Whistling for the Jaguar

The un-redacted story of the jaguar, Macho B's snaring and death.

The Investigation: Thorry Smith, Part 2

Smith was interviewed by USFWS SAs on two occasions. He lied to them on both even after they warned him several times in one interview that lying to them is a felony, unlike an Endangered Species Act violation which is a misdemeanor.

So what did he lie to them about? It was the use of jaguar scat at the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project cameras, one within 15 feet of a snare, and at the snare site that eventually caught Macho B. Smith did acknowledge seeing an older scat at the second BJDP camera site. He said McCain told him it was a jaguar scat and Smith then asked him where he got it and McCain told him a zoo. And that was the end of that discussion. According to Smith: “There were existing lion scats in some of these places. I never saw anybody put a jaguar scat out, I never knew about that, (that) they did put jaguar scats out in some of these locations until the second camera site… But the accusation about having a scat placed at the actual capture site is false… I wouldn’t have allowed it.”

Smith was present at three out of the four camera sites where jaguar scat was placed in front a camera. His head was within inches of McCain’s as they activated the final snare of the day and McCain directed me to place the remaining scat out. As the saying goes, he would have to have been blind, deaf, and dumb this day to not be aware that jaguar scat was being placed in the snaring area.

Preparation for a jaguar capture

At a December 2008 internal AZGFD meeting about the lion/bear study the “j word,” meaning jaguar, was brought up. Smith tried to get guidance from his supervisors (the names are redacted but Chasa O’Brien was one of them) and O’Brien told him she did not want a jaguar collared if one was accidentally caught. This was the first time she learned that the snaring field team was carrying the donated jaguar collar of McCain’s with them every time they checked snares. Smith was still unclear about the protocol if a jaguar was captured so he went to his Director, Larry Voyles and Deputy Director, Gary Hovatter for guidance telling them snaring would be commencing soon in jaguar country and there was a donated jaguar collar available. They referred him to Endangered Species Coordinator, Terry Johnson. Apparently since it was the end of the day, Smith didn’t speak with Johnson nor did he attempt to do so at a later date.

On February 1st, Smith found out new collars would be arriving for the snaring project in the next couple days and snaring would begin in the Pajarita Wilderness. Trapping had been on hiatus since November when they ran out of collars. According to Smith, “Due to presence in years past of jaguar activity in the region, I also asked Emil if he knew the most current knowledge on jaguar chemical immobilization in case of an incidental capture and he agreed to contact Dr. Aguilar who contacted Sharon Deem.”

On February 3rd, McCain contacted Smith to alert him that he just picked up three new pictures of Macho B about a dozen miles north of the snares and the last pic, Jan.21, Macho B was heading south, toward the snaring area. They engaged in a discussion, according to a witness, about whether or not to go forward with snaring in the Pajaritas in light of these new pics of Macho B. At some point, according to Smith, McCain apparently said,”…relatively recent pictures( of Macho B) there (Atascosas/Pajarita pic from August) and some to the north, I just think the odds are greatest down there (of capturing Macho B in the Pajarita Mountains).” Smith said he did not feel a jaguar capture was “preventable.” And when it came time to snare again: “He just did what he was told. He was the person in charge in the field, but did not have the authority to stop the snaring.” Also on Feb.3rd Smith asked Ron Thompson about AZGFD’s Section 6 permit for an incidental jaguar capture. Smith was unfamiliar with the Section 6 and only knew, “he was told it was good” in reference to a jaguar capture. Smith also looked into the Jaguar Conservation Team protocol for a jaguar capture and received a copy of the Jaguar Health Manual from Dr. Aguilar.

On Feb. 4th, Smith accompanied McCain and I to check BJDP cameras. At the same time, he and McCain activated the AZGFD snares that had been left in the field when they were disarmed back in November. Based on their discussion about snaring the previous day, they decided to go ahead and reopen/activate the snares knowing Macho B was probably in the area. Also on this day a new picture of Macho B was picked up. The picture was taken two miles south of the snaring area and was from Jan. 12.

On Feb. 5th, Smith, McCain, and Crabb checked the snares and discovered Macho B’s tracks on the trap line. Smith built and activated a new snare close to these tracks though he said lion tracks were also nearby.

