The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will open a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the capture and euthanization of the jaguar Macho B, service officials said Thursday.
The federal agency, legally responsible for protecting endangered species such as the jaguar, said it would look into "all aspects of the incident" involving Macho B's capture and death. It said the decision to investigate — previously sought by a congressman and two environmental groups — was based on "new information received in the last 48 hours that called into question the circumstances of the initial capture."
The announcement came after the Arizona Daily Star published an article raising the possibility that the Feb. 18 capture of Macho B was deliberate and not accidental, as State Game and Fish officials had said. In an interview, Janay Brun, a field technician for a non-profit jaguar research group, said she was told on Feb. 4 by a biologist for the group, Emil McCain, to place female jaguar scat at the snare trap site where Macho B was later captured. McCain has denied Brun's allegation.
A service spokesman said "I can't say that it is one specific thing" that triggered the investigation.
"It is the circumstances around the trapping of the jaguar in general," said spokesman Jose Viramontes in Albuquerque.
The federal investigation had been sought by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, of Tucson, and environmental groups the Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife. The center and Grijalva said that they didn't want the Game and Fish Department to investigate itself.
In a letter to the service this week, Grijalva asked for a probe into:
• Whether the capture was legal, and whether it was intentional or unintentional.
• The status of state and scientist guidelines for capturing and handling jaguars, and how Game and Fish and the contractors carried out the protocol.
• Factors leading to the jaguar's recapture on March 2, the recapture itself and its propriety.
• Macho B's health before its euthanization and whether the animal should have gotten more time before being euthanized.
• Why a more thorough autopsy was not performed, instead of what was called a cosmetic necropsy that was designed to preserve the jaguar's hide so it could be used for scientific, educational or religious purposes.
• The Fish and Wildlife Service's involvement in decision-making in the capture and death.
Viramontes would not comment on what items will be covered in the federal investigation.
The service's entry into this case came two days after Game and Fish announced it was investigating Macho B's capture — also based on unstated "new information."
On Thursday, the state agency said it welcomes the federal investigation and will fully cooperate with it. On Wednesday, Game and Fish said the state investigation would be led by the Arizona Attorney General's office. The service said Thursday that it would investigate in concert with the Attorney General.
"We will not speculate on its outcome," Game and Fish said in a statement. "In the event this investigation reveals any inappropriate conduct or actions, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and department will take appropriate measures. The Department and commission did not authorize or condone the intentional initial capture of this jaguar."
In an interview, Brun was pleased at the service's decision to investigate.
"I think that there is responsibility that needs to be taken for mistakes that were made, if any were made. I think there was a lot that seems to have been left out and a lot that wasn't done by the book. I think it is fantastic that they are investigating so hopefully something like this won't happen again," said Brun, an Arivaca resident who is out of state on family matters.
Bob Hernbrode, the Tucsonan who chairs the Game and Fish Commission, declined to comment in detail because of the ongoing investigations.
"I'm not going to make any judgments till we hear from the investigation," he said.
He noted that he initially defended the commission at a press briefing held by state and federal officials in Tucson, three days after the jaguar's death. But that was before information emerged suggesting the capture of the jaguar was intentional.
"This stuff is as painful to me as it is to anyone. I guarantee you we will follow through whatever happens."
Contact reporters Tony Davis at 806-7746 or email@example.com and Tim Steller at 807-8427 or firstname.lastname@example.org