Draft plan for jaguar recovery panned by wildlife advocates

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

Jaguars listed as endangered since 1997

Staff Report

Jaguars making their from Mexico back to the southwestern U.S. apparently won’t be getting much help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency this week released a draft recovery plan that puts the conservation burden on Mexico. The plan’s criteria for recovery and removal of the jaguar from the “endangered” list could be met without any jaguars occupying any of their vast historic range in the United States, according to wildlife watchdogs with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The draft was released just a short time after a second jaguar was documented in the Southwest. Between 2011 and 2015, another jaguar was seen several times around the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson. Another jaguar called “Macho B” was photographed repeatedly from 1996 until he was killed by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish as a result of a botched capture operation in 2009.

“Jaguars are making their presence known in the southwestern United States so it’s disappointing to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the focus of jaguar recovery solely in Mexico,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “By excluding the best remaining unoccupied jaguar habitat, this plan aims too low to make a difference in saving the jaguar. It’s an extinction plan, not a recovery plan.”

A lawsuit by the CBD forced the USFWS to write a recovery plan. According to the nonprofit group, it assumes, without evidence, that 300 jaguars live in Sonora, Mexico — a more optimistic starting point than the Service’s 2012 citation of studies pointing to a maximum of 271 jaguars in the province and possibly as few as 50.

Since 2013 conservationists monitoring the northernmost breeding jaguars in Sonora, via automatic cameras, saw a poaching loss of six of the area’s eight individually identified jaguars, leaving just two known alive. The remainder of the population is less closely monitored but equally at risk.

Jaguars are primarily killed by ranchers who use pesticides imported from the United States to poison the carcasses of collared peccary, or javelinas, which are among the jaguars’ natural prey animals.

“While the plan, importantly, outlines measures that Mexican authorities can take in protecting jaguars, that’s simply not enough,” said Robinson. “Leaving the vast Gila National Forest and Mogollon Plateau off the table leaves the jaguars in Sonora effectively stranded, likely cut off from jaguars farther south and with no genetic rescue on the way from reintroduction to the north.”

The last known female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 in the Apache National Forest on the Mogollon Plateau in Arizona, in an area where Mexican gray wolves have since been reintroduced.

The draft recovery plan also estimates that Sonora has habitat sufficient to support 1,166 jaguars — an order of magnitude higher than the most recent previous estimate that the province could support just 172 jaguars. Raising the so-called carrying capacity also justifies ignoring the high-quality but unoccupied jaguar habitat in the Gila National Forest and Mogollon Plateau in the U.S. Southwest.

The draft plan divides the jaguar’s vast range in South, Central and North America into two zones — a Pan-America Recovery Unit and a Northwestern Recovery Unit — and leaves the question of how to protect jaguars in the former unit to another day. The plan also ignores the plight of another, isolated jaguar population in northeastern Mexico south of Texas.

The USFWS has  designated 764,207 acres of “critical habitat” to conserve jaguars in southern Arizona and New Mexico. The designation prohibits federal actions that would harm the habitat, and will be at issue in upcoming Center litigation over the Service’s approval of an open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, part of the critical habitat, where the jaguar El Jefe has been photographed.

The jaguar was placed on the U.S. endangered species list in 1997 in response to a previous Center lawsuit.

Jaguars evolved in North America thousands of years before colonizing Central and South America. Their fossil remains have been found from as far afield as Nebraska and Maryland; depictions in American Indian art and stories range throughout the South and Midwest; and European explorers and later Americans wrote of their jaguar encounters in states that ranged from California to the Carolinas.

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