On Feb. 6th Smith drove to northern Arizona to pick up a dart rifle specific to a jaguar capture because McCain suggested it.

McCain and Smith set the snares in a “jaguar friendly” way; they both agreed to use a short leash (cable) and bungee cords because they, “had talked about this and there might be a jaguar in this area.” In addition McCain had spoken about his experience snaring jaguars (which out of 2 snaring captures resulted in the death of one jaguar, and a possible death of the other jaguar) and told Smith: “They get a run up and run as fast as they can and… just destroy themselves. They’re so powerful they just rip their arms out.” So based on that Smith stated, “We wanted a short lead…”

Days before Macho B was captured Smith and McCain coordinated via email to test the jaguar collar to make sure it was working properly. Smith said, “It was further preparation for an accidental jaguar capture, not because of new jaguar sign in area or that a jaguar capture was foreseen.”

Smith and McCain also talked about disabling the VHF capability of the satellite collar for a jaguar because they suspected lion hunters could intercept the signal. Smith took the VHF receiver off the collar days before the capture.

Smith did not inform his direct supervisors, Kirby Bristow or Chasa O’Brien about the recent presence of Macho B in the snaring area. He assumed they would get the information because McCain emailed his jaguar detection notifications out to AZGFD and USFWS. But, that was McCain’s duty as the biologist for BJDP to comply with the project’s Endangered Species permit. It had nothing to do with the snaring project and thus McCain did not include any information about the distance between Macho B’s detections and the AZGFD snares. Smith acknowledged to the USFWS SAs that he thought: “Bristow didn’t want to step into a jaguar capture and he didn’t think Bristow was excited about the possibility of it.” O’Brien had already told Smith back in December not to collar a jaguar.

Because the last picture of Macho B was from an area about a dozen miles to the north of the snaring area, Smith “felt they were in good shape to catch bears and lions because he thought they were in the safe zone because Macho B was two mountain ranges north of the snares.”

Given all the preparation made for a jaguar capture, Smith said the effort was for an unintentional capture. But he did tell the USFWS SAs: “We waited forever for it (Macho B) to come through the snare and when it did I was scared and happy at the same time… It wasn’t intentional but you’re still not exactly happy it happened.” Smith also stated: “He was glad to collar a jaguar hoping things would work. He was under the impression USFWS and AZGFD were aware of Macho B’s photos and track detections and they did not request the snares be closed.”

USFWS SA: But you’re the guy that’s down there working in the area. You’re the guy checking the snares, but you’re the guy deciding where to set other snares. If there’s really a jaguar in that area, you’re the first guy that ought to be saying “We need to pull these out of here, close them, or something.” You can’t leave that decision to somebody who’s three hours away in Phoenix, can you?

Smith: If they’re aware of pictures and tracks, I figure they’d be the ones to call that.

Later the USFWS SAs question Smith: “He’s an old cat and you knew it. And you stood to gain a lot from it, had everything worked out fine. You were willing to take that chance.”

Smith: I wasn’t after fame on this. I was after data… There’s risks with every capture, you know, and they didn’t hope to catch him.

USFWS SA: But the risks are much greater with this cat.

Smith: I know.

Smith told the USFWS SAs he believed AZGFD had a waiver or permit for an unintentional jaguar capture and said there was work to be done along the border: “How do you turn the whole project off along the whole border (The Pajaritas are a tiny fraction of the whole border)? I just don’t see that. I guess, I felt there was probably a distance between us and the last known position (of Macho B). Smith also said if “he did not prepare for a jaguar capture the matter would have come out worse.”

Smith also gave the AZGFD company line that “while working in southeast Arizona there is always a possibility of catching a jaguar.” Yet, Smith nor anyone else from AZGFD ever addressed or were asked to during the investigation, if they truly believed that, why was there no preparation for an “accidental/unintentional” jaguar capture back in October when snares were first built and activated in the Patagonia Mountains for the snaring project? And if working anywhere in SE AZ meant there was a possibility for a jaguar capture, why did AZGFD not prepare for one in November when snares were first built and activated in the Pajarita/Atascosa ranges, an area known for jaguar detections? So why did all the preparation for an accidental/unintentional jaguar capture occur only after it was confirmed Macho B was alive and well and documented in the snaring area? Simple, he was a target for capture by AZGFD, not an accident.

 

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