After years of litigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services designated over 700,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as "critical habitat" for jaguars.
Jaguars have been on the endangered species list since 1972, but only as a foreign species, meaning the U.S. government did not need to come up with a conservation plan. However, FWS was sued for 13 years straight by the Center for Biological Diversity to come up with a plan to save them and lost in 2009. As a result, the critical-habitat ruling has come into place.
A critical habitat is an area designated by FWS that contains characteristics necessary for an endangered or threatened species to survive, under the Endangered Species Act. According to FWS, its purpose to to remind federal agencies to make special efforts to protect these features.
"The Bush administration treated the jaguar like an unwanted visitor to the U.S., rather than a valuable part of the Southwest's desert ecosystem," Eva Sargent, director of Defenders of Wildlife's Southwest program said in a press release shortly after the ruling. "It is vitally important that the United States take a leadership role in helping to safeguard and recover the jaguar within our borders and beyond."
Jaguars were almost driven out of the U.S. by hunting and habitat loss, so the critical habitat designation protects land that could cause the habitat to disappear. This designation ensures that the land jaguars roam through in Arizona and New Mexico will remain pristine.
The problem? Only eight jaguars have been seen in the U.S. since 1996. And the Arizona Game and Fish Department isn't convinced that the desert ecosystem, which differs highly from the wetlands of jaguars' main habitat in Central and South America, can be categorized as a critical habitat.
"We believe that critical habitat is not essential, that [protection] is already in the law," AGF Regional Non-game Specialist Tim Snow says. "It's not essential to the recovery of the species."
Jaguars used to roam from South America up the American Southwest and as far east and west as Texas and California, but were thought to be extinct in the U.S. by 1990. But in 1996, two different adult male jaguars were spotted in New Mexico and Arizona.The jaguars seen in the U.S. since then have all been single males, and most likely belong to a population of jaguars in Sonora, 140 miles south of the border, according to AGF.
Taking effect in early April of this year, the critical habitat designation spans from Arizona's Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise counties, and Hidalgo County in New Mexico. The designation does not affect hunting statutes already in place, nor private landowners.
"The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, and has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding of permits," an FWS press release says. "Critical habitat in the United States contributes to the jaguar's persistence and recovery across the species' entire range by providing areas to support individuals that disperse into the United States from the nearest core population in Mexico."
There are state and federal laws in place to outlaw killing jaguars. But AGF believes there are other ways to protect jaguars, other than creating a critical habitat.
"To conserve [jaguars], we need to make sure there are corridors from Mexico and other populations that are still maintained, and to make sure the prey base is still available," Snow says. "You certainly can do conservation things without having a critical habitat."
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