Fewer than 18 months after jaguar Macho B's death following a capture in the wild, federal officials have set the stage for future jaguar captures - by approving a revised permit for them.
Acknowledging they're still not sure if officials had legal authority to capture Macho B, the nation's last known wild jaguar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rewritten an older permit to make it clear that permission exists for future captures.
The amended permit, approved June 14, details terms and conditions the Arizona Game and Fish Department must meet to capture endangered jaguar and ocelots. The state can't try to capture a jaguar until it meets those terms, which include submitting detailed reports outlining capture plans and what they could learn by radio-collaring a jaguar.
This permit authorizes both deliberate and inadvertent captures of the animals - practices known in the Endangered Species Act as a "take."
Federal officials say their criminal investigation of the Macho B incident and a separate investigation by the Interior Department's Inspector General's office revealed unanswered questions about whether the earlier permit, approved in July 2007, had authorized the capture of a jaguar. The permit explicitly authorized capture of many species but didn't mention jaguars or ocelots.
By issuing this permit, the service is not admitting the proper permit was lacking before, said Brian Milsap, assistant regional director for the service's endangered species program. "We're just making sure that for future operations, there is no question that they are legally authorized."
Environmental groups, however, say the wildlife service acted too quickly to grant the amended permit, since the service hasn't prepared recovery plans for the two species, and Game and Fish hasn't approved new guidelines for handling a captured jaguar. They also say Game and Fish hasn't proven it can be trusted to capture jaguars after the death of Macho B.
"Once the permit is granted, future captures are more likely - the rest is filling in the blanks," said Michael Robinson, an activist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The permit is the point at which the service should be doing all the evaluation it can about a jaguar capture."
Game and Fish officials declined to be interviewed for this article, other than to issue a statement saying, "The department for years has had a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing the department to conduct threatened and endangered species work … The latest permit is an amendment to the existing permit that provides clarification regarding the Department's authorities."
Game and Fish officials have denied ordering Macho B's capture, and said the only person who has admitted ordering the capture, private biologist Emil McCain, was not working for the department at the time, in February 2009. But Game and Fish also has said its earlier permit allowed for a deliberate or an accidental capture because it referred to other state-federal agreements about endangered species, including jaguars.
The center sued last fall, saying the state had lacked a proper permit for Macho B's capture. That federal suit is pending.
OFFICIAL: ODDS FOR CAPTURES SLIM
Neither jaguars nor ocelots have much of a foothold here. Macho B was euthanized in March 2009 after being captured and radio-collared and then slowing dramatically after his release into the wild.
The environmental group Sky Island Alliance said in mid-April it had retrieved a photograph taken in November 2009 of an ocelot in Cochise County - the first confirmed ocelot sighting in Arizona since 1964. Game and Fish has said a second ocelot was killed April 18 by a car between Superior and Globe. Tests will determine if it was wild or domestic, said Mark Hart, a department spokesman.
In a recent letter, Fish and Wildlife's Milsap said the odds of an accidental jaguar capture in Arizona in the near future are very small. But the service wants to get the details of a possible capture worked out now, "so we are not scrambling at the last minute," he said.
Sergio Avila of Sky Island Alliance called the service's decision to amend the permit "a reactive measure to a bad decision," referring to Macho B's capture.
"The last wild jaguar known in the U.S. died and one of two ocelots we've known in 40 years in this state is dead, and the agencies are issuing a take permit. That makes no sense. These cats can't take any more takes."
But one of the service's terms for allowing a future capture is that it get from Game and Fish a detailed project description, spelling out the conservation purposes a capture would achieve, Milsap said. The service would have to approve the plan after it was reviewed by the jaguar recovery and the Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation teams.
Eric Gese, a Utah State University scientist who has supervised jaguar capture research in Brazil, said knowledge from a collared jaguar's movements - for example, reproduction and how it uses various habitats - would be worthwhile for a recovery plan.
"Whether a capture should be before or after a recovery plan is in place is a procedural and political question," Gese said.
NEW GUIDELINES FOR GAME AND FISH
The permit's approval kicks off what's likely to be a lengthy effort by Game and Fish to procure the right to catch a jaguar.
First, it must develop a new set of guidelines governing capture. Several independent scientists have criticized Game and Fish for its procedures in handling Macho B.
Now, since authorities recognize things didn't go right, "we want to see those things addressed before future captures of jaguar occur," Milsap said.
At the same time, "we have extreme confidence in the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Their track record is phenomenal - with condors, ferrets, endangered fish," Milsap said.
Game and Fish has acted when it identified wrongdoing in the Macho B case, Milsap said, including its firing of wildlife biologist-technician Thorry Smith in March for Smith's failure to tell federal investigators the truth about his role in covering up McCain's efforts to place jaguar scat near the site where Macho B was captured.
But with the criminal investigation continuing, "it's outrageous that at this time they would issue this permit," said Tony Povilitis, the Willcox biologist whose petition led to listing of the jaguar as endangered in 1997. At best, Game and Fish failed to adequately supervise its black bear and mountain lion study in which Macho B was captured, Povilitis said:
"It's really difficult to understand the urgency of giving a permit to an agency that has not performed well."
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.