For a long time, opponents of critical habitat for the jaguar have argued that putting it in place in the U.S. would do little or no good for the animal. Their rational has been that so much of its habitat and the overwhelming majority of the jaguars live south of this country, deep into Mexico and the rest of Latin America. They've called this country's jaguar population peripheral to the main population, and argued that there is no essential jaguar habitat in the United States.
A federal judge didn't buy those arguments in 2009 when he overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's earlier decision to not designate critical habitat. As both sides of this debate have pointed out, that judge didn't order the service to designate critical habitat, but he ordered the service to take a second look at its earlier decision.
Now, in Tuesday's final decision by the service to designate the habitat, it appears to have changed its mind once and for all on this central question -- at least for the duration of the current presidential administration.
Here are some examples:
-- In formal questions and answers on the designation released yesterday, the service wrote that it has concluded that there are physical and biological features in this country that can be used by jaguars.
While no known female jaguars, let alone breeding pairs, exist in this country, the service said it's determined that critical habitat can help this animal by providing areas to support some individuals that are dispersing, by providing small patches of habitat and as areas for cyclic expansion and contraction of the nearest core jaguar breeding population in the Northwestern Recovery Unit, which includes Southeast Arizona and Northwest Mexico.
That recovery unit is "essential" for conservation of the jaguar, "therefore, consideration of the spatial and biological dynamics that allow this unit to function contribute to the conservation of this species as a whole," the service wrote.
-- In the designation itself, the service took note of the arguments of critical habitat critic Alan Rabinowitz, who wrote back in 1999 that jaguar habitat is "marginal" in the Southwest's dry, open woodlands and deserts. He and others have said that jaguars typically prefer tropical climates, with low elevations, dense cover and year round water sources.
But, the service added, researchers Jack Childs and Emil McCain noted in 2008 that their remote cameras had documented jaguars using Sonoran lowland desert and desert scrub, mesquite grassland, Madrean oak woodland and pine-oak woodland in Southern Arizona.
Also, another male jaguar has been documented using Madrean evergreen woodland in southern Arizona from 2011 through 2013, the service said. That's the one that was first photographed in the Whetstone Mountains in Cochise County in November 2011, and repeatedly photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains near the proposed Rosemont Mine site in 2012 and 2013.
"Therefore, why habitat in the United States can be considered marginal when compared to other areas throughout the species' range, it appears that a few, possibly resident jaguars are able to use the more open, arid habitat found in the Southwestern United States," the service wrote.
-- Again in the designation notice, the service responded to one of six peer reviewers of its critical habitat proposal who said that, "There is no habitat in the United States that is critical to the recovery of the jaguar or its survival as a species." The service didn't identify that or any other commenter, but it is undoubtedly Rabinowitz, head of the conservation group Panthera. A global leader in the fight for jaguar conservation, Rabinowitz was the only one of the six peer reviewers who opposed jaguar critical habitat.
Here's part of the service's long, detailed response to that comment:
". . . jaguars have been found in the United States in the past, and may occur in the United States now or in the future. As such, physical and biological features that can be used by jaguars occur in the United States. We have determined that there are geographical areas of the United States that may have been occupied by the species at the time it was listed.
". . . We have determined that the essential physical or biological feature and the associated PCEs (short for primary constituent elements) essential for jaguar conservation are present in the United States. Critical habitat in the United States contributes to the jaguar's persistence and recovery by providing small patches of habitat (perhaps in some cases with a few resident jaguars) and as areas for cyclic expansion and contraction of the nearest core area and breeding population in the proposed Northwestern Recovery Unit."
The pros and cons on this question continue on and on in the service's designation, which spans nearly 360 pages.
In all, the service got 33,000 written public comments on its summer 2012 original jaguar critical habitat proposal and its summer 2013 revised proposal. Compare that to the proposed Rosemont Mine, probably the most controversial project ever discussed in Southern Arizona. The Forest Service's draft environmental impact statement on the mine, released in October 2011, drew about 25,000 public comments.