SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – A group of biologists wants to bring jaguars back to the United States, particularly, New Mexico. This comes decades after the population here was wiped out, but the move comes with controversy. Jaguars may be thought of as exotic ‘jungle cats’ but their roots extend much further north, including New Mexico.

“Jaguars have been in the United States, including in New Mexico, for a long, long time,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of people don’t realize jaguars evolved in North America, thousands, maybe even millions of years before they expanded their range southward to Central and South America.”

There were once hundreds of these big cats in New Mexico, but hunters wiped out the population decades ago. Now, there’s just a rare sighting every few years like one in Hidalgo County back in 2007.

“We don’t have a lot of records of jaguars in the United States. Most people in the 19th century, they set a trap for something, something stepped into it, they killed it, they sold the pelt, and that was it,” said Robinson. “A lot of people weren’t even literate, so we don’t have a ton of records but we do have some records from the Gila National Forest, and that’s clearly the best place to put jaguars back in the United States today.”

Now, conservation biologists have issued a new study, published in Conservation Science and Practice, focusing on the push to reintroduce them into the U.S. They’re urging U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring the threatened species back to southern Arizona and New Mexico.

“Not all areas of New Mexico that were jaguar habitat are still jaguar habitat today,” said Robinson, who says the cats would likely be placed in a part of the Gila National Forest. “If we reintroduce jaguars to the southwest, then they will also aid the struggling jaguar population in northern Mexico.”

Robinson has also tracked the reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf. However, he hopes that the jaguar will come much sooner.

“They were re-introduced way back in 1998,” said Robinson. “The population has grown slowly and now we have 186 of them.”

Despite the push, some are opposed. The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association says it would be a burden to ranchers in the state.

“New Mexico Cattle Growers Association disagrees with the reintroduction of the jaguar to New Mexico,” Randell Major, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers, said in a statement. “Designating habitat land for the jaguar would compile regulatory burdens to the States farmers and ranchers who work tirelessly to provide food and fiber.”

Still, Robinson says it would be good for the ecosystem they once evolved in. Biologists say it could still be another 5-10 years before we see them in the Gila, giving plenty of time for planning and communication.

“Jaguars are beautiful, powerful animals. One would barely ever see them, but the chance to see a tracking of a jaguar along the mud alongside the Gila River or to see any other evidence of them,” said Robinson. “We have this opportunity to do right by an animal that we exterminated, to do right by the ecosystem, and I think it’s also doing right by our society, as well.”

KRQE News 13 also reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would play a large role in getting jaguars to the state. They said they’re not ready to comment just yet.