SILVER CITY, N.M. – On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity will argue in federal court in Tucson that the Bush administration’s refusal to develop a recovery plan or designate critical habitat for endangered jaguars was illegal and should be reversed.
The eventual ruling in that court case will determine whether Macho B, the much-photographed southern Arizona jaguar that died in captivity on March 2, will be remembered as one of the last jaguars ever to be seen in the wild in the United States – or as one of the first jaguars among many in this still-young century to live his life in the wilds of the southwestern United States.
For thousands of years, jaguars inhabited large swaths of the present-day United States. In historic times, they were reported from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Appalachian Mountains. Habitat degradation, fur trapping and predator control eliminated them from the vast majority of this range.
In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey initiated a jaguar-eradication program in behalf of the livestock industry, when it killed a jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. The last known female jaguar in the United States was shot by the survey’s successor agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1963 in the White Mountains. The government’s transformation from the jaguar’s agent of extermination to protector has been a slow one.
In 1969, Fish and Wildlife listed the jaguar as an endangered species throughout its range except in the United States. In 1979, the agency announced that only through an oversight was the jaguar not on the U.S. list of endangered species, and the next year, the agency proposed listing the jaguar domestically. But it failed to finalize the proposal. In the absence of federal protection in the United States, a jaguar was shot in 1986 in the Dos Cabezas Mountains east of Tucson.
A Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit finally resulted in the jaguar’s protection as a U.S. endangered species in 1997, which should have led to the appointment of a recovery team, development of a recovery plan and protection of critical habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, refused to do any of this.
Even after years of motion-sensor photos of Macho B and other jaguars in Arizona, and despite historic reports of jaguar kittens in California and Arizona, as well as old reports of jaguars as far afield as Louisiana and North Carolina, the Bush administration announced that a recovery plan was inappropriate for an animal whose “historic and current ranges occur entirely under the jurisdiction of other countries.”
In contrast, the American Society of Mammalogists endorsed developing a jaguar-recovery plan and protecting jaguar critical habitat, as well as continued opportunities for jaguars to cross the international border. These scientists noted that “Habitats for the jaguar in the United States, including Arizona and New Mexico, are vital to the long-term resilience and survival of the species, especially in response to ongoing climate change.”
Critical habitat designation would protect jaguar habitat from a multitude of threats, including mining, urban sprawl, roads and others. Formation of a recovery team would lead to development of a recovery plan, which would provide a road map for recovering the jaguar.
A recovery team could have also provided oversight of jaguar research, which might have prevented the early death of Macho B. Indeed, two jaguars died in 2002 and 2003 shortly after capture in Sonora, after which jaguar experts warned that snares may not be appropriate for capturing the animals.
Despite this warning, Arizona Game and Fish still allowed placement of snares in the same mountain range where Macho B had recently been found. Federal scientific leadership through a scientific recovery team is needed to investigate Macho’s demise, evaluate the record of jaguar captures and recommend research methods consistent with recovery.
Jaguars are important to the natural balance of the ecosystems in which they evolved. Their hidden presence is part of the reason that deer developed their alertness, that bighorn sheep can climb almost-sheer cliffs to safety, and that javelinas in herds act aggressively when threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, having helped exterminate the jaguar in the U.S., can do more to welcome our big cats home.
Michael Robinson is a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, and author of “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.”