Biologists who warned of harm to jaguar were overruled

2014-08-16T21:45:00Z 2014-08-16T21:56:12Z Biologists who warned of harm to jaguar were overruledBy Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists in Tucson warned more than a year ago that the proposed Rosemont Mine could kill or harm the nation’s only known wild jaguar, federal records show.

They also said the mine would illegally destroy or modify the endangered cat’s critical habitat, records show.

But those conclusions, contained in three preliminary drafts of a key biological opinion on the mine, were changed in the final draft.

The earlier drafts regarding the mine’s impact on jaguar habitat were written by lower-level staff biologists during the spring of 2013. The final draft, changed by the biologists’ supervisor in Phoenix, was sent to the Forest Service in July 2013. A final biological opinion was published in October.

The wildlife service supervisor, Steve Spangle, vetoed several findings and recommendations from his staff’s early drafts:

  • Early drafts said the mine could kill, harm or harass the
  • jaguar
  • , in part because
  • habitat
  • destruction
  • could impair its breeding, feeding and sheltering by reducing the jaguar’s home range by one-third.

The words “kill” and “harm” were removed from the final draft. Spangle agreed in an interview that the mine could alter the jaguar’s behavior or even cause him to leave the area, but said it’s not reasonable to conclude it will kill or harm him physically.

  • Increased vehicle traffic from the mine is expected to kill or harm the jaguar on Arizona 83, Box Canyon Road or mine access roads, the early drafts said. Similar danger could come from construction of a gravel mine access road, which would carry 69 truck trips daily, they said.

The final draft opinion concluded that a jaguar road kill near the mine was unlikely because Arizona has so few jaguars and no record exists of one being killed on a highway in the state, although one was killed on a road in Mexico.

  • The mine would illegally damage jaguar critical habitat, in part by sharply restricting the animal’s ability to travel between Southern Arizona and Mexico, early drafts said.

The final draft said the jaguar could still reach Mexico by traveling through a different section of critical habitat.

  • Early drafts said the mine would seriously damage all six primary elements of jaguar critical habitat: prey availability, the presence of rugged terrain, evergreen woodlands and semidesert grasslands, and the animal’s connectivity to Mexico.

The final draft said that some of those elements would be damaged, but not as severely as the early drafts predicted, and that mitigation and reclamation would ease some of the damages.

The Star obtained the early drafts from the wildlife service through the federal Freedom of Information Act. Their lead author, Sarah Rinkevich, is a fish and wildlife biologist who has worked for the service since 2003.

In an interview with the Star, Spangle said that, in general, he believed his staff’s conclusions were too speculative to be part of a biological opinion, a formal legal document carrying weight with other federal agencies that must approve controversial projects.

For example, while it’s possible the habitat destruction, plus noise and lighting from the mine, would change the jaguar’s behavior patterns, “to speculate that it will kill the thing is beyond reasonable biology,” said Spangle, who has worked for the service 25 years and held his current position since 2003.

Of the staff’s predictions that the mine would greatly damage the big cat’s ability to travel to Mexico, Spangle wrote in a June 2013 memo that their conclusions were too speculative to meet federal standards requiring a “high probability” of such damage to critical habitat.

“While many of the effects of the proposed action discussed . . . may result and are possible, I do not believe they are highly probable and are therefore not considered ‘likely’ to result from the proposed action,” Spangle, field supervisor for the service’s Arizona office, wrote in that memo.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the Rosemont mine, sought a review of what it said were significant mistakes by Spangle on the opinion last year. The group, whose litigation got the jaguar listed as endangered and its critical habitat designated, wrote Spangle’s supervisor, wildlife service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, on Aug. 5 that the service had “improperly discounted or not considered” the lower-level staff’s opinions.

Since May, the wildlife service has said it would revisit its earlier opinion on various grounds. They include the recent discovery of an ocelot near the mine site and concerns about impacts to imperiled fish, frogs, plants and birds living in or near Cienega Creek.

Spangle said last week in an email to the Star that the service “will look at all aspects of the opinion, including the fact that (jaguar) critical habitat is now final.”

implications for the mine

The changes in the final draft opinion helped the mine’s prospects for approval because federal law forbids destruction or what’s known as “adverse modification” of an endangered species’ critical habitat.

When the Forest Service tentatively approved the mine last December, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch concluded that it would meet all federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act. In an unsigned memo from March 2013, however, service officials warned that if they did conclude the mine would illegally damage critical habitat, one option would be to halt the project and consult the “God Squad,” a team of federal Cabinet-level officials that’s very occasionally called in to review highly controversial endangered-species decisions. Other options would be to prescribe mitigation measures to remedy the impacts, or to eliminate some sections of critical habitat due to “unacceptable economic impacts.”

The Star also obtained that memo through its FOIA request to the wildlife service.

Federal law also doesn’t allow a project that jeopardizes an endangered species’ ability to survive. But all drafts of the biological opinion, including those that forecast a possible jaguar death, said the mine isn’t likely to jeopardize the jaguar species because so many jaguars live in Mexico, Central America and as far south as Brazil.

