Hurdles Remain for U.S. Jaguar Habitat

24 Jan

By Leslie Macmillan / New York Times Green

[Fish and Wildlife Service] A jaguar observed last October by a camera trap in southern Arizona.

[Fish and Wildlife Service] A jaguar observed last October by a camera trap in southern Arizona.

Last fall, remote cameras in a rugged expanse of desert grasslands in Southern Arizona captured arresting images of a jaguar slinking through the underbrush, its yellow eyes fixed on some distant sight. The photos add to the dozen or so documented sightings of the endangered cat on American soil in the last century.

The monitoring project, conducted by the University of Arizona in conjunction with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, is providing data that will inform decisions about a proposed critical habitat for the big cat: 838,000 acres in Southern Arizona and New Mexico, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Many have hailed the proposal as a landmark victory for the jaguar, which has been on the Endangered Species List since 1997. But there are hurdles to clear, not the least of which is a plan for an open-pit copper mine that would be smack in the middle of the jaguar’s territory.

The mine’s potential impact on the jaguar is being studied by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service, which manages the land designated for the jaguars in the Coronado National Forest.

The two agencies must decide, working with the mining company, what restrictions or changes they will require for the mine project with the goal of protecting the jaguar and the other federally listed species in the area. An opinion from the wildlife service was due by Dec. 20, but because of changes in the mining plan, that deadline has been put off.

Officials say they expect the opinion to be released within the next several weeks.

When the proposal was announced in August, many hailed it as a landmark victory for the jaguar. Conservationists have been fighting to have land set aside for the animal for years. The Center for Biological Diversity has repeatedly sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act, to force the agency to designate a habitat and formulate a recovery plan for the jaguar.

“That area is key for jaguar recovery,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we follow the law, as laid out under the Endangered Species Act, they will come back. They always lived there, until the U.S. government either killed them or chased them out.

The proposed critical habitat for the jaguar is one of the most biologically diverse in the country and is home to 10 endangered species.

Mr. Serraglio argues that the photos of the jaguar should be “the nail in the coffin of Rosemont Mine,” adding, “There’s no way the mine proposal can go forward if this land is designated as critical habitat.”

Jamie Sturgess, a vice president at Rosemont, has blasted the Center for Biological Diversity, saying that it uses “bullying tactics” and “has a history of gaining millions of our federal tax dollars through intimidation and litigation.”

Tony Povilitis, a wildlife biologist, says the Fish and Wildlife proposal does not give jaguars enough space to roam and hunt and fails to link important “jaguar corridors.” With continuing development in the Southwest, he said, the animal’s “habitat is becoming fragmented. There’s still time to change that, but there’s not a lot of time.”

Complicating matters, the “build it and they will come” approach to designating a geographic area containing the things a species needs to survive is controversial. Some wildlife officials and biologists argue that the jaguars are no longer living and breeding in the United States but just wandering in from south of the border. Fish and Wildlife officials said that the jaguar seen in all 10 photos “appears to be the same individual.”

Alan Rabinowitz, an expert on big cats, has written that because jaguars do not clearly occupy any territory in the United States, the environment there is seemingly less than ideal for them.

The public comment period for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat proposal published in August will reopen this spring. A final critical habitat determination is expected by August.

Meanwhile, the monitoring by camera continues. The photos “offer little, teeny clues that help us to pull together a picture of what the jaguars are doing there,” said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Are they eating? Are they hunting? Are they just passing through? There are a lot of questions — they’re very enigmatic animals.”

One Response to “Hurdles Remain for U.S. Jaguar Habitat”

  1. earthfirstdurango January 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on Southwest Earth First!.

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