In a sharp reversal of its predecessor's position, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it will protect the endangered jaguar's prime habitat and develop a jaguar recovery plan.
But with no known jaguars living today in the United States, it's unclear how the federal government will use habitat protection and recovery planning to bring the elusive cat back.
The last known jaguar in this country, 15-year-old Macho B, was euthanized last March after being captured and recaptured in rugged desert country southwest of Tucson.
As they announced the separate but closely related decisions, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they had no plans to try to reintroduce the jaguar into the United States, in the footsteps of the agency's decade-old efforts to reintroduce the endangered Mexican wolf.
The agency's Sherry Barrett would not completely rule out reintroduction but said the idea is not a possibility at all unless scientific research during the recovery planning effort shows it's an essential step in protecting the entire jaguar species living south into South America. Barrett is the service's assistant Arizona field supervisor.
The service's decisions came under pressure of a federal judge's deadline for reconsidering earlier decisions not to select critical habitat or prepare the recovery plan for the jaguar. The service set a Jan. 11, 2011, deadline for proposing critical habitat but none for the recovery plan.
The agency is likely to focus heavily on areas where jaguars have most recently been seen in this country: within 40 miles of the Mexican border in Southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Since 1996, four confirmed sightings and a possible sighting have occurred there - all but one in Arizona.
In March 2009, U.S. District Judge John Roll had rejected the service's arguments that a recovery plan and critical habitat aren't justified. The wildlife service had argued that the United States occupies the northern edge of the jaguar's range, and that major efforts to help the cat should be focused on Mexico and on Central and South America, where the animal's numbers are larger.
The service's decisions drew mixed reactions Tuesday from conservationists and ranchers. The New Mexico Cattle Growers and the Southern Arizona rancher who photographed two jaguars in this decade disagreed with the new decisions from the service.
The Arizona Cattle Growers did not directly oppose the service's decisions, but its governmental affairs director, Patrick Bray, said, "We are a little bit nervous about moving forward with the jaguar," particularly regarding critical habitat and a recovery plan, as well as any possible reintroduction.
"When you are talking about a recovery plan, you're talking about bringing in this predator in trying to establish population, and all you have to do is look at the Mexican gray wolf recovery program" to understand the problems that can cause, he said.
The Sky Island Alliance, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity all were pleased, saying the service's decisions offered lifelines for an animal that has long lived on the edge of extinction in this country. But author David Brown in Phoenix and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz in New York City spoke against the service's decisions.
The Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish departments would not comment. Bob Hernbrode, chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, said he's not intuitively against the decisions, but he needs to know what they'll mean.
"I'm sure the department will be happy to work with them on details," Hernbrode said about the wildlife service. "I'd like to bring this to closure."
Reintroduction will be a central issue in this debate. Environmentalist Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said it must be on the table. Without it, U.S. authorities would have to protect Mexican jaguars so they'll come here - over a border wall that many authorities say is a barrier to wildlife, he said.
Bringing jaguars back to this state probably would require reintroduction, but no agency will support or recommend translocation of an animal that will attack livestock, drawing legal trouble, said Brown, co-author of a book on the jaguar.
Ranchers have long been wary of the jaguar because it preys on cattle, although Bray said that the animal relies more on deer than on cattle. Jaguar protection "would impact hunting a lot more than it does us," he said.
If people were truly concerned about protecting the jaguars, "we would be working where the habitat is good and where the jaguar can thrive," in Mexico and points south, said Caren Cowan, director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association.
Protecting jaguar habitat is likely to alienate ranchers and hunters, so they won't report jaguar sightings out of concern that it could increase regulations, said Warner Glenn, a rancher who lives in Southeastern Arizona near the New Mexico border and photographed jaguars in that area in 1996 and 2006.
But Larry Audsley of the Arizona Wildlife Federation said he sees no reason why hunters should be affected by jaguar protection. The service's Barrett agreed, adding that critical habitat regulates federal actions, while hunting is managed by the state.
"Sportsmen do not pose a threat of any kind to the jaguar. If the habitat is kept in good condition and is suitable for jaguars, we'll have jaguars," said Audsley, the federation's Southern Arizona regional director.
It's more relevant to have a decision about a recovery plan because it will guide any actions on critical habitat, said Sergio Avila, a Sky Island Alliance wildlife biologist.
Carrying out the decisions requires first gathering information about the jaguar's behavior and locations, he said.
On StarNet: Find a PDF of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decisions at azstarnet.com/pdf
Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or firstname.lastname@example.org