The Investigation: Kirby Bristow
Bristow was the lead field biologist for the AZGFD lion and bear snaring project. At the time, he was responsible for 3 study projects and estimated he spent about 50% of his time on the lion/bear study.
Lion and Bear Snaring Project:
Bristow took over the project in May 2008. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) was a partner on the project and the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project (BJDP) was a cooperator on the lion/bear study. According to Bristow, “BJDP, via McCain, was given access to study the AZGFD lion and bear collar data and AZGFD wanted to use BJDP camera data for the lion/bear study.” Describing BJDP as a cooperator on the AZGFD study was a new concept introduced in the federal, criminal investigation as Childs and McCain of BJDP maintained the projects were separate and AZGFD disowned any relationship they had with McCain once the investigation began.
Mountain lions were included in the study as an indicator of connectivity between mountain ranges in southern Arizona. Bristow wanted: “to catch lions in the Atascosas and the Pajarito Mountains, because there were plans to extend the pedestrian fence from Nogales westward. So I was looking at that as the opportunity to have a before/after, catching the animal that may be crossing the border now and see how that behavior changes or doesn’t change as the wall was being extended.”
According to Bristow, “…there was discussion from the moment we started talking about trapping lions in southeast Arizona and the issue of jaguar protocol, making certain that we were up to date on what the latest was in case we caught something. That was raised.” Bristow credits Ron Thompson as probably being the first to raise the issue of jaguar protocol.
USFWS Special Agent (SA): What type of action did your office take within checking to see if what you were doing was legal – or not legal but, in other words, to cover your bases to make sure that Game and Fish was not possibly getting into this project and with the possibility of snaring a jaguar? What efforts did your office make to ensure that maybe there was full compliance?
Bristow: Mainly my connection was Ron Thompson. He was on that Jaguar Conservation Team [Bristow was mistaken. Thompson was not involved with the JAGCT], so I knew that he was (inaudible), knew the latest in terms of what was required legally and as well as what was required to meet the latest Jaguar Protocol.
When the USFWS SAs asked Bristow if an EA checklist had been completed for the project he was unsure if one had been done (Bristow was cc’d on email concerning an EA for the snaring project that was sent to his boss, Chasa O’Brien), but said they had consulted with the Coronado National Forest about allowing AZGFD to snare.
Bristow was unsure if anyone in AZGFD consulted with the USFWS about possibly snaring a jaguar during the lion/bear study. He did not and stated: “…perhaps that should have fallen on me, but I was under the impression from Ron (Thompson) that we were above-board in terms of the legal issues associated with that potential.”
Bristow also confirmed that Thompson recommended McCain for the snaring project.
Bristow confirmed that the snaring began again in the Atascosa Mountains to collar another lion to “replace” the young female that that was killed in the area on a Safari Club International “trophy hunt” in January. Bristow made the decision as to when to resume the snaring. When the dead female lion’s collar was returned to AZGFD he wanted to get the collar on another animal as soon as possible. The return of her collar also coincided with the delivery of more GPS collars for the project.
Bristow spoke with McCain about jaguar sightings in the Atascosas and the possibility of catching a jaguar during the snaring project. Bristow stated: “He (Bristow) felt there was a pretty small chance that we were going to catch that jaguar based on the August sighting (picture) and the difficulty in catching a jaguar when the attempt was made 10-12 years ago (failed jaguar capture attempt by AZGFD and USFWS in the Cerro CO Mountains of southern AZ, roughly 1998).” Bristow was aware that McCain had a jaguar GPS collar in case a jaguar was caught.
Bristow claimed that he was only aware of Macho B’s picture from August 2008 in the area, and McCain never informed him of the January 2009 pics of Macho B near the snares nor Macho B’s tracks found on the snare line. Supposedly no one else from the snaring project or his agency informed him of Macho B’s presence near the snares. This would include: Smith, Crabb, Thompson, Van Pelt, and Johnson. In addition, Bristow’s boss, Chasa O’Brien did not inform him that McCain and Smith inquired about the proper drugs and dosages for immobilizing a jaguar during a capture.
Regarding Macho B’s presence near the snares, one of the USFWS SAs asked Bristow, “What would you have done had he (McCain or Smith) told you – and specifically that it was Macho B?” Bristow responded: “Had he told me, I would have insisted that we move our snare lines someplace where we wouldn’t catch him.”
USFWS SA: And if he knew?
Bristow: If he knew it, he didn’t tell me.
USFWS SA: Would that have been something he should have?
Bristow: Yeah, that would have been something that he should have told me had he knew.
USFWS SA: Would that be considered insubordination?
Bristow: It was understood that we weren’t trying to catch a jaguar.
Later in the interview the USFWS SAs ask Bristow why he didn’t know Macho B had been detected near the snares? They also ask,”Did you ever give Thorry (Smith) or Emil (McCain) the impression that you didn’t want to know if that were the case?”
Bristow: No, I gave everybody the indication that this was not a jaguar project… I have to just surmise this because I wasn’t there – but I think the fear within the Department was that if we were catching lions, looking at lion habitat selection and movement patterns as a surrogate for jaguars, that that could defer potential funding from jaguar research. And within the Department, the Research Branch conducts research, but then the Non-Game Branch is where everything with Endangered Species, they have jurisdiction over all of that… that’s where there was some animosity or infighting about the jurisdiction over jaguars. So when I started, I said, ‘I want nothing to do with jaguars,’ and I made that known to everybody.”
A little later in the interview the USFWS SAs ask: So looking back at it, do you think that you just didn’t have sufficient oversight over the program, or do you think that the folks under you (McCain, Smith & Crabb), like you intimated earlier, were just keeping you out of the loop because they knew you weren’t interested in catching a jaguar? Or both?
Bristow: Yeah, you’d have to say both…I was left out of that communication (McCain’s email alerting AZGFD & USFWS of Macho B’s presence in Atascosa Mtns., January 2009). But I probably should have known since it was my project.
Bristow also stated he does not recall “specifically telling Smith, McCain, or Crabb to advise him if they discovered evidence of a jaguar in the study area, nor to avoid catching a jaguar at all costs.”
Bristow spoke with Smith the day of Macho B’s capture, after Smith spoke to Thompson. Bristow described Smith’s and his own reaction to the capture as “surprised.” Bristow said after he spoke with Smith he immediately left voice messages for his boss, Chasa O’Brien. O’Brien said she didn’t hear from Bristow or about Macho B’s capture until the following morning. Bristow said he did not immediately notify anyone of Macho B’s capture, except O’Brien, because it was a “controversial subject.”
When asked for specifics regarding the “controversial subject” Bristow cited his theory about who got to control jaguar research and its subsequent funding in AZGFD and McCain’s theory that evidence of a resident population of jaguars in the U.S. would require AZGFD to change the predator management strategy in AZ (i.e. use of snares or hounds to “hunt” animals).
Bristow also said he was unaware of the use of jaguar scat at BJDP cameras and near the AZGFD snares and that he hadn’t been to the AZGFD snare sites in the Atascosa Mountains.