminal probe.
Johnson said he had a series of strokes and underwent brain surgery during the time leading up to Macho B’s death, and still suffers from migraines. He said he did not encourage, approve or know about a plan to capture Macho B, but believes others conspired to do so.
An agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service discussed possible motives while interrogating a witness during the criminal investigation.
“The fence is a big issue,” he noted, “and it kind of plays into this. The environmental community stood to gain a lot of information by having to collar a jaguar and then noticing it bouncing back and forth through Mexico. And it would have been a good thing to tell Department of Homeland Security, ‘Don’t finish this fence. We’ve got an endangered jaguar coming in here.’
“And there’s all this DHS funding being pushed around, everyone from Game and Fish chomping at the bit to get their hands on that money.”
On Feb. 3, 2009, McCain sent a new trail-camera photo of Macho B to state and federal wildlife officials. “Look at that!” he wrote. “Now, some have called him geriatric. I’d like to see them say that to his face.”
Fernandez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist responsible for jaguars, answered, “Macho B is looking good!”
At the time, McCain was preparing to visit his girlfriend in Spain and needed someone to take over his field work. On Feb. 4, 2009, he led Game and Fish biologist Smith on a tour of the camera and snare lines with Brun, the volunteer for Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.
According to investigative records, McCain brought a bag of scat obtained from a female jaguar at the Phoenix Zoo and warned the others, “It’s kind of hush-hush.”
Brun said McCain directed her to place the feces next to several cameras while saving some for a snare. She followed instructions. Brun recalled in her online interview that she hesitated and questioned him, but he insisted, “Everything’s cool, everything’s legal. We’ve got permits, don’t worry.”
McCain disputes one portion of her account: He claims it was he who baited the snare, not Brun.
A day later, McCain flew to Europe. In an e-mail to his doctoral adviser at Humboldt State, he wrote: “We are now running snares exactly where Macho B has been in the last (redacted). No need to talk about this until it happen(s), if it ever does. Game and Fish will have officially caught him inadvertently. … The higher ups in the agency are fully aware of what is happening and we are all on the same page. The timing may be perfect for me to be out of the country.”