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Wildlife advocates want more critical habitat for jaguars

Photo courtesy Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, via Wikipedia and the Creative Commons.

Feds plan to finalize critical habitat designation by the end of the year

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A federal plan to designate more than 800,000 acres of critical habitat for endangered jaguars in the southwestern U.S. may not go far enough to ensure recovery for the wild cats, according to conservation activists. The USFWS proposal, including comment information, is posted online here.

”The best habitat for American jaguars lies in the vast and rugged Gila National Forest in New Mexico and adjoining pine forests in Arizona,” said Michael Robinson, a wildlife conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which this week  filed a detailed 55-page comment letter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week, urging the agency to add more habitat to the designation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has a moral duty to protect these special places, where jaguars once lived and which they should be able to call home again. Recovering jaguars in this region, so full of wilderness, will bolster the genetic strength of the struggling jaguar population in northern Mexico, too, helping to ensure that these great cats will always share our country with us,” Robinson said.

The additional areas of “critical habitat” identified in the 55-page, science-based comment document include the Mogollon Rim of Arizona and New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. The federal agency must now consider these and other recommendations from the public and scientists before deciding on its final designation of protected habitat for jaguars.

The number of jaguars in northern Sonora, Mexico was last estimated at 271 animals, in a population that may be increasingly isolated from other jaguars in Mexico and is too small to be genetically viable. Small, isolated populations are vulnerable to inbreeding and loss of the genetic diversity crucial for adapting to a changing world.

”It’s time to welcome jaguars back to the Gila,” said Robinson, who has lived and worked in this rural area for many years. “Jaguars are beautiful animals that belong here and will help restore the natural balance and health of our woods, grasslands and mountains.”

Jaguars were listed as an endangered species in the U.S. in 1972. Internationally, they are listed as near-threatened on the IUCN Red List.

According to some recent estimates, there may be as many as 30,000 jaguars total across their range in South America and Central America, with between 3,000 and 4,000 in Mexico. Populations thin out toward the northern end of the range, with populations in the Mexican states of Colima and Jalisco north through Nayarit, Sinaloa, southwestern Chihuahua, and Sonora to the border with the U.S.

The historic range of jaguars is not exactly known, but best estimates suggest they were widespread across the Desert Southwest and also ranged across the south-central U.S. in the pre-settlement era.

Various human activities, including elimination through direct hunting and trapping, extirpated the population. In the 1990s, a few jaguars that are assumed to have come from Mexico have again begun to appear in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Critical habitat designation prohibits federal agencies from harming the landscape features necessary for an endangered species’ recovery; species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as those without it.

Along with evaluating public comments, the USFWS will also do an economic analysis to determine the cost of the habitat designation, and whether there are any national security concerns associated with the proposal that should be considered.

Jaguars were listed as an endangered species in 1997, in response to a petition by scientists and a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity. In 2007 the American Society of Mammalogists declared that establishing a U.S. population is essential to the species’ long-term survival in light of ecosystem changes wrought by global warming.

In late 2011, a hunter photographed a jaguar in the wilds of southern Arizona, the first sighting in the U.S. since 2009.

The federal critical habitat proposal, which will be finalized within a year, spans six units in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, Ariz., and Hidalgo County, N.M. It includes:

● 138,975 acres in the Baboquivari Mountains, Ariz.
● 143,578 acres in the Tumacacori, Atascosa and Pajarito mountains, Ariz.
● 343,033 acres in the Santa Rita, Patagonia and Huachuca mountains and the Canelo Hills, Ariz.
● 105,498 acres in the Whetstone Mountains, including connections to the Santa Rita and Huachuca Mountains, Ariz.
● 99,559 acres in the Peloncillo Mountains, Ariz. and N.M.
● 7,590 acres in the San Luis Mountains, N.M.

Read all USFWS jaguar recovery planning documents at this USFWS website.

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