A legal conflict over federal protection of the endangered jaguar boils down to where to push the hardest to save this embattled species.
Is the United States a key area for protecting the jaguar's habitat and bringing back its population? Or are conservation efforts better focused in the deserts and tropics of Latin America, south from northern Mexico into Brazil and Venezuela?
Attorneys for two environmentalists and the federal government argued the fine points of this debate on Monday before a federal judge in Tucson, using maps, studies, centuries of history and legal precedents to make their cases.
Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its refusal to declare prime habitat for the jaguar and to prepare a recovery plan to bring the species back from the endangered list.
Under federal law, both actions are usually required for endangered species. The service can opt out of either measure if it concludes they will not help conservation of the species.
U.S. District Judge John Roll did not say when he'll issue a ruling.
That the jaguar is not a fixture in this country today is hardly in dispute. Four individual U.S. jaguars have been confirmed to exist since 1996 — two each in Southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. With the recent death of aging Macho B, who was caught in a trap then released with a tracking device in Southern Arizona, no jaguars are known to live in this country today.
But look at the jaguar's history in this country, attorneys for the two environmental groups said. They posted a map showing the jaguar's historical range dating back to the 19th century and beyond stretched into California, up to the Grand Canyon and east into Texas and Louisiana.
"There haven't been jaguars breeding recently because jaguars have been extirpated since then, not because of a lack of suitable habitat," said John Buse, an attorney for the center. "There was a very rigorous, carefully planned extermination process" to eliminate jaguars as threats to livestock, he said.
But Justice Department attorney Brett Grosko cited studies done of the jaguar in 2002 and 2005 that concluded that most if not all of the key conservation areas for the cat lay south of the Mexican border. The U.S. area that jaguars now frequent is a fraction of the cat's entire range, he said.
The court has to look at areas that are essential to conservation of jaguars as a species, not just potential habitat or suitable habitat, he said.
"When you look at the species as a whole, there's simply no area that meets the definition of critical habitat," Grosko said. "The area where jaguars now live in the U.S. is not enough to bring about recovery of the species."
But there's no substitute for a recovery plan to bring the jaguar off the endangered list, said Brian Segee, an attorney for Defenders.
"The recovery plan is the only part of the Endangered Species Act with a vision and a road map for taking a species off the list," he said.
Because the United States can't dictate to other governments how to protect the jaguar and its habitat, however, there's no way a recovery plan can bring back the jaguar species as a whole, Grosko countered.
The center's Buse, however, said that a recovery plan has no legal authority even in the United States -— it's simply a plan guiding future actions.