The Wild West may be a little wilder than you think. For thousands of years, jaguars roamed portions of Arizona, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and sometimes ventured into Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia, and North Carolina. But today, jaguars are mostly absent from the United States. American Jaguar: Big Cats, Biogeography, and Human Borders by wildlife biologist Elizabeth Webb takes a deep dive into the jaguar’s current predicament and highlights the work of field scientists searching for ways to restore their populations.
Once, the American Southwest was the northernmost region of the jaguar’s natural habitat, which spanned all the way through the jungles of Central America to the Argentinian grasslands. They shared the territory with the Indigenous peoples who lived here, including the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblos.
In the 1800s, with American expansionism the country’s prevailing foreign policy, more and more settlers pushed westward into territory long-held by these big cats. Cattle ranching became a booming business in the region. Large tracts of land were fenced off for grazing. Railroads divvied up the land even further. Ranchers and farmers, in an effort to protect their livestock, began wiping out large predators in the area. Federal and local governments paid bounties to anyone who could bring in carcasses from coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, and jaguars. Throughout the nineteenth century, hunters could make a considerable income by tracking and killing these apex predators. By the twentieth, jaguars had all but disappeared from the United States.
Conservation efforts in the past three decades have given the jaguar a fighting chance at returning to the borderlands between the US and Mexico. But habitat fragmentation—from roads, farms, mines, and, controversially, the border wall—continues to be a major threat. Check out American Jaguar to learn more about the animals and the efforts to protect them. With up-to-date data and direct quotes from experts, this title highlights the importance of protecting keystone species and the challenges that conservation scientists face as they work to preserve and protect the natural world.
American Jaguar received a starred review from Kirkus, who called the book “a powerful call to protect our Earth and its vulnerable creatures.”
American Jaguar: Big Cats, Biogeography, and Human Borders by Elizabeth Webb
Interest Level: Grade 8 – Grade 12
Reading Level: Grade 8
Share these recent articles with students for further reading on the American Jaguar conservation efforts.
Scientific American – “Let’s Rebuild the U.S. Jaguar Population—Yes, Jaguars“
US Fish and Wildlife Service – “Jaguars“
The Smithsonian Magazine – “The Return of the Great American Jaguar“
Find more Behind the Scenes posts on the Lerner blog here!