Reintroducing the jaguar into the United States is an idea whose time has come, says a Tucson-based environmental group.

A national conservation group says it’s at least an idea worthy of more analysis than the federal government has given it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages endangered species, doesn’t agree. It says the best use of its resources is to focus on what it sees as the jaguar’s core areas in Mexico, not on “secondary” jaguar habitat in the southwestern U.S.

The debate over bringing jaguars from Mexico to the Southwest comes as part of a larger discussion of the federal government’s draft jaguar recovery plan. That plan, released in December, advocates putting the most energy toward jaguar recovery in Mexico, where most borderlands jaguars live.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife said in their written comments on the plan, and in a separate report by Defenders, that more attention needs to be paid to bringing back jaguars in the Southwest, including possible reproduction.

Reintroduction of predators has always been a hot-button issue here. It took more than a decade for environmentalists and federal biologists to get a Mexican wolf reintroduction program started because of controversy over the wolf’s impacts on livestock. It remains controversial today although wolf populations are slowly recovering.

Jaguars are in better shape in the U.S. today than wolves were before reintroduction started. Only seven Mexican wolves remained in 1980 when the last five were pulled out of the wild to be put in captive breeding facilities. About 4,000 jaguars are known to live in Mexico today, but only seven, all males, have been confirmed to be living in Arizona and New Mexico since 1996.

Defenders doesn’t advocate reintroduction now, but “we are calling on (Fish and Wildlife) to do a scientific, objective analysis and we’d like to see their work reviewed by an independent, scientific body,” said Rob Peters, Defenders’ Southwestern representative. The 508-page jaguar recovery plan didn’t discuss reintroduction, he noted.

The seven known Southwestern male jaguars are believed to have come from northern Mexico. But “I think it’s very unlikely” that natural jaguar migration from Mexico alone will bring this country a breeding population soon, Peters said.

Younger female jaguars “set up their home ranges next to mom,” and don’t disperse at anywhere near the rate of young males, Peters said. In a paper, the late Peter Warshall, a longtime Tucson scientist, calculated that it would take 44 to 200 years for females to migrate north to the U.S., Peters noted. Warshall was science coordinator for the Northern Jaguar Project, which runs a major jaguar preserve in northern Sonora.

Bringing jaguars into Arizona could help the northern Sonora population, which faces threats from poaching, said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the center. Assuming the animals can travel back and forth between the two countries, having a U.S. breeding population could improve the Mexican population’s genetic diversity, he said.

The jaguar’s increased presence here at the top of the food chain could also benefit the overall ecosystem, Robinson said.

“They evolved in the United States with all other animals and plants, over many thousands of years and the ecosystem adapted to their presence over that time,” he said.

When the recovery team conducted rigorous jaguar population and habitat studies, it concluded resources are best spent in core areas in Mexico, “and not to the translocation of jaguars in secondary areas and certainly not in areas outside of where they can most meaningfully contribute to recovery of the species,” service spokesman Jeff Humphrey said Tuesday.

The recovery team, including U.S. and Mexican biologists, focused their strategy on sustaining habitat, eliminate poaching and improve social acceptance of the jaguar in Mexico, Humphrey said.

“Their rationale is that our limited dollars are best spent on making those populations as robust as possible rather than manufacturing new populations in a range that may no longer be appropriate,” Humphrey said.

With the Mexican jaguar population in some jeopardy, “it seems like we ought to take care of what’s already here first,” agreed Bill McDonald, executive director of the Malpais Borderlands Group, which seeks to promote open space conservation and “working landscapes” for ranchers and others along the border.

The group has no position on reintroduction, “but I think you should stabilize the population that gets the occasional male up here,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to hopscotch jaguars hundreds of miles north to try to make that work. It’s putting the cart way before the horse.”

But Sergio Avila, a longtime jaguar biologist, said while more specific analysis of jaguar behavior is needed for reintroduction to be seriously considered, it’s one of many “tools in the toolbox” worth considering.

“Because we have open space where they can set up territories, protected areas and environmental laws here, because we have healthy populations of wild prey here, and because we have connections to the south and we have habitat,” reintroduction could be worth it ecologically, said Avila, an Arizona Sonora Desert Museum research scientist.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746.

On Twitter@tonydavis987