The Investigation: Chasa O’Brien
Chasa O’Brien is a Research Branch Chief with AZGFD. She was the lead biologist for the AZGFD lion and bear snaring project which snared and collared Macho B.
1. The AZGFD lion and bear snaring project
According to O’Brien: The lion/bear project was initiated in 2006 because many problem bears were being removed (relocated and/or killed by AZGFD) from Sierra Vista, AZ that came from the Huachuca Mountains and there was concern from AZGFD Commissioner Hernbrode the population was in peril. Hair snares designed to remove hair from bears were employed and the project was managed by Todd Atwood. Before Atwood left the project plans were made to collar the bears to determine their population; later to determine their habitat connectivity between the Sky Islands of southeastern AZ and their cross border movements. A Wildlife Conservation Society contact was collaborating on the project with Atwood. The Wildlife Conservation Society remained with the project providing assistance and possibly telemetry collars.
In June 2008, Kirby Bristow, the new lead field biologist for the snaring project approached O’Brien, his boss, and asked, “Hey, on this project for SE AZ, what if we were to capture a jaguar?” O’Brien responded, “No capturing jaguars in SE AZ.” Bristow followed up with, “Well, if there was interest to capture a jaguar?” And O’Brien responded, “No, that would have to be a process that would go through the entire Department and probably would require Commission approval and stuff and that was not something that we would do.” Bristow also asked, “If we were to capture a jaguar, could we radio collar it?” And O’Brien answered: “No, no radio collaring any jaguars. We don’t have permission for that. We don’t want to capture a jaguar in the first place.” O’Brien’s boss was brought in on the conversation and he supported what O’Brien told Bristow. O’Brien didn’t hear anything further about jaguars until months later when Ron Thompson (AZGFD lion&bear biologist) brought it to her attention that a jaguar could be captured on the snaring project.
O’Brien stated she was unaware of where the snares had been set or where the animals were being captured. She also did not know the snares were set up with short leads or in any other manner to benefit a jaguar capture.
I’m not involved that deeply in the project where I’m informed when they’re opening snares, closing snares or otherwise and where those are located at.
O’Brien also said she was unaware of Macho B’s presence in the snaring area and had not been sent any of the photo and track detection information that was shared with others in her agency and USFWS.
2. Environmental Assessment
From The USFWS investigation write-up: An Environmental Assessment (EA) is a component of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted in 1970, where federal agencies using federal funds determine if federal projects have any negative impacts to the environment or even endangered species.
The lion and bear project was federally funded. O’Brien began wondering if an EA was done for the project and if one was required after Thompson approached her and told her there was a possibility of capturing a jaguar during the course of the lion/bear project.
In an email sent to O’Brien on 12/24/08 from REDACTED it states: “He feels that we best do an EA to address the issue and cover the department in the event that one of those big spotted cats ends up in one of our snares.”
And in an email on 1/20/09 from REDACTED to O’Brien about an EA for a possible jaguar capture during the lion/bear snaring project: “…We are technically covered if we inadvertently acquire one, but not if we go after one. You might want to hear the story from REDACTED to decide if we are covered enough, because if we do acquire one it is likely certain parties will raise some noise. The other approach would be to work this issue to the top and prepare a briefing that Larry (AZGFD Director, Larry Voyles) can take to Regional F&W Service Director…”
An EA was never done and O’Brien stated it was her responsibility. She also said: “Guidance for EA process was lacking from Habitat Branch which oversees the process. She has to go to the Habitat Branch and inform them of the project to initiate an EA process. This puts a hold on all snaring projects in AZ because of possible impacts to other endangered wildlife.” O’Brien never went to the Habitat Branch to inform them of the lion/bear snaring project occurring in jaguar habitat.
3. Dr. Roberto Aguilar
On 2/6/09 Dr. Aguilar emailed O’Brien and attached emails he had exchanged with McCain and Smith about proper drugs and dosages to immobilize a jaguar. This same email was also sent to Bill Van Pelt (AZGFD) and Erin Fernandez (USFWS).
I wanted to give you a “heads up” on an email exchange regarding jaguars and anesthesia that I had with Thorry and Emil. They asked for a good, safe way to anesthetize a jaguar, should one be accidentally trapped as part of AZGFD black bear, mountain lion study… I don’t want you to be surprised if you hear about it from the field team. Just trying to be helpful.
When asked by the USFWS Special Agents (SAs) if she followed up on Aguilar’s email O’Brien responded: “No. I hadn’t taken his forwarding that as having anything to do with the request that Thorry and that whole email string. I had taken that to be a request to meet with regards to the open position (AZGFD job opening) and his desire to have that…”
4. Red Flags
In hindsight, there were “red flags” everywhere.
O’Brien said the first “red flag” occurred in December 2008 when Ron Thompson would occasionally tell her, “You know, you could incidentally capture a jaguar on this study.” Thompson’s comments initiated her questions about an EA being done for the snaring project. O’Brien also said she: “Hoped that if the jaguar presence was an immediate issue, Bristow would have come to her to raise concerns over capturing it (O’Brien is talking about Macho B’s presence on the trap line as detected by McCain, Smith and Crabb on 2/5/09. Supposedly, they never informed Bristow so he, in turn, could not inform O’Brien).” According to O’Brien, if she had been informed of Macho B’s presence near the snares she would have sought consultation with Endangered Species Coordinator, Terry Johnson and closed the snares until Director Voyles made a decision.
O’Brien had asked Bristow if there was intent to capture Macho B and, according to O’Brien, Bristow replied: “No. Anytime I’ve met with my field crews, I’ve specified that we are not capturing jaguars, that we are here to capture lions and bears.” O’Brien also asked of Bristow if any jaguar tracks had been seen because that had been raised and according to her, Bristow replied: “That, no they hadn’t seen any jaguar tracks. And then he indicated that there had potentially been a case where Thorry was out and had stepped on a jaguar track or what appeared was a larger cat track potentially that he wasn’t sure was a jaguar…” (On Feb.4 McCain, Smith & I walked over Macho B’s tracks, not noticing them because night had fallen. The next day, his tracks were found by McCain and he briefed Thorry Smith & Crabb about the tracks and what a jaguar capture was like)
O’Brien was not informed of Macho B’s capture until the day after it occurred. Bristow called her the morning after the capture. Smith had called Bristow the night of the capture after being told to do so by Ron Thompson. To be clear, the chain of command in this project did not include Thompson, but was, from top to bottom: O’Brien, Bristow, Smith (along with Crabb & McCain).
AZGFD has been the co-lead, along with New Mexico Game & Fish and in partnership with USFWS, in jaguar conservation for the U.S. since 1997. Macho B has been on all the agencies’ radars since 1996 when he was first documented in southeastern AZ.
USFWS SA: “Given the fact that you have endangered animals that live lives similarly to other non-protected animals, such as the wolf and the coyote, the jaguar and the mountain lion, do you foresee that there should be better information that’s relayed to the employees regarding how the laws affect what you do perhaps and, you know, just kind of outlining what happened and so forth?”
O’Brien goes on to highlight a few changes that need to be made such as, direction needed to be implemented for an EA checklist and what projects trigger that process; training needed to be required for endangered species protocols and handling, including proper documents (handling protocols) being taken into the field; and a contact list needed to be implemented to communicate such a big event as capturing a jaguar to the proper people in the chain of command.
Why did it take Macho B’s capture and death to highlight the need for basic protocols and procedures in an agency that is responsible for all the wildlife of AZ, and the lives of AZ’s endangered species, including the rarest mammal to be found in the United States, the jaguar?