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Biodiversity: Feds finalize critical habitat for jaguars

Jaguar. Image via the Wikimedia Commons.

Jaguar. Image via the Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly 1,200 square miles of territory protected for recovery of native cats

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Nearly 17 years after federal biologists first listed jaguars under the Endangered Species Act, the wild cats may now have a protected area to roam in the wilds of the Southwest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week designated about 1,200 square miles of rugged desert, mountain and forest lands in southern Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat for jaguars — but only after a sustained legal push by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The federal wildlife agency initially resisted mapping out protected areas, claiming that the cats are too rare for habitat protection. Wildlife advocates challenged the agency’s position and a federal court rejected the government’s argument, leading to this week’s critical habitat listing notice in the Federal Register. The USFWS is also working on a jaguar recovery plan for the area.

“Welcome home, American jaguar,” said Michael Robinson, a staunch defender of wildlife in the Southwest. “I’m hopeful that decades from now we’ll look back on this historic decision and see it as the first on-the-ground action that eventually led to the return of a thriving population of these beautiful big cats to this country,” said Robinson, who also advocates for Mexican gray wolf recovery on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to carefully scrutinize any planned activities that could destroy or degrade habitat for endangered and threatened species.

Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range due to clearing of forests and draining of wetlands and killing to protect livestock. The last female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.

Jaguars are the third-largest cat in the world, after tigers and lions. Paleontological remains show that jaguars evolved in North America before colonizing the jungle habitats of South America. Jaguars were historically reported on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the mountains of Southern California, along grassland rivers in northeastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, and in the forests of Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina.

According to Robinson, there is currently a jaguar living on national forest land in the Santa Rita Mountains outside Tucson, and in an area where a giant mining corporation wants to build a massive Copper mine. Robinson said the new critical habitat designation will make it illegal for the Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service to fund or authorize activities that would harm jaguar habitat.

The critical habitat designation consists of six units, each containing one or more mountain ranges in which jaguars have been recorded in recent years or through which they are thought to have traveled. The designation includes the Baboquivari, Pajarito, Atascosa, Tumacacori, Patagonia, Santa Rita and Huachuca mountain ranges in Arizona; the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle the Arizona and New Mexico border; and the northern tip of the San Luis Mountains in New Mexico’s “bootheel” region.

Missing from the designation are the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona and vast stretches of the high, forested Mogollon Rim, including its easternmost terminus in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. These areas were historically occupied by jaguars and still have suitable habitat for recovery today.

“While we’re disappointed that the protection omits the best U.S. habitat for jaguars — the rugged Gila headwaters in New Mexico and the pine-clad Mogollon Rim in Arizona — this decision is a milestone that protects much of the borderlands that the first generation of returning jaguars is exploring and inhabiting,” said Robinson.

Peer-reviewed research shows that species with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to be making progress toward recovery as those without. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s next step is the release of a draft jaguar recovery plan this spring.

Although jaguars in Mexico are also declining, dispersing males, possible from the now-protected Northern Jaguar Reserve, 130 miles south of the border, have periodically established ranges in the United States.

A jaguar repeatedly spotted in the Santa Rita Mountains in recent years is the first of the big cats documented in the country since 2009, when the Arizona Game and Fish Department injured (in an illegal capture operation) and later euthanized a jaguar that had lived at least 16 years in the Atascosa and Pajarito mountains.

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