Regardless of the legal implications, a formal prediction of the death of the country’s only known wild jaguar at the hands of a mine likely would have caused controversy. In 2009, a storm of protest arose after the Arizona Game and Fish Department — with the wildlife service’s approval — euthanized an ailing Macho B, at the time the only wild jaguar known to live in the U.S. That came after the 15-year-old jaguar’s capture, release into and then slowdown in the wild, and recapture by government agents.

More recently, a male jaguar has been photographed repeatedly on the eastern flank of the Santa Rita Mountains, west and south of the mine site. Three photos were taken of it in July, most recently on July 31. In September 2012, the animal was photographed within a half-mile west of the mine site.

“The big controversy here is that the service, for purely political reasons, overruled the determination of its own scientists that the Rosemont Mine is a threat to jaguar recovery in general — not just the one jaguar living there now, but essentially all jaguars that attempt to return to their southern Arizona homeland,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the center.

“It’s very distressing that the agency charged with protecting the rarest and most vulnerable parts of America’s natural heritage is willing to betray our only jaguar to serve the profit motives of a foreign company,” Serraglio said.

Spangle stands by his decisions on the draft opinion.

“After 30 years of working under the Endangered Species Act, and being a scientist myself, I think I have some expertise in matters like this,” he said. The decision to rewrite his staff’s conclusions was his alone, not dictated by higher-ups in Washington, D.C., he added.

“It’s a free country,” he said. “They (at the center) are allowed to disagree with my opinion, but it is my opinion, and I clearly articulated my opinion and the rationale for it.”

traveling into mexico

Much of the concern about the mine’s impact on jaguar habitat centers on the animals’ ability to travel between various sections of critical habitat and from there to Mexico.

At issue in particular are the mine’s impacts on Unit 3, an area that spans three counties and three mountain ranges. It is where the jaguar has been photographed — and where the mine will be built.

Also considered important in the early drafts of the jaguar opinion is an area called Sub-Unit 4b, which is not known to be occupied but provides a connection between the Santa Rita Mountains to the west and the Whetstone Mountains to the east.

Because the mine will reduce a strip of Unit 3 to 0.93 of a mile from about 2.25 miles — and because that area will be affected by noise, lighting and dust from the mine and by the presence of an existing limestone quarry nearby — the jaguar’s ability to move through that strip will be greatly limited, the early drafts said.

That would make about 91,000 acres, or 11 percent of the total proposed critical habitat, likely unavailable to jaguars, the early drafts said.

If that happens, the prime function of Sub-Unit 4b — furthering jaguar movement to and from the Whetstones and Mexico — would be lost, those drafts said. Jaguars could still get from those mountains to Mexico, but “about 50 percent of the habitat’s connectivity to Mexico would be lost.”

But in his June 2013 memo, Spangle disagreed, point by point. The early drafts failed to make the case that these impacts are “highly probable,” which he said is required to prove that the mine would illegally modify jaguar habitat. Even the narrower strip is still large enough for a jaguar to move through, he wrote.

While lighting within the mine site itself would be “brighter than a full moon,” lighting outside that area, where the jaguar now lives, would be significantly weaker, he wrote. The argument that noise will impact jaguars is weak, he wrote, because the mine’s blasting will take place only once daily, during daylight hours, and jaguars move mostly at night.

He also dismissed the concern that roads for the mine will drive jaguars away, since the jaguar Macho B “moved widely across Southern Arizona,” likely crossing both highways and smaller paved and dirt roads.

Although a jaguar has traveled from the Whetstone to the Santa Rita Mountains, there’s no evidence that it used Sub-Unit 4b, “and it is difficult to conclude” that 4b is so essential that its loss would be illegal modification, he said.

He also disagreed with the statement in his agency’s own critical habitat proposal that Sub-Unit 4b would connect the jaguar to Mexico.

“This conclusion may have been an error,” because the Whetstone Mountains can be connected to Mexico without 4b, he wrote. To conclude that 4b is essential for jaguar conservation is “an educated guess,” he wrote. “To argue that Sub-Unit 4b is there to provide connectivity to Mexico is wrong.”

The Center for Biological Diversity said Spangle essentially contradicted his own agency’s findings on critical habitat, findings published in the jaguar critical habitat proposal and in a letter on critical habitat that Spangle himself wrote in 2012.

That letter, dated Aug. 28, 2012, said the Rosemont Mine and current mineral exploration could result in illegal damage to critical habitat “if these projects are determined to sever connectivity to Mexico or within the critical habitat unit.”

Center director Kieran Suckling said Spangle essentially tried to “create his own standard of judgment” for what is adverse modification to critical habitat when he altered his staff’s findings.

The 2012 letter and the critical habitat designation establish an official standard for critical habitat protection, “and Spangle has no choice but to abide by them,” Suckling said.

Spangle said he would not debate Suckling’s points in the press. His June 2013 memo and the final biological opinion written last year, he said, “speak for themselves.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. Follow Davis on Twitter: @tonydavis987

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Deals, offers & events

View more...

Logistics Services? YES! We do that!

Our company provides a selection of quality logistics services…