Biodiversity: Feds propose critical habitat for jaguars

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

Public comment sought on plan to protect 838,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After outlining a vision for a jaguar conservation and recovery plan last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating more than 800,000 acres as critical habitat for the endangered cats.

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.

Conservation advocates said the critical habitat designation could help restore native jaguar populations to southern Arizona and New Mexico.

“Jaguars once roamed across the United States, from California to Louisiana, but have been virtually extinct here since the 1950s,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for almost 20 years to bring back American jaguars. “Today’s habitat proposal will ensure North America’s largest cat returns to the wild mountains and deserts of the Southwest. Jaguars are a spectacular part of our natural heritage and belong to every American — just as surely as bald eagles, wolves and grizzly bears.”

Like the gray wolf, jaguars were driven from the United States by federal and state predator-killing programs. Over the past two decades, however, the animals have begun recolonizing Arizona and New Mexico.

The critical habitat proposal triggers a public comment period, as the USFWS seeks specific input, including whether any of the proposed areas should be excluded, as well as information on the projected and reasonably likely impacts of climate change on the jaguar and proposed critical habitat.

The agency 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.

The USFWS proposal, including comment information, is posted online here.

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. Historically, jaguars have been reported in  California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and possibly Louisiana .

The last jaguar sightings in California, Texas, and Louisiana were documented in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, with the last confirmed jaguar killed in Texas in 1948.

While jaguars have been documented as far north as the Grand Canyon, Arizona, occurrences in the U.S. since 1963 have been limited to south-central Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico. Three records of females with cubs have been documented in the U.S. (all in Arizona), the last in 1910 and no females have been confirmed in the U.S. since 1963. As a result, jaguars in the U.S. are thought to be part of a population, or populations, that occur largely in Mexico.

This week’s critical habitat proposal comes in response to a 2009 court order requiring the USFWS to prepare a recovery plan and designate critical habitat to ensure the species’ recovery.

“You can’t protect endangered species without protecting the places they live,” said Suckling. “Species with protected critical habitat recover twice as fast as those without it. This wild expanse of habitat is a huge boost to the return of jaguars to the American Southwest.”

Today’s 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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