TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) - A jury will have to decide if a researcher broke the law when she allegedly helped capture and collar the last wild jaguar known to live in the United States, a federal judge ruled.
For years the rare borderland jaguar known as Macho B had been the subject of ghostly photographs snapped by camera traps set up in the remote wilderness south of Tucson, and researchers considered it a coup when they were able to trap the big cat and collar him with a data-collecting monitor in 2009.
But when the jaguar died in the wild from kidney failure just 12 days later, it set off a firestorm of recrimination and a lengthy internal investigation of the role that the Arizona Game and Fish Department played in the capture.
In May 2010, big cat researcher Emil McCain pleaded guilty to the prohibited take of an endangered species and was sentenced to five years of probation. At the time of the capture, he had been setting snares as part of a study of mountain lions and bears in the remote area near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Also that month, federal prosecutors filed charges against researcher Janay Brun, alleging that she had "placed jaguar scat or was directed to place jaguar scat at snare sites in an attempt to capture and trap an endangered species."
"Brun knew that there had been recent evidence of a jaguar in the area of the snares," according to the original complaint. "The snares had been set solely for the purpose of capturing and placing tracking collars on mountain lions and bears; there was no authorization to intentionally capture a jaguar. A jaguar known as Macho B was caught at one of those snare sites on February 18, 2009."
In a January report and recommendation, U.S. Magistrate Judge D. Thomas Ferraro found that the agency had a valid permit to take a jaguar at the time of Macho B's capture.
Though Ferraro recommended that a conspiracy charge against Brun be dismissed, the magistrate also called for a jury to decide whether Brun's actions were covered by that permit.
In a brief filing signed Feb. 28, U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson agreed.
"Pursuant to stipulation of counsel and the report and recommendation that at the relevant time in February 2009, there was a valid permit in effect between the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the terms of which are set forth in Exhibit D to defendant's motion to dismiss," Jorgensen wrote. "The issue of whether or not the permit applies to the defendant is a question of fact for the jury."
Macho B was believed to be the oldest known jaguar in the wild. His age was estimated at 2 to 3 years old in photographs taken in 1996, making him 15-16 years at the time of his death.
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