Save the Jaguar

March 8, 2008

Editorial by Arizona Republic

Consider nature, science and politics.

The beauty of nature is enhanced only by its gee-whiz factor. For example, in addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, each jaguar has a unique pattern of spots.

Scientists turn that uniqueness into valuable data. For example, biologists who use remote-sensor cameras to document jaguar visits to southern Arizona can identify individual animals by the pattern of their spots. They know jaguars still prowl a small part of their historic range in Arizona.

Politics should provide a way to protect and enhance those jaguar populations. After all, the Endangered Species Act exists because Americans care about conservation.

But politics can block wildlife-management goals for unscientific reasons. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement that it will not pursue a recovery plan for the jaguar looks more like an easy way out than a sound scientific decision.

Two conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity are suing to challenge that decision. Representatives of these groups say the law requires the federal government to prepare recovery plans for endangered species like the jaguar.

These remarkable cats, which used to range from South America to the Grand Canyon, became endangered after decades of being shot on sight by those who considered them either trophies or pests. A breeding population of 80 to 100 jaguars lives in Mexico, about 135 miles south of Douglas, says Bill Van Pelt, biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Only a few cats remain in Arizona, including one that was first photographed by remote-sensor camera in 1996. Biologists have been able to recognize him over the years because of the pattern of his spots.

Craig Miller, vice president of the Northern Jaguar Project, says too little research has been done to know exactly how many jaguars are in Arizona or where they are. The process of writing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan would provide that information.

The American Society of Mammalogists calls jaguar habitats in Arizona and New Mexico “vital to the long-term resilience and survival of the species.”

Here’s the political rub. If jaguars are going to re-establish themselves in Arizona and New Mexico, they need what scientists call “habitat connectivity.” That means the jaguars have to be able to cross the border, and that means plans for a border fence would complicate any recovery plan.

It’s politically easier for Fish and Wildlife not to put itself in direct conflict with the Department of Homeland Security. Yet Miller says there are solutions that could provide both access to habitat for jaguars and border security. Seeking those solutions is worth the effort.

Nevertheless, Fish and Wildlife decided not to try. One reason cited was the fact that much of the jaguar population is in Mexico. This is unconvincing.

The entire population of endangered Mexican wolves lived in Mexico when the recovery effort for that animal began. Craig says there are many examples of binational recovery efforts.

There are impressive components of jaguar conservation on which to build. A recently established 45,000-acre jaguar reserve in the heart of Mexico’s northernmost population of jaguars was a joint effort by the U.S.-based Northern Jaguar Project and the Mexican conservation group, Naturalia.

A Jaguar Conservation Team that includes state, federal and individual representatives has been in place since 1997.What’s lacking is a major push to do the necessary research, develop a recovery plan and help coordinate the ongoing efforts. Fish and Wildlife has the infrastructure, the clout and the expertise to do that. It has a legal mandate to do it.

The agency should not let politics get in the way of finding out the best way to help jaguars return from the edge of extinction and remain part of our natural heritage.