Two decades ago I asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to add the jaguar to the national list of endangered species. But like a child refusing to see a dentist, the agency has long resisted any follow-up to restore the species to the American Southwest.
Despite the recent hullabaloo over a forthcoming recovery plan with “critical habitat” protection for jaguars, actual restoration of the species may yet prove as elusive as the great cat itself.
In principle, things should be pretty simple: Restore jaguars consistent with historical records, including some females and cubs. The service would work with other agencies, landowners, ranchers and conservationists to conserve corridors for jaguars from Mexico through to our Southwestern highlands and the Grand Canyon area. It would work with Homeland Security and Mexican officials so that jaguars will continue to move between Sonora and the U.S. It would consider bringing in females to complement male jaguars, like the one now living in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson. And it would not approve huge projects in critical jaguar habitat, like the proposed Rosemont Mine in those same mountains.
With Arizona and New Mexico in the mix, the world’s northernmost jaguars could more than double in number from about 200 cats in Sonora today. This would greatly improve survival chances for northern jaguars, which would help sustain the species globally.
But instead of choosing the U.S. Southwest as the relevant jaguar recovery area, the service has selected a huge geographic area extending for 1,000 miles from our southern borderlands through Jalisco, Mexico. So, if jaguars are secure anywhere within that vast area, the service could then remove the species from the endangered list without a single jaguar left in the U.S.!
The agency’s proposal to designate 858,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat, including the Santa Rita Mountains, may be little more than a bureaucratic ploy. The service already claims that habitat destruction caused by the Rosemont mine won’t matter anyway since the species can still survive elsewhere, such as in Brazil. Even if it buckles down and actually protects some habitat, the agency has conveniently omitted as “critical” some of the best for jaguar recovery, such as the Mogollon Rim country with its abundance of jaguar prey, such as deer and peccary.
So what’s behind Fish & Wildlife Service’s obstinacy? My guess is that the service wants to avoid having to convince skeptics that jaguars pose no threat to livestock or to well-planned development statewide. And that it shudders at the thought of confronting mischief makers who are ideologically dead set against wildlife restoration.
Still, I hold out hope that a strong leader may soon appear within the agency, that it overcomes these fears, and establishes a new conservation legacy for America by restoring our prince of cats.