Wednesday, Feb 12 2014 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: A first-hand account of jaguars in the Tehachapi Mountains

Related Photos

This beautiful jaguar was photographed by a camera trap placed in the Northern Jaguar Reserve in the Mexican state of Sonora, about 125 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond.

This is a photo of Macho B, a male jaguar who lived in Arizona and was considered to be the oldest known jaguar in the wild with an estimated age of 15-16 years. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

A jaguar print from Arizona. Note the size, four inches long, which is larger than a mountain lion's print. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

I have written about two different top predator species that were once found in the Tehachapi Mountains, but have been extinct here for more than 125 years: California Grizzly Bears and Gray Wolves. Grizzlies were here in abundance -- they are the source of the names "Bear Valley" and "Bear Mountain" -- and wolves, while less plentiful, were nonetheless present and are the reason that the area around the Bakersfield National Cemetery is called "White Wolf." But there was another charismatic animal that was rare but was sighted here: the jaguar.

It seems so incongruous -- jaguars roaming the Tehachapi Mountains -- and yet there is a detailed eyewitness account by James Capen Adams, the famed animal trapper known as "Grizzly Adams." More on that shortly. First an introduction to jaguars:

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are the biggest cats in the Western Hemisphere, and the third largest of all felids -- only lions and tigers are bigger. Jaguars have the strongest bite of all cats, twice as strong as that of lions, an ability which is believed to have developed as a means to eat turtles by biting through their shell. Jaguars live only in North, Central and South America and resemble the leopards of the Old World, but jaguars are larger and stockier. They are also the only representatives of the big cats (tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars) in the Americas, and are thus the only native cats that roar -- although mountain lions are large and tough, they are still from the Felis genus of smaller cats, not Panthera, and they can scream but not roar. Despite their size and tremendous strength, jaguar attacks on humans are almost unheard of -- there are more instances of caged jaguars lashing out at zookeepers than there are of wild jaguars ever attacking a person.

Jaguars once roamed in different parts of the United States, with reports of them in Colorado, eastern Texas, even as far as Pennsylvania and Florida. They were also in California, traversing the South Coast Ranges between San Francisco and Monterey up to at least 1826. The last individual jaguar killed in California was in Palm Springs about 1860. They have persisted much longer in the wild borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico, with a female jaguar killed in 1963 and two males in later years. Beginning in 1996, jaguars have been spotted sporadically and photographed in Arizona.

The written account of jaguars seen in the Tehachapi Mountains by James Adams appears in a 1919 edition of the Journal of Mammology, in an article written by C. Hart Merriam, the famous naturalist who conducted some field studies in the Tehachapi Mountains. Here is Merriam's description:

"The detailed account of a family of jaguars seen repeatedly in the Tehachapi Mountains by James Capen Adams, as recorded by the late Judge Theodore Hittell, is so circumstantial as to admit of no question as to the identity of the animal. Adams either saw a pair of jaguars and their young, or he lied out of whole cloth. While neither the date nor the exact locality are stated, we are told that Adams, after leaving the Tejon and travelling over a rough mountainous country, camped at a spring in a gorge facing the Great Basin. The rough mountainous country traversed was of course the Tehachapi Mountains, and the part of the Great Basin looked upon must have been the western part of the Mohave Desert.

The first night of his stay at the spring he was awakened by a fearful snuffing and snorting among his animals and saw in the darkness two spots like balls of fire, which he recognized as the eyes of the beast that had frightened his horses. The next day, taking his hunting companions -- a tame grizzly named "Ben" and his dog "Rambler" -- he followed the trail of the animal for four or five miles to another gorge, where he finally located the den in a cave on the side of a cliff in an exceedingly rough and inaccessible place. "In its mouth, and scattered below it, were multitudes of bones and skeletons of various kinds of animals, and among others of Mountain Sheep, making the place look like the yard of a slaughter-house."

A few nights later, he was wakened by a roar, and in the feeble light of a new moon saw "a spotted animal, resembling a tiger in size and form, with two young ones." Another night, soon after dark, the male appeared at the mouth of the den, "looked around, and sniffed the air, and then leaped down, and going a few yards placed his paws upon a rock, and stretched himself, yawning at the same time as if he were waking out of a sleep. A few minutes afterwards the female appeared, and approaching, lapped his brawny neck." The male, as nearly as could be seen, "was twice as large as the ordinary cougar, and appeared to be covered with dark round spots of great richness and beauty."

For several weeks Adams continued his fruitless attempts to trap or kill the animals, obtaining from time to time passing glimpses of them, until finally he unexpectedly came across the mother and cubs in a gorge far away from the den. He fired at her, whereupon his grizzly 'Ben' and dog 'Rambler' bounded forward and "engaged with her in a terrific combat, but she tore them dreadfully and managed to escape."

So, as incredible as it seems, the great "spotted tiger" or El Tigreas jaguars are known in Mexico, once roamed the Tehachapis. While jaguars are thought of as primarily jungle cats, they continue to occupy the rugged, dry mountains of Northern Mexico to this day, and there are an estimated 80 to 120 jaguars inhabiting a 1,500-square-mile zone surrounding the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Mexico's Sonora state, about 125 miles south of Douglas, Arizona.

Camera traps placed along trails continue to snap photos of a few individual jaguars in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona, with numerous photos taken throughout 2013. Some conservation groups and agencies hope to re-establish a breeding population of jaguars in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico, and to maintain a corridor with the jaguar populations in Mexico. These efforts have been complicated by border security issues -- figuring out how to allow jaguars to move back and forth across the border while excluding drug smugglers and traffickers.

Jaguars were almost certainly never common in the Tehachapi Mountains, but it is inspiring to know that they once lived here at all. And you don't have to travel far to see them today: the Feline Conservation Center in Rosamond has six resident jaguars, living only about 30 miles from where James Adams saw them roaming the east-facing gorges of our mountains. . .

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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