The team formed to help the endangered jaguar survive in Arizona and New Mexico has ground to a standstill.
The Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team has struggled for years because of standoffs between environmentalists and ranching interests and perceptions of bias in the team's leadership. But perhaps the knockout blow was the death this year of the last known wild jaguar in the United States.
The team, formed in 1997, has ceased activities altogether, canceling two meetings this year because of the ongoing criminal investigation over the March 2 death of the jaguar known as Macho B.
But long before Feb. 18, when the old jaguar stepped into a snare in the wilderness between Arivaca and Nogales, many participants had left the team, some questioning its commitment to helping an endangered species recover. The perception that it had become all talk and no action was captured by the nickname some use for the group — Jaguar Conversation Team.
"Initially, things seemed very positive," said Tony Povilitis, a conservation biologist from Willcox who joined the team at the start and worked on maps of potential jaguar habitat. "As the years went on, there was more and more resistance to doing the habitat conservation work, to the point where essentially nothing got done."
The frustration was mutual for some people worried that ranchers' rights to use their own property could be curtailed by efforts to protect jaguars' habitat or reintroduce them.
"It had very laudable objectives," said Warren "Bud" Starnes, a policy specialist for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture in Las Cruces. "But the enviros started pressing and pressing and pressing, trying to get maps of habitat. Then they started threatening lawsuits."
Terry Johnson of Arizona Game and Fish, who has chaired the team since its beginning, acknowledged the team's shortcomings in an interview this month. But he said it has had key achievements despite rocky political terrain.
"It's really tough to operate somewhat in the center — not necessarily straight down the middle, but to borrow the best from the left and the best from the right … and try to develop that magic concoction that ultimately works to benefit the jaguar and the people."
Jaguars labeled endangered
The Jaguar Conservation Team was formed to stave off the possible listing of the jaguar as endangered in the United States after two jaguar sightings in 1996 — of Macho B in Southern Arizona's Baboquivari Mountains and another jaguar in southwestern New Mexico's Peloncillo Mountains.
The U.S. government had already listed the jaguar as endangered in Mexico, but it had not dealt with the jaguars seen in Arizona and New Mexico, on the far northern fringe of the largely tropical animal's range.
Povilitis and his students in a University of California-Santa Cruz field program requested that the jaguar be listed as endangered in the United States in the early 1990s, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the listing in 1994. In 1996, Arizona Game and Fish officials conceived of the conservation team in part to convince the service that listing was unnecessary, Johnson said.
"If you can conserve a species adequately, without it becoming listed federally, then you can save yourself that regulatory burden of bureaucracy and all of the stuff that comes with it," Johnson said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the jaguar as endangered anyway in July 1997, three months after the first conservation team meeting. The service acknowledged the team, but said its voluntary nature meant it could take a long time to reduce the danger of the jaguar becoming extinct. Yet, from that point on, the service deferred to the team as the lead group working toward jaguar protection and recovery.
Johnson and others went to work persuading "stakeholders" — ranchers, environmental groups, government agencies and others — to join the team and pursue "collaborative conservation" rather than regulatory dictates. "There's an immediate negative reaction on the part of any freedom-loving American who does not want to be constrained by government and dictated to by government," Johnson said. "Regulatory approaches tend to feed existing hostilities and keep them alive forever."
The team's first order of business was to establish a dialogue, something Johnson cites as a key accomplishment. Indeed, people from different sides of the issue who would not have known each other otherwise ended up working together, said Wendy Glenn, a Douglas-area rancher who also helps lead the conservationist Malpai Borderlands Group.
It also began with ambitions such as mapping potential jaguar habitat, pursuing agreements with landholders to protect such lands, monitoring jaguar occurrences and educating the public.
The early years brought some successes. In 2001, team member Jack Childs formed the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project and placed motion-sensing cameras along possible jaguar trails. He captured the first photo of a U.S. jaguar in the wild in December 2001, then got dozens of photos of at least two different jaguars in Southern Arizona.
In 2003, the team's education committee finished a jaguar curriculum for students in grades 4 through 8 and distributed hundreds of copies. That, along with Childs' photos, spread awareness of the jaguar, the top predator in its range and the only roaring cat in the Americas.
Some of the team's activities became mired in talk. The habitat committee produced several maps of potential jaguar habitat in Arizona and New Mexico, using criteria such as vegetation types, human population and the abundance of prey. Povilitis threw himself into this work, he said, but the broader team did not formally accept them.
Ranching interests questioned the validity and use of the maps. One map, said rancher Judy Keeler of Hidalgo County, in New Mexico, laid out corridors for the jaguar to use.
"My house is in one of the corridors. I've never seen a jaguar here," she said.
The discussion of habitat recommendations was set for April 2006 in Lordsburg, N.M. More than 20 representatives of separate Soil and Water Conservation districts in New Mexico showed up, recruited by ag specialist Starnes, and asked for voting privileges. Under the team's structure, only government agencies are allowed to vote, and chairman Johnson said he had to accept them as voting members.
The new voting members helped reject and put off long-discussed recommendations made by the habitat committee.
"These are guys who had not participated before and had votes. We who had been participating all along had no say-so whatsoever," said Shiloh Walkosak, a Tucsonan who had been volunteering with the jaguar detection project.
In the end, the team agreed on a more limited "emphasis area" for jaguar conservation that includes parts of 11 counties in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. But even that bothers Starnes, who said he thinks there should be a much more limited area recognized, where jaguars have actually been seen in recent years.
The word "habitat" has largely been set aside, said Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued several times over jaguar protection.
"At every juncture, there was an effort to limit the scope, the scale and impact of any kind of action to preserve jaguar habitat," he said.
Participants also clashed over the issue of whether to try to put a radio collar on a jaguar.
At the same 2006 meeting, the team recommended efforts be made to collar a jaguar to learn where it roams, what it eats, how it interacts with humans and other information.
Walkosak, then an employee of the Reid Park Zoo who worked with its jaguars, argued the risks were too great. The benefits of a radio collar are clear, she said, but with so few jaguars in the United States, she argued the risks of capturing one were too great. "Once the discussion started toward collaring, it (the team) immediately split into two factions," she said.
The split prompted two original members of the scientific advisory committee, Brian Miller and Howard Quigley, to write a letter saying the team was bogged down in political debates and losing focus on the jaguar.
"The 'best available science' must override parochial issues, or recovery will be delayed. As an example, a recovery team could resolve the nine-year-long debate over the jaguar habitat model," they wrote.
Yet three years later, the argument persists. And Johnson and others say in a draft "conservation assessment" for the jaguar, now under review, that the problem may be the opposite. The team, they said, "tends to focus too much on jaguars and not enough on the human dimension on which success of borderlands jaguar conservation depends."
Conservation vs. recovery
The goal of the team listed in its existing "Jaguar Conservation Framework" is simple: "Conserve jaguars in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands." But "conservation" has become a fudge word, Povilitis argues.
"There was never clear talk about jaguar recovery," he said. "What they were talking about was something else. It was called jaguar conservation, not recovery. … Conservation can be narrowly interpreted, and in this case it was."
Johnson and others say that the best place for jaguar-recovery efforts is in Mexico, where a breeding population lives about 140 miles south of Douglas. If jaguars survive in Mexico, he said, some will likely make their way north of the border.
Sergio Avila, a Mexican-born biologist who lives in Tucson, said the emphasis on recovery in Mexico goes to the heart of the team's problem. The team has never fully accepted the jaguar is an endangered species in the United States, and actions must be taken under federal law to help it recover here, said Avila, of the Sky Island Alliance.
"There should be a recovery plan for the jaguar, and this should be led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Avila said.
Indeed, pressure is building for the service to intervene. The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the service, demanding that it establish critical habitat and put a recovery plan in effect. The service is under a court order to make a new decision on these issues by January.
Ranchers would likely oppose the federal government's involvement, rancher Keeler said, citing recent conflict along the Arizona-New Mexico border over the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf.
"As the regulations increase, you make more demands on the property owners. In some instances, they could lose the use of their property," she said.
From the time of listing, the service has largely deferred to the conservation team in working to help the jaguar. But leaders of the team said this month their powers to act in defense of jaguars — by, for instance, changing the way certain lands are used — are limited.
The team, Johnson said, "is not an advocacy organization. It's not intended to hound the individual agencies to move forward with those sorts of things. You make people aware, then the agencies are expected to do the right thing."