In November, 2009, an automatic trail camera monitored by biologists from Sky Island Alliance captured the first known photograph of a live ocelot in Arizona. The unmistakable image from Cochise County thrilled everyone with an interest in southern Arizona’s wildlife and habitat—and spurred several uncharitable comments from the Arizona Game and Fish Department noting that its experts “had not verified the identity of the animal in the photo.” Memo to AZGF: Sour grapes make vinegar, not wine.
Meanwhile, Sky Island Alliance’s trail cameras had also recorded several resident ocelots on El Aribabi Conservation Ranch in Mexico, just 30 miles south of the border (and almost directly south of the Arizona sighting). Early this year, SIA and El Aribabi scored another coup: a video clip of a mother ocelot with a kitten, thus confirming the northernmost known breeding population of ocelots on the continent.
This spring brought more good news.
In February, a dog treed a wild feline in the Huachuca Mountains. The dog’s owner took one look and called Arizona Game and Fish. The officer who responded verified that a 25-pound wild feline with stripes on its neck and face, and spots and rosettes everywhere else, must be . . . an ocelot.
Three months later, a trail camera set up in the same mountain range by two hunters, Tom Rose and Cole van Winkle, produced a fine portrait of an ocelot, which SIA was easily able to verify, by matching rosette patterns, as the same animal treed earlier. This second sighting of the same animal is its own good news, since it confirmed the individual had been successfully hunting and living in the area, rather than simply transiting. What is not known is if this animal is the same one photographed in 2009, since that photo was of the right side—no rosette comparison is possible—and was taken in a different mountain range.
These Arizona sightings represent only the second confirmed regional presence of ocelots in the U.S. (there is a small breeding population in the southern tip of Texas, several hundred miles farther south in latitude). Combined with the El Aribabi data, as well as other records in the Sierra Madre, we can now draw a well-documented extension to current ocelot range that just brushes the Southwest.
It’s important to keep in mind that southern Arizona represents the extreme northern edge of that range and probably has for centuries, if not millennia. Given climate trends and the current situation along the border, it’s fruitless to hope for an ocelot population explosion here any time soon. What these sightings do prove is the value of maintaining open space and wildlife movement corridors in sky island country—on both sides of the border. Habitat that ocelots find attractive is attractive to a lot of other species as well.
Sky Island Alliance’s website is here: