Court stands up for jaguar habitat in New Mexico

A motion-sensor camera captured this image of a jaguar in Arizona last year. Photo courtesy BLM.

Cattle ranchers come up empty in bid to cut protection

Staff Report

Endangered jaguars in North America don’t really know whether they are in Mexico or Arizona, so there need to be continued recovery efforts on both sides of the border. A federal court in New Mexico recently recognized that fact when it turned aside an attempt by ranching and cattle groups to eliminate habitat protections for the wild cats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated about 59,000 acres of critical habitat in 2014. The court ruling upholds protections under the Endangered Species Act that prevent the federal government from rendering the habitat unusable for jaguars. An additional 705,093 acres were designated in Arizona but not challenged.

The court challenge was filed by the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council against  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  But the court affirmed the agency’s finding that designating the critical habitat is “essential to the conservation of the jaguar species.”

“This is a big win for jaguars to keep living in parts of New Mexico’s remote and rugged borderlands without additional threats to their survival,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government should have protected far more habitat, including farther north in the vast, wild Gila National Forest, but without the desert country along the border, jaguars would have no chance to even make it farther north.”

It was a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity that resulted in the listing of the jaguar in the first place, and the organization intervened on the side of the government in the recently decided case to stand up for those protections. The groups was also the lead plaintiff in a case that led to the Fish and Wildlife Service releasing a draft jaguar recovery plan in December. That plan, which also omits consideration of important recovery habitat farther from the border with Mexico, is expected to be finalized later this year.

Today’s decision preserves the critical habitat designation in the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle the New Mexico-Arizona line and is managed by the Coronado National Forest, and on private lands in the Sierra San Luis a few miles farther east. In 1996 a jaguar was photographed in the Peloncillos, and 10 years later another jaguar was photographed in the San Luis Mountains. Both ranges cross the border with Mexico and can serve as undeveloped travel corridors for a variety of wildlife, including jaguars.

Despite today’s ruling jaguars would still be cut off from habitat in the United States in the event that new fences or walls are erected to supplement the hundreds of miles of border wall that already exist. At present New Mexico’s bootheel region is free of so-called pedestrian barriers, which are impermeable to wildlife much more than to people (and their ladders and tunnels).

“The jaguar is a beautiful animal and a neglected part of our natural heritage in the Southwest,” said Robinson. “Preserving places where jaguars can still cross the border to live once again in their native range has now been found fully legal. But we should go further, preserve bigger chunks of land and take active steps to help the jaguars get here.”

The draft jaguar recovery plan acknowledges that the border must maintain travel corridors to facilitate movement, and the Center recently reported on how jaguars as well as 92 other imperiled species would be drastically harmed by new wall construction. The Center has also filed suit, along with co-plaintiff U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), to require environmental analysis before additional segments of a wall can be erected. The needs of jaguars and the integrity of their critical habitat should be part of that analysis.

Peer-reviewed research shows that species with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to make progress toward recovery as those without.

Jaguars are the third-largest wildcat species, after tigers and lions, and native to North America. Paleontological evidence from as far afield as Nebraska and Maryland suggests that jaguars evolved in today’s United States thousands of years before expanding their range to Central and South America.

Historically jaguars were reported in ecosystems ranging from mountainous Southern California through the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, grasslands in northeastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, and even in the disparate forests of Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range due to deforestation, draining of wetlands and killing to protect livestock and obtain pelts. The last female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 at approximately 9,000 feet in elevation in east-central Arizona’s thickly forested Mogollon Rim, which adjoins the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Although jaguars in Mexico continue to diminish, dispersing jaguars periodically arrive in the United States, including two new animals photographed in southeastern Arizona in the past year.

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