A male ocelot was photographed by automatic wildlife cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains, three-tenths of a mile from the Rosemont Mine’s perimeter fence, on May 21, 2014.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An endangered ocelot was photographed less than one-third of a mile from the site of the proposed Rosemont Mine, a federal agency says.

Two photos were taken of the cat three-tenths of a mile from the site on May 21, 2014, newly released documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show. That came two days before the U.S. Forest Service delayed its final decision on the $1.2 billion mine project, in part because of the ocelot.

The Arizona Daily Star obtained the ocelot’s location from the wildlife service this month through a federal Freedom of Information Act request. The agency had previously disclosed the ocelot’s presence without providing specifics.

It’s not clear, however, if the ocelot will make a difference in the final decision on the mine. It may not stop or alter the project unless federal critical habitat for the animal is designated — something unlikely to happen soon.

Still, the ocelot’s presence underscores the importance of the Rosemont area’s wildlife habitat, environmentalists say, particularly because an endangered jaguar has also been photographed nearby.

“It goes way beyond one ocelot and one jaguar. The fact that Rosemont is right in the middle of three wildlife corridors means it’s crucially important for recovery of those animals,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “If we want to have jaguars and ocelots back in the U.S., we have to protect these areas.”

Rosemont Copper Vice President Patrick Merrin said he’s optimistic that the federal agencies can make decisions on endangered species and issue permits “that will help build a mine that creates jobs, complies with the environmental permits and requirements, and strengthens the local economy.”

Impact on endangered species being reviewed

The latest Forest Service delay in deciding whether to approve the Rosemont Mine was to give federal agencies time to reconsider endangered species issues because of new information about eight proposed or protected species including the ocelot. That review is continuing.

The Forest Service is scheduled to release an assessment of the mine’s impact on those species in late April, and the wildlife service would issue a revised biological opinion on the mine at least 135 days later.

Four University of Arizona-run cameras took six photos of the same male ocelot between April 8 and May 21 last year. Three other photos were taken a mile from the site. One was taken 11 miles away. The mine site lies in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

The photos were taken as part of a federally financed research project that also has repeatedly photographed the same male jaguar near the mine site between fall 2012 and January 2015.

Given the ocelot’s location, a reasonable chance exists that the mine’s noise, truck traffic and dust will drive it away, just as it could drive the jaguar away, Serraglio said. Serraglio isn’t a biologist, but his group has relied on expertise of biologists in fighting endangered species issues in the Southwest for 25 years.

That, in turn, he said, would likely result in the wildlife service declaring the mine would “take” an ocelot, a legal term meaning that it would harass the animal. Take of an endangered species is usually illegal. But the wildlife service can authorize it if it determines that the take won’t jeopardize the species’ existence and it imposes conditions aimed at minimizing harm.

Steve Spangle, a wildlife service official, said it’s possible that the mine’s presence could cause the animal to shift its movements away from the site. If the ocelot moves a considerable distance from an operating mine, “that could rise to the level of take,” but it’s premature to make that judgment now, he said.

In the service’s first Rosemont biological opinion in 2013, it authorized take of one jaguar in the form of harassment and said it anticipated the take of an ocelot if one were to show up, he noted.

“We didn’t authorize take, with no ocelot present. Now with the animal present, we have to look at that,” said Spangle, field supervisor for the service’s Arizona ecological services office.

The ocelot’s emergence near the mine site isn’t surprising given that the Forest Service had discussed that possibility in its final environmental impact statement on the mine, Rosemont Copper’s Merrin said. He noted that the mine project would cover about 0.03 percent of the 1.78 million-acre Coronado National Forest.

“Our federal and state agencies are responsible for establishing the facts and guiding the process to completion. Once the facts are established, the right way forward can be determined relying on those facts,” Merrin said.

Few Ocelots in U.S., many more in Mexico

In 2013, the wildlife service said take of a jaguar was OK because that wouldn’t jeopardize the species’ existence. That’s because so many jaguars live in Mexico and other Latin American countries, while the jaguar near the mine site is the only known wild jaguar in the United States.

Environmentalists acknowledge that the same could be said for the ocelot, since only five have been documented in this country in recent years and many more live south of the Mexican border.

At the same time, the Center for Biological Diversity hopes to get the ocelot’s recovery plan revised soon to increase protection of Arizona ocelots, Serraglio said. Currently, the recovery plan deals much more with ocelots in Texas, where they are more common.

If that were to happen, then it might be possible to get critical habitat designated for the ocelot in Arizona, said Serraglio, adding that the current recovery plan is “woefully out of date.”

The wildlife service hasn’t taken on a revision of the ocelot plan because its staff is tied up with the Rosemont Mine, and with carrying out a previous agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed up decisions on whether to protect dozens of other species, Spangle said.

Critical habitat offers more protection to endangered animals because it’s illegal for a new project such as a mine to destroy or significantly modify critical habitat. But even with critical habitat proposed for the jaguar, the wildlife service in 2013 ruled that the mine wouldn’t destroy or seriously damage jaguar habitat — a decision environmentalists may appeal in court.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746. On Twitter: tonydavis